Re-Fear: Return of the Living Dead (1985) by Dan O'Bannon
Retro Review by Nathan Smith
If you’ve seen a zombie movie, you know how it begins: first in one isolated location, then everywhere. The origin may differ—sometimes it’s voodoo or a virus, other times we don’t know at all—but the end is inevitable. No matter where it came from, no matter how hard we fight it, the plague will almost certainly spread.
This is the course zombies usually take in their fictional form, resembling their real life journey from Haitian folklore to the popular imagination of moviegoing audiences worldwide, spreading from a single point out to the entire globe. The first “walking dead” were raised by magic, a metaphor for the horrific conditions of enslaved persons in the Caribbean whose bodies were not their own. The zombie was born from the fear that their corpses would be conscripted into physical labor and exploited once again after their death.
As the zombie entered the American consciousness, first through films that engaged with magic and folklore like I Walked With a Zombie (1944) and White Zombie (1932) and later through George Romero’s paradigm-shifting Night of the Living Dead (1968), the specifics of the zombie myth changed. As special effects developed, zombies looked less like the living and more like the dead. They started to eat flesh and brains. They figured out how to run and swim and survive. What zombies stood for changed too—Romero used them to explore bigotry and racism in Night and consumer culture in Dawn of the Dead (1978), for example—but the fear, the helplessness, and the inevitability of the end remained the same.
Nowhere is the evolution and mutation of the zombie and its corresponding genre more apparent than in Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead (1985). Loosely adapted from a novel of the same name by John Russo, Romero’s co-writer on Night of the Living Dead, Return is a horror-comedy with an upfront awareness of the genre’s boundaries and peripheries. Two of our main characters, workers in a medical supply factory who uncover military test subjects from an experiment gone wrong, have seen and know Night of the Living Dead. Their initial interactions with the zombies are informed by the culture they have absorbed. But these zombies are different: they thirst for brain, not flesh; they seem capable of thought; they even speak. And they cannot be killed quite so easily. They are more human than human, trapped between life and death in an ever-failing body. The condition spreads first through gas and later by acid rain; the virus mutates along with the species it creates. Zombies have adapted and evolved along with the films that contain them.
The “Return” part of the title implies sequel-dom, but Return of the Living Dead is more a variation on a theme than a direct follow-up. That’s why I chose it as an introductory case study for Re-Fear, Cinematary’s new month-long essay series on horror sequels and remakes. Though it has flirted with respectability, the horror movie is maybe the most derided mainstream genre that’s not pornography. That statement deserves qualification because horror remains a popular genre, and scholars and critics alike have defended it for decades. Horror is dismissed not necessarily by audiences or individuals, but by institutions: awards-voting bodies, prestigious festivals, archives, schools, churches, governments, and parents.
We can always find exceptions to these kinds of rules: Silence of the Lambs took home the Oscar almost three decades ago, after all. A24 might seem like they’re breaking some kind of new ground by distributing horror movies like Hereditary alongside Oscar nominees like Lady Bird, but Miramax and Orion Pictures did the same thing. But it does seem like horror films are taken seriously like never before: Miramax and Orion marketed genre movies and “art movies” to different audiences, but A24 feeds them to the same one. Writing on horror by scholars like Robin Wood, Carol Clover, and Linda Williams has become canonical in film studies.
But one neighborhood of horror remains maligned: the sequel and the remake. Horror has had a long-love affair with the sequel, from big-name slasher franchises like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th to the grottos of the grindhouse and direct-to-video market. The 2000s saw a tidal wave of horror remakes, beginning with Platinum Dunes’ The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Michael Bay’s production imprint would later reboot — to varying degrees of success — both Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Amityville Horror and The Hitcher. More remakes ensued: Rob Zombie’s two Halloween movies, Dawn of the Dead, Evil Dead, Black Christmas, When a Stranger Calls, My Bloody Valentine 3D, The Hills Have Eyes, Last House on the Left, The Fog and Piranha. Fatigue over sequels and remakes has largely died down in the past few years, as long-running franchises like Saw and Paranormal Activity have concluded or gone on hiatus. Even then, a fog still persists over this disparaged form, and many of these films—whether or not they are actually good—deserve some reconsideration.
If, as our own Andrew Swafford has described them, horror movies are “laboratories for processing fear,” sequels, remakes, and reboots attempt to reconduct the experiments, exposing old formulas to new elements. In the twenty years between Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead, the world changed; it makes sense that zombies would change too. Like zombies, series of horror movies mutate and evolve based on their current environment and the conditions they’re exposed to. Old frameworks give us a different perspective on current problems, and some stories compel us to revisit them under different parameters. Even the most cynically-produced, crassly commercial horror movies—in their direct engagement with what scares us—can reveal something worth knowing about the cultural context in which they were produced. In this series, the Cinematary crew will revisit, review, and rethink several decades of horror reimaginings. What we will find is in the flesh.
Upcoming in Re-Fear:
Andrew Swafford on Carrie (2013)
Reid Ramsey on Psycho (1998)
Courtney Anderson on Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh (1995)
Zach Dennis on Jaws 2: The Revenge (1978)
Mike Thorn and Nathan Smith on Halloween (2007) and Halloween II (2009)