The Return of The Living Dead! (2015 Retrocast)
(As part of our Annual Halloween Spook-tacular!, we get Lost In The Punk-In Patch with Return of The Living Dead, a 60 minute audio essay for the holiday season. Originally Podcast on 6 October 2015 on WTBC Radio.)
Playlist & Footnotes:
Any good Spook-tacular! needs to be willing to kick things into high gear, to set the tone and style for the rest of the month. Aside from rock music circa 1955 – 65, the second period that really “got” monster music as a metaphor that reflected their own interests was punk rock. The Return of The Living Dead! not only synthesized much of the aesthetic appeal of monsters and punk rock (humorously “forgetting” to include anything by The Misfits, a jab surly suggesting that it wasn’t just a gimmick, but something that other bands considered ideology). Zombies WERE the perfect metaphor for America, and the distractions we all have in front of us are getting in the way of seeing the world for what it really is. (A theme that is explored again in Repo Man, and more pointedly in They Live!, both punk rock masterpieces of the mid ’80’s.) Return of The Living Dead was a much needed injection of the punk aesthetic in horror films, and delivered a sense of humor as good as the soundtrack.
It’s not just that Return delivers on the B-Movie promises of the movie poster (punks, zombies, zombie punks, and the trappings of all three are present), but the film included enough nudity to guarantee a word of mouth audience reaction, and the effects paid off enough to offer a counterpoint to the bad acting and corny dialog. For my money, the meta-text of the film is a joy to read: the premise is that the events of Night of The Living Dead were real. The main characters are punks, and every horror movie from the late ’70’s and ’80’s usually included a token punk or two, in the background, to add texture to “urban” environments. To have these Rosencrantz & Guildenstern style characters at the center of the story was a clever nod by screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, who layered in a further joke by suggesting that Louisville, Kentucky had a fairly diverse and sophisticated punk scene, but not so much that the government wouldn’t think twice about wiping the city of the map.
I’ve written about my interest in Vampire Punks from Swamp Thing, and I always think that the casual and silly way that punks are painted in film make them a good thing to look for when the opportunity comes up. But, in some ways, Return gets punks better than most films do, and the give-away is the soundtrack. I’ve featured most of those songs in more-or-less their complete form in this episode, and really made the music the center of this story. The “plot” of Return is secondary anyway, and it’s just a mechanism for the girl to take her clothes off, have the punks dance around, or have the zombie effects come on the screen again. With that same spirit, I’ve edited down the film to just the best bits, so I can cram in more tunes. I’ve filled out the show with plenty of other “zombie” tunes, and I think I got most of the best lines from the film in about 60 minutes. Not bad, if I do say so myself.
A couple more things about Return before I get on with the show. In one of those weird twists of fate that is always so inexplicable in Hollywood, John Russo somehow walked away from the Night of The Living Dead franchise with the rights to any use of the phrase “…Living Dead” in a film. Russo had written a novel of a loose story idea for Return, and when that was picked up, he turned to Tobe Hooper to direct. But Tobe had other plans, and soon the hired gun – Dan O’Bannon – was offered a chance to direct. Dan took it, on the condition that he could re-write the film extensively to separate it from Romero‘s films, who had created a new franchise with Dawn Of The Dead.
Dan O’Bannon was originally just hired to do a script polish, but during this re-write, made a number of changes to give Return its punch. The substantial shift was that “zombies eat brains,” something that originates in this film, the popularity of which led to a new cultural shorthand that people use to describe zombies. Up until this point, zombies had really only eaten “human flesh,” but O’Bannon saw that it was the rotting of the mind that punk rock was concerned with, and that having the spread of punk and the spread of a zombie virus linked to “brains” was the masterstroke that made Return a classic. Additionally, much of the “unkillable” qualities of zombies came from this film, a gag that zombie filmmakers have since used over and over again. And while O’Bannon sort of offers a few clues as to what makes a zombie a zombie, he also adds in characters who are too dumb or do not care about the truth enough to convey it to the audience. Really, their indifference about the problem is second to them just wanting to leave, another genius detail.
Dan also structured the story using a much more “comic book” approach to the scenes and dialog, setting up moments and jokes that seemed written for the page turn more than the screen. This led to the zombies almost “mugging” for the camera, calling in more paramedics so they can eat more brains, and then having one describe the pain of the undead transformation, to help us gain a little sympathy when the make the attack. These and other examples of strange sub-plots and digressions would play out as fun two-pagers in a comic book, but give the movie a strange rhythm that adds to the eeriness. Everything about it is wrong, in just the right way. This gave the film a sort of idiosyncratic look and feel that is obvious when you watch it. When layered with meta-jokes and gory make-up effects, it only adds to the charm that can’t exactly be replicated with modern film techniques. Return launched a whole series of sequels, comic adaptations, and other paraphernalia that, in many ways, helped popularize the zombie fad that has penetrated our culture so completely in the here and now.
But really, you don’t care about this, either. You want to PARTY! And so do we, so here’s Return of The Living Dead.
Return of The Living Dead
Based On A True Case / Are We Gonna Party Tonight Or What? / It’s Party Time! / I Don’t Think It’s Such A Good Idea / This Place Is A Mess / Do You Ever Fantasize About Being Killed? / It’s Acid Rain! / No, I’m Not Into Drugs, Just Let Me In! / Who’s There? Brains! / People Coming Out Of The Ground! / I Think Things Are Getting Outta Hand. / More Brains
01.) Zombie Warfare (can’t let you down) * Chrome * Half Machine Lip Moves
02.) Nothing For You * TSOL * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
03.) Party Time * 45 Grave * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
04.) Eyes Without A Face * The Flesh Eaters * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
05.) Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die) * SSQ * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
06.) Love Under Will * Jet Black Berries * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
07.) Deadbeat Dance * The Damned * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
08.) Zombie Stomp * The Del-Airs * Lux and Ivy’s Favorites Volume 13
09.) Big Zombie * The Mekons * The Edge of The World
First I Got A Really Fucked Headache / It Looks Like Riga Mortis Is Setting In / Send… More… Paramedics / You’re Dead! / The Pain Of Being Dead / I Can Feel Myself Rot / You Can’t Kill Those Mother’s. They’re Already Dead / Stand By While We Investigate / This Place. Everybody That Comes In Gets Swallowed Up / I’m Calling The Number On The Side Of The Canister / They’ve Been Waiting For This To Happen / What Is This Plan?
10.) Watusi Zombie * Jan Davis * Boss Guitar
11.) Zombie * Los Sleepers * Zombie
12.) Take A Walk * Tall Boys * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
13.) Burn The Flames * Roky Ericson * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack
14.) The Living Dead * The-Front * “Bad Boy” b/w “The Living Dead” 7″
15.) Zombie Lover * The Insults * “Population Zero” b/w “Zombie Lower” 7″
16.) Tina * The Quincy Punx * We’re Not Punks…But We Play Them On TV
17.) Zombie * Screeching Weasel * BoogadaBoogadaBoogada
18.) Night Of The Living Dead * Misfits * Walk Among Us
19.) Zombie Rockin’ * Mad Kenny’s Midnight Drinkers
20.) Surfin’ Dead * The Cramps * The Return Of The Living Dead Soundtrack