Many will likely always point to such staple George A. Romero films like Night of the Living Dead or even it’s follow up, Dawn of the Dead, as their idea of the definitive zombie flick. But for my money (and I mean no disrespect to Romero, whose films I also hold in high regards), the cream of the crop will always be 1985’s The Return of the Living Dead. Prior to my first time seeing it, the closest thing to a zombie film I can even recall seeing was Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, so to say it holds a special place in my heart would be an understatement.
Originally released on August 16, 1985, the film brilliantly paired veteran actors Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Don Calfa alongside a host of then-young hotshots, including Thom Matthews, Linnea Quigley, Miguel A Nunez, Jr., and Jewel Sheppard (among others). And directed by Dan O’Bannon and based on an original story by John Russo (who also co-wrote Romero’s original 1968 opus), the film even rather slyly references it’s own source material, explaining early on the events of Night…to be based on actual facts.
The plot was simple enough; after a gas leaks out of an old military canister stored in a medical supply building, the dead begin to rise at a cemetery across the street from it, where a group of local punks happened to be gathered to party. All hell quickly breaks loose, with plenty of carnage and chaos along the way.
The film introduced several new concepts for the zombie film at the time; not only were they able to move fast as opposed to earlier films that see them just slowly shuffle along, they can also talk. And rather than just eating flesh, they seem particular to one delicacy; brains. This concept would be used in many other films since.
Linneas Quigley, who played the punk rock stripping Trash in the film, recently lent her thoughts on Return… to Rewind It Magazine; “I think it holds up really well! I’m always surprised, I get new people at conventions and shows all the time that love that movie, like it’s a brand new movie! But it doesn’t age, which I think is really cool. We should’ve known then (late director) Dan O’Bannon was a man to be reckoned with!”
The film sparked it’s first sequel, the very admirable (and equally fun) Return of the Living Dead Part II in 1988. Like the original, it also boosted a soundtrack of metal and punk bands, and actors Thom Matthews and James Karen also returned in new (albeit very similar) roles as well. Three more less-successful, made for video sequels would eventually follow.
In his August 19, 1985 review of the original film, critic Roger Ebert stated, “It’s kind of a sensation machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done in style. It is.” And how right he was. The film was a modest success, grossing just over $14 million in the U.S. But more than thirty-five years later, it’s still regarded by many as one of the quintessential zombie films ever made; there’s a good chance it will likely stay that way for a long, long time.