Friday, October 4, 2013

Monster Serial: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, 1985

Hello, boils and ghouls! October is upon us and that means one thing: HALLOWEEN! While most holidays get a measly day or two of formal recognition, orthodox Monster Kids prefer to celebrate it in the tradition of our people: By watching tons of horror movies. This month at THE COLLINSPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY, we're going to be discussing some of our favorites every day until Halloween. So, put on your 3-D spex, pop some popcorn and turn out the lights .... because we're going to the movies!


Horror and comedy should be an ideal mix.  They both deal in fear, suspense, powerlessness, and reversals of expectations.  When the genes are mixed, however, one element usually gets sacrificed to the other.  While I maintain that a film like HOSTEL 2 is a comedy, its gore and tension factors make that a hard sell because they overpower the observational satire.  It’s more often the case that the horror gives way to comedy.  For example, I’m never too worried about the fate of whatever Ash might face.  

I think the proper and most rare of balances comes from recognizable humanity more than buffoonery.  The biggest laughs in theatre come when a human irony sneaks its way into the darkest dramas.  In fact, Mike Nichols maintains that WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF should have a laugh every twenty seconds or so.  And that play also deals in horror on a number of levels, too.

A film that I think superbly uses realistic human responses to horrifying situations is Dan O’Bannon’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. After the release of SHAUN OF THE DEAD had the world talking about zombie comedies, I kept favoring RETURN.  Why?  It’s the reason I prefer Keaton to Chaplin.

One of director/writer Dan O'Bannon's missions in the film is to make the people in it ordinary (and still interesting).  His results are positively Chekhovian in that regard.  And ordinary people are not necessarily average or predictable, which is the wonderful paradox we see them play out.  They mirror ordinary audience members, and that makes them -- and their situation -- immediately identifiable.  This is helped by an outstanding ensemble cast ultimately led by Clu Gualger, who gives the situation a deserved, but not overpowering, gravitas.  Supporting him is a wonderfully balanced and nuanced performance by Don Calfa (of TWIN PEAKS) as a reluctant but erudite mortician, along with the unforgettable Linnea Quigley and Jewel Shepard... the latter being the most consistently underused and underrated actress/writer/personalities in show business. 

The whole story begins with regular guys just having a spot of harmless fun... aging slacker-manager Frank (real life wild man and monster kid, James Karen) wants to show a younger employee at Uneeda Medical Supply, Freddy (Thom Matthews), the Secret in the Basement.  It's misaddressed government material that no one is supposed to have, let alone be showing off.  A resulting accident (due to the eerily prescient, pre-Katrina incompetence of government engineering) poisons both men and unleashes a zombie plague.  In other words, the world goes to hell because Frank does exactly the Wrong Thing that most of us would do in the situation; he wants someone to see something cool.

The rest of the movie is a logical, zombie-movie chain reaction where people respond with the varying degrees of common sense that we ourselves might display.  They know how zombies are supposed to operate and are pretty wigged out when they don't conform to expectations.  It takes place in a universe that has seen horror movies, specifically NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Rather than treat this as a sequel, despite the title, O'Bannon uses RETURN as a satire.  No, better than that: a response.  Instead of creating a story of existential dread, where the plague comes from nowhere, he creates a story of political paranoia, where we know exactly where it came from.  These zombies were running years before Zack Snyder was anywhere near a camera.  And did you ever wonder why zombies eat (let alone what happens after they digest -- a subject still untouched by these movies, to my knowledge)?  Well, you learn.  Because they tell you.  With words.  They even show planning and strategy.  Worthy enemies, in many ways smarter and more diabolical than the heroes, thus increasing the threat to a level that can't just be solved with a baseball bat.  (Or cricket bat.)

And just as the zombies are respectable enemies, so does O’Bannon respect his audience.  At no point do I find myself asking, “Well, why don’t they just do x or y?”  Yes, the punks are not universally the brightest bunch, but neither are the other characters.  They all have moments of insight and understandable oversight.  We’re given action and answers just before we’d think of them, and that knowledge does nothing to lessen the mounting anxiety.  I feel as if O’Bannon and his collaborator, design genius Bill Stout, sat down and listed every logical and crazy question implied by the concept of zombies.  The results are all on screen.  Why don’t we see zombies from various eras and states of decay?  Zombies use every part of their body except for their minds; what if they used those, too?  What if they used (in some cases) sexuality as a lure?  What would they say if they talked?  Why do they eat?  What would the middle state be like between living sanity and undead madness?           

The characters in the film show a reluctant heroism and, in Frank’s case, sacrifice.  Social class breaks down, but in the name of mutual survival.  O’Bannon, though, proves himself -- in only one film -- to be the Billy Wilder of horror.  Misanthropy is always in the mix.  Rather than call the authorities, the heroes spend most of their time just trying to cover bad decisions.  You know.  Like in real life.  And what happens when authorities finally get called?  As in, the military?  They try to cover their bad decisions, too.

By nuking my hometown.

Comedy and horror.  It’s all about balance.

PATRICK McCRAY is a well known comic book author who resides in Knoxville, Tenn., where he's been a drama coach and general nuisance since 1997. He has a MFA in Directing and worked at Revolutionary Comics and on the early days of BABYLON 5, and is a frequent contributor to The Collinsport Historical Society. You can find him at The Collins Foundation.

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