11 October 2012

the return of the good movies.

19. The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Just in the way of orientation, I'll remind you that The Return of the Living Dead isn't a film from George Romero's 'Living Dead' canon, but it was inspired by (but bears little resemblance to) the 1977 novel Return of the Living Dead by Romero's Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo. Got it? Yeah, me neither. The point is that the film is related to Romero's series, but only tangentially. In The Return of the Living Dead, Night of the Living Dead is alluded to as film based on real events that were kept hush-hush by the U.S. government. But the most essential distinction between Return and Romero's beloved series is that this film happens to be a horror-comedy (by design and not by directorial incompetence).

It seems as if it's been a long time (or at least a week) since I've watched a movie in the Halloween Film Fest that I genuinely loved. I was suffocating under the weight of so much schlock. In fact, these last two Clive Barker movies actually made me want to run elbows-and-ass to the Netflix website to bump a Merchant-Ivory film to the top of my queue. The situation was becoming dire. You see, I've been saving up the reliable horror films (the favorites) for the days leading up to Halloween, so I've ended up suffering through the second-string (and third... and fourth...). So The Return of the Living Dead was like coming home again...

One of the main actors in the movie is none other than the legendary James Karen. This name probably doesn't ring a bell for you because you're thoughtless and ignorant and you don't pay attention to all the long-suffering but seldom-rewarded character actors in your favorite films. You've probably seen James Karen in many films, but because his appearance is relatively nondescript, you may not have even connected his performances to each other. He's been in All the President's Men, The China Syndrome, Poltergeist, Invaders from Mars, Wall Street, Nixon, Mulholland Drive, and Superman Returns, just to name a few.

I don't know why I even bother discussing the cinematic artform with neanderthals who can't even be bothered to pay attention to the great unsung actors of our age. You really make me sick—d'you know that? Anyway, James Karen played the unscrupulous land developer in Poltergeist who built all those cookie-cutter California subdivisions over old cemeteries. ('YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEADSTONES!')

One thing that's so great about The Return of the Living Dead—other than James Karen, of course—is that even though it was made smack-dab in the middle of the 1980s, it almost feels like a knowing parody of that decade. The hairstyles, make-up, and outfits of the punk kids seem hyper-stylized and almost like an after-the-fact abstraction of that peculiar era.

Later, the one with the red hair strips down to her thigh-high stockings and does some early '80s music video dance moves on top of a cemetery crypt. (She resembles Annie Potts a little bit—until you see her body. Whoa.) It's a very nth-degree representation of the 1980s. Even the '80s were never really this '80s. In an odd way, this saves the movie from seeming dated. The glossy stereotypes seem less like relics from the past than reimaginings from the future. 


  1. Funny. I just saw Night of the Living Dead for the first time on Tuesday.

    1. Really?? How have you avoided it? It's not easy.

    2. I dunno, I don't usually watch TV haphazardly. I generally watch with purpose, so to see this it needed to be purposeful. I'll probably see the second one in the series tonight.

  2. I like James Karen almost as much as Mandy Patinkin.

  3. I wouldn't take that shit from Craig T. Nelson. James Karen should have punched him in the face, even if the bit about the headstones is true.

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