Friday, August 5, 2011

3 paragraphs on: Return of the Living Dead

1985, Dan O'Bannon

The horrific-comedy or comedic-horror film has come a long way in the past 25 years since this somewhat loving-yet-uncommitted spoof of Night of the Living Dead emerged. What horror films generally considered comedy was a lot of pratfalls and broadly constructed, generally dim characters. Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 took the pratfalls and dim characters to new extremes with a full-on slapstick, Loony Toons horror, while Nightmare on Elm Street, though not necessarily of the same vein, threw in wordplay as its key source of levity. Later on, the Scream films basically reinvented horror with a self-awareness, that was very quickly beaten to a bloody, stabby, chainsawed pulp by pale imitators and the dire Scary Movie franchise. And then there's Shawn of the Dead, which didn't impress me as much at first but has in hindsight ballooned into the epitome of what a comedic-horror film can and should be. Compare Shawn with Return of the Living Dead and it's like a student film next to Shawn's Citizen Kane, but it shouldn't be.

I like Dan O'Bannon's screenplays, his 70's partnership with John Carpenter on Dark Star, the screenplays to Alien, Lifeforce, Total Recall, even Screamers and I can see in Return of the Living Dead an enjoyable script, but in his own hands as director it's done all wrong. It's got all the charm of a low budget gore fest, except that there's very little gore, thus no charm. The zombie make-up and creature effects are quite crappy and the "gags" (to use horror film parlance) aren't well executed or very clever. The film's editing is poor to the point of distraction (there's an exceptionally bad freeze frame during the opening credit sequence) and the characters are all whiny, leaving none of them as stand-outs or the hero (really the only memorable character/actor in the entire film is Linnea Quigley, thanks to a rather awesome strip-dance sequence and her extended nudity).

O'Bannon had a clever ideas for bringing his zombies into existence (a little to clever, actually, being a bit twee in relating it back to Night of the Living Dead) and for spreading the plague, but his lack of skill as a director and lack of involvement with his characters left the film as a sub-par B-grade endeavor, but one that's had a lasting (and some would say negative) impact on the genre and popular culture at large... it was O'Bannon who coined the zombie's "braaiiins" refrain.