Sunday, February 12, 2012

Return Of the Living Walking Dead

The Walking Dead has its season opener tonight on AMC. Last season ended with something of a turkey shoot. Our intrepid crew of living survivors of the zombie holocaust mowed down a group of walkers kept in a barn by a kindly evangelical. Among them were his wife and stepson. He refused to believe they weren’t still human beings. Guess he found out what everyone who watches this show knows...if it's dead, it gets shot in the head.

I'm on record as saying zombie movies with hordes of living dead having their heads blown apart by gunshots have become cliché and repetitive. But I admit to getting caught up in the storyline of The Walking Dead.

The series is taken from the comic book/graphic novel. The first issue appeared in 2003.

The zombie movie phenom began in 1968, with the release of the low budget shocker, Night Of the Living Dead, aka Night of the Flesh Eaters.

Because of an error, NOTLD was never copyright. The distribution company made money, the creators didn't. The co-writers, George Romero and John Russo, both continued with zombies. Romero made movies with the words "the Dead" in the title: Dawn Of the Dead, Day Of the Dead, et al. Russo wrote a novelization of the original.

He also wrote a sequel, Return of the Living Dead.

When the time came to film the sequel, writer-director Dan O'Bannon decided Russo's treatment was too serious, and Romero had already filmed a sequel to Night, called Dawn Of the Dead. O'Bannon rewrote Return as a comedy.

In an interesting twist, Russo then wrote a novelization of the movie.

Frank, played by character actor James Karen, is training a new employee at a medical supply company. He tells him there are U.S. Army canisters containing dead bodies in the cellar, misdelivered 14 years before.

His boss, Burt, won't call the number on the canister for fear of problems with the government. In the meantime, the government has been looking for the canisters since they went missing.

Frank opens the top to show trainee Freddy the corpse in the can.

They inadvertently cause a rupture, which spews the chemical the body is immersed in. That's where all the problems begin. It later goes into the atmosphere, comes back to earth as rain, permeates a cemetery next door to the medical supply house where some punks are hanging out...

Punk chick, Trash, does a nude dance on a tomb. (The unwritten rule for this type of B-movie: "B" means Beast, Blood and Breasts.)

According to an article I read about the filming, scream queen Linnea Quigley, who played Trash, was shown full-frontal but her pubic hair caused the producers second thoughts. She shaved, which they deemed worse. They made a cast of her pelvic area, and a flesh-colored appliance is worn. You can see it if you look close. I have no idea why a pair of flesh-colored panties or tights wouldn't have done the same thing, but I wasn't there, was I? I'm sure the guy who got to make the mold of her had quite an experience.

The punks are beset by corpses rising out of their graves, attacking them. Survivors of the attack head for the medical supply house.

Meanwhile, in the medical supply house the beast is loose. The living corpse, called "Tarman," who was in the canister, does his gruesome thing. Lurching toward his victims, Tarman yells "Braaaiiiiins!" before biting into their heads.

A baseball bat is good for taking care of Tarman.

The whole movie moves along briskly, with many funny bits alternating with the horror. For a low-budget movie of this type I score it high. It's a successful movie filmed with Clu Gulager as the lead, a couple of familiar character actors (James Karen and Don Calfa) and a cast of unknowns. Dan O'Bannon (now sadly deceased) gets a lot of credit for his script and direction.

Production design of this movie is excellent. The creature makeup is fantastic; corpses erupting from their graves in the cemetery owe a lot to Michael Jackson's Thriller video, with that video's corpses by Rick Baker, but both owe EC Comics from 30 years prior. The original horror comic books had a lot of walking dead, corpses come back from their graves. William Stout, who did the designs and storyboards, is an illustrator who has done some horror comics in the classic tradition. He was a wise choice to use for this production, and what he designed for this production was horrifying, creepy, and yet, even funny.

Production drawings by Stout are shown in a separate feature with the DVD.

Return of the Living Dead spawned several sequels. I'm sure I've seen at least one of them, but I'm damned if I can remember it. It's one of those cases where they could have just stopped after the first and I wouldn't have noticed.

I posted pictures of John Russo in 2008 without knowing it. This posting, "The forty-year night", features Russo as a zombie in a sequence from the movie. He also gets the "honor" of being the first movie zombie killed by having his brain destroyed. In this case it's from a crowbar wielded by the movie's leading man, Ben.



Kirk said...

To give you an idea of just how influential NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD was, and continues to be, before 1967, zombies were never portrayed in movies as the "living dead". Rather, they were just plain living people under a trance, usually with the help of a voodoo doll, as the whole idea originated in the Carribean, and before that, Africa. While they never decomposed in those old movies, their eyes did bug out quite a bit.

Postino said...

Kirk, I've seen those classic movies, and agree with your assessment. Night spawned a whole genre, and like every other genre, some good films and some really bad films have come out of it.