Had a blast and a half, with the Outbreak Festival crew, in the old Daghda space (St. John's Sq, Limerick) last night. A healthy (or suitably unhealthy) crowd shuffled horrifically down to enjoy local film-maker Dermott Petty's Gothic Country 'n' Irish short Zombie Waltzing, and the "splatstick" classic I'd chosen as our main attraction, Return of the Living Dead.
On the off chance any gorehound wishes to check out the folk and films mentioned in my introduction to the screening, here it be.
The film you're about to see, Dan O'Bannon's 1985 Return of the Living Dead, was released almost simultaneously with Day of the Dead, the third film in George Romero's seminal zombie series. Though the two films share a common birthday, tonally they could hardly be more different. While Day was bleak and grim, Return was (and is) in the words of zombie-scholar Jamie Russell “a breathless horror cartoon that aspires to make jaws drop to the floor through its sheer exuberant excess”.
It had originally been conceived by John Russo – Romero's co-screenwriter on 1968′s Night of the Living Dead – as a straightforward horror film in the Romero mould, with Tobe Hooper (of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame) directing. When Hooper departed to direct the schlocky alien vampire-fest Lifeforce, Dan O'Bannon (who had written the screenplay for the original Alien and worked with John Carpenter on Dark Star) was brought on board.
In O'Bannon's hands the tone quickly shifted from earnest to overtly and outrageously comedic. Though horror and comedy might, on a superficial level, seem odd bedfellows, they've been combining happily and hilariously on-screen for many decades, dating back at least as far as James Whale's Old Dark House in 1932. In terms of breaking taboos, saying the unsayable, graphically depicting things that society normally hides away, the comedic and the horrific are, in reality, close cousins. Allowing audiences to laugh and scream in the face of their fears.
What films like Return of the Living Dead specifically helped popularise was the horror sub-genre/form generally referred to as “splatstick”. A key influence on O'Bannon's film – and other “splatstick” classics like Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator, Peter Jackson's Braindead and Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 – were the outrageous horror comics of the 1950s, particularly those produced by the legendary EC. In those publications – which were victims of a sustained campaign of moral outrage – death, dismemberment and evisceration became gleefully delivered punchlines. The tension-releasing laughter they inevitably invited being one of the things that infuriated the guardians of public morality the most.
So what exactly makes Return of the Living Dead one of the finest examples of “splatstick”? Well first (and possibly foremost) are the three pitch perfect performances from the senior male leads: the wonderful James Karen (as the folksy and avuncular 'Frank'), Clu Gulager (as his put-upon, pragmatic boss 'Burt'), and Don Calfa (as the Nazi-loving embalmer 'Ernie Kaltenbrunner' – named, incidentally , after a real-life Nazi war-criminal). The gusto and glee with they embrace their roles, not only offered a refreshing counterpoint to the often irritating woodenness of the film's teen stars, but showed how instinctively they understood the kind of acting “splatstick” demands: full-on, no-holds-barred commitment, no matter how ludicrous the situations might be. [Bruce Campbell, of the Evil Dead fame, is probably one of the finest practitioners of this kind of OTT style]
Then, of course, there are the zombies themselves. In keeping with a film that cracks along at a frenetic pace, and bounces along to an ass-kicking punk soundtrack (featuring the likes of The Cramps, 45 Grave and The Damned) – the film's zombies don't shuffle and stagger about a la Romero. They sprint full tilt toward their prey – anticipating the hyperactive undead of 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake.
Most memorable of all was the film's so-called “Tarman” zombie – a dripping oozing mass of putrid flesh whose obsession with devouring big juicy “braaaainnns!” almost single-handedly popularised the notion that the undead are fixated with the contents of our skulls.
Oh…and then there's Linnea Quigley's…em….naked gyrations on a crypt. Which proved catnip to teen fanboys, and helped turn her, overnight, into a successful and prolific “scream queen”.
As gloriously goofy as the film undoubtedly is, there are moments where unsettling horror, unexpectedly and delightfully, creeps to the surface. While previous zombie movies had portrayed the undead as abjectly wretched – denied the dignity of eternal rest – Return of the Dead was one of the first films to suggest that being dead was actually painful. They're not just eating our brains because they're hungry, they're eating them because doing so offers temporary respite from the agony of being dead! Death, then, is not a release from bodily pain, but a descent into even more terrible suffering!
Another of the film's innovations was to actually show you the process of someone slowly turning into a fully-fledged zombie. As they lose control of their will, develop rigor mortis, and feel the urge to eat brains grow, Frank and Freddy describe what all this feels like. And force us to imagine and feel it too.
But, enough of all that. It's the laughs that brings people to the film, and it's the laughs we remember. There may be one or two more important zombie films, and certainly one or two more sophisticated zombie films, but none are anything like this much fun. Enjoy.
October 1, 2011