Return of the Living Dead is a wildly uneven, disconcertingly entertaining and ultimately serviceable 1985 zombie comedy. Yes you read that right, it's a comedy, so if you're looking for a serious zombie movie, you should skip this review and come back for the second part of the double feature. Technically imagined as an actual sequel to the original Night of the Living Dead, which may account for some of it's jarring tonal shifts, it is one part Airplane!, one (small) part Young Frankenstein, one part Dawn of the Dead and one part I-don't-know. It's quality level wavers wildly from scene to scene and while it's difficult to recommend it based on it's quality, (though I can recommend it based on how entertaining it is) it simply HAS to get a recommendation because, for good or ill there is nothing out there quite like it.
The plot is loosely concerned with a chemical made by some vaguely defined people, for some vaguely defined reasons, with some vaguely defined abilities, being stored for in a warehouse for some more vaguely defined reasons. If you think I'm abusing the word vaguely, well then give yourself a cookie, because the word vaguely defines a good portion of the plot. It gets sprayed on some guys and on a cadaver which turns into a zombie. The manager of the warehouse tries to burn it and it rains down on a graveyard, giving all it's inhabitants a bad case of zombie.
The first 3rd of the movie is easily the weakest part, feeling less like a spoof and more like a really bad sequel. More The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 than Airplane! if you follow. The characters are thinly sketched, everything hinges on coincidence and the plot is both barely there and stupidly complicated.
The switch from shitty sequel to spoof happens with an almost audible sound. In fact, it DOES happen with a sound. At one point, the Patient Zero Zombie (referred to in the credits as Tarman, for reasons that are apparent once you've seen it), has just killed a guy, muttering “Brains,” the whole time (yes, I'm serious). At this point he turns, wide eyed, to the rest of the group and says, I swear to God “More Brains.”
At this point the film ceases to take itself at all seriously, and careens back and forth between pathetic attempts at jump out scares and obvious and successful attempts to be funny. The uneven tone is the biggest problem with the film, making it so that I'm unsure whether I'm supposed to regard the zombies with fear or laughter. The fact that they talk, not just grunts or “Brains” but complete sentences and conversations, could make the movie uncomfortable, but the handling of it and the conversations they have prevents that.
Quick run through of the technical details (other than writing and scripting, which are wall-to-wall terrible, though no more so than a lot of mediocre comedies) makeup is the standout, along with some solid technical wizardry to keep everything nice and creepy looking. Cinematography is standard, lighting guy doesn't seem to know what he's doing, music is continuing the Deep Red problem of odd soundtrack choice. What confuses me most is the lack of gore in the kills. They can't have been aiming for anything but an R-rating, because we see tits like, 10 minutes in.
At the end of the day, I can't tell how well Return of the Living Dead accomplishes it's goals, because I honestly can't tell what it's goals are. I can say, again, that it is a flawed, uneven and highly unique film, aimed at a specific niche audience. If you enjoyed it's much more polished spiritual sibling Shaun of the Dead then I can definitely recommend you check this out. It would also serve, in a pinch, for a 1 AM Halloween part film, when you're all drunk and tired of Jason.
Elessar is a 20 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he will continue this...immediately.