Top secret cannisters have been delivered, by mistake, to a medical supply warehouse (“Typical army fuck-up,” explains foreman Frank – a wonderfully long-suffering James Karen – with a knowing shake of the head.) Noxious green gunk spurts from a faulty seal, Frank and his trainee Freddy (Thom Matthews) breathe in some of it while the rest disseminates through the building, and they soon find themselves struggling to cope with a revivified cadaver, an eerily panting split dog and displays of wildly flapping mounted butterflies. From this beginning, events unfold with farcical logic and every-increasing ramifications, until before long the dead are rising en masse from the tightly-packed local graveyard.
O'Bannon's script is perfect of its kind, as spare and grittily textured as a well-seasoned corpse. The cast of small town heels, blue collar screw-ups and garishly garbed street-punks (friends of Freddy's awaiting him in the aforementioned graveyard) play it like a Howard Hawks comedy – frenetic interactions captured by O'Bannon in a spiky, rough-hewn directorial style which at times has the on-the-fly feel of Little Shop of Horrors-era Roger Corman.
Unifying the gags and scares is a refreshing bleakness of outlook. Although unleashed by a ludicrous chain of events, the zombie threat is very serious indeed. A far cry from the dim-witted, shambling figures of the Romero movies, these monsters are fast, agile, ruthless and wily. (“Send more paramedics,” they slobber into an ambulance radio, having already consumed the brains of the first two on scene at the crematorium which becomes the living characters' Alamo.) They're virtually indestructible, and, even when burnt to a cinder, exposure to their ashes spreads contagion.
Against such opponents, O'Bannon's protagonists are hopelessly outmatched. Frank and Freddy look to their boss Burt (Clu Gulager,) but his decisions are skewed by his terror that city hall might revoke his business licence should they find out he's been harbouring revivified corpses. Even as the situation escalates, a certain post-Watergate scepticism makes them reluctant to call in the authorities. (With a typically sly humour, the lethal cannisters are stored down in the basement next to some Richard Nixon campaign placards.)
Adding further to the subversiveness of the piece – and to its cult appeal – is a robustly perverse sexuality. “I can smell your brains!” one recently deceased character almost croons to his erstwhile girlfriend. Death-obsessed punkette Trash (scream queen Linnea Quigley, in an unforgettable signature role) performs a striptease on a mouldering tomb, before herself being turned into a very fetching and lethal powder-blue zombie. In a genre that's often accused of needing more brains, Return of the Living Dead is a perfect balance of intransigent, take-no-prisoners cynicism and end of the world joie de vivre.
This new release on DVD and Blu-ray is a gory delight for horror buffs. There's a deliciously indiscreet feature-length documentary, and hours of other material which will tell you everything you want to know about the film and the sequels.