FILM (1985)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


The Return of the Living Dead
Clu Gulager, James Karen
Director: Dan O'Bannon

For all the recent press surrounding Prometheus that proclaims Ridley Scott as the genius behind the Alien franchise, many forget the series' true creator was screenwriter Dan O'Bannon, who wrote the film's clever, claustrophobic script and conceived the deadly titular character whose legacy would survive long past his own death in 2009.

O'Bannon was an unsung hero in the science fiction and horror genres, a versatile screenwriter who could balance blockbusters such as Total Recall alongside such philosophical cult favourites as John Carpenter's Dark Star. A hopeful auteur, O'Bannon unfortunately only helmed one film of real merit, writing and directing the first great meta-horror movie in The Return of the Living Dead.

In its postmodern world, George A. Romero's subgenre-creating Night of the Living Dead was based on real events, and when two bumbling medical supply employees accidentally release one of these zombies, it sparks an undead rampage where none of the classic cliches are applicable.

Return undoubtedly fit the zeitgeist of its time, but it never feels marred by its 1980s flavours: its punk soundtrack, quirky cast of characters and Reagan-era military satire might have blended together perfectly upon initial release, but there's nary a hint of badly aged cheese here for modern viewers.

Part of that's due to its classic, cliche-destroying status among living dead obsessives: here was a film that upped the undead ante, where zombies ran and a blow to the brains just wasn't enough. A bleak and nihilistic entry to the entire horror genre, it signalled an era where nobody got out alive.

But most of the film's modern-day appeal is due to O'Bannon's ability to cleverly tread the fine line between nail-biting scares and grin-inducing humour. A tar-covered, melting zombie coming straight at you sends shivers through your nether regions - but add a baseball bat launching its head flying in all directions, and you've got brutal comedy gold.

Couple these off-the-cuff undead battles with acting that's at turns bizarrely over the top and mockingly understated and one can see why O'Bannon practically created the horror-comedy template. Its influence can be seen in nearly every similar effort of recent times, from popular zombie comedies such as Shaun of the Dead, through to the recent mind-bending, meta-meta-horror Cabin in the Woods.

The Return of the Living Dead might never sit next to the films to which it pays homage - Romero's first two Dead movies and the entertaining imitations that came in its wake - but that doesn't matter. In our cynical times, the film feels of its time, ahead of its time and timeless all at once.

And most importantly for those immune to over-analysis, it's the kind of beers-and-buddies gore-fest that offers endless replay value.