Worth A Look: 18.84%
Pretty Bad: 2.9%
Total Crap: 14.49%
3 reviews, 51 user ratings
|Return of the Living Dead
by David Hollands
After George Romero released his seminal Dawn of the Dead in 1978, many studios began making their own zombie-film rip-offs. Many of those films were filled with horrendous editing and lacked scares. This includes writer/director Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead.O’Bannon’s take on Romero’s classic is actually quite good: that Romero’s 1968 zombie classic was actually based on a real incident. In O’Bannon’s world, the military accidentally spilt chemicals near a cemetery, causing the dead bodies to rise. The outbreak was contained, and in a severe mix-up, the bodies where sent to a morgue, and have remained there for many years.
"A bad zombie film, pure and simple."
One day, Ernie and Frank, two men working in the morgue, decide to check out the bodies. They accidentally release a dangerous toxic gas, as well as one of the zombies contained in the container. The gas spreads, causing the dead in the cemetery to rise and feast upon the brains of the living.
I like the fact that O’Bannon tried to take Romero’s idea of zombies and came up this concept. In terms of originality, he succeeded. The zombies in this film are not the lumbering creatures from a standard Romero flick. They are fast, and one is just as dangerous as twenty. They don’t eat human flesh, but instead go straight for the brain. They can also speak, and have a high intelligence.
O’Bannon presents Return of the Living Dead as a horror comedy, and he just doesn’t have the knowledge on how to make that work. His forte is in serious films with well-constructed characters, and he’s just plain lost here. At many intervals, the comedy is constantly in contradiction to the horror, due mostly to O’Bannon’s incredibly poor scene construction. A scene is never shot exactly right, and when a character says a funny line of dialogue, we’re usually simply too distracted by how obvious said joke was. Such a moment comes when three of the characters attempt to murder one of the zombies. One tells the others that he saw in the film Night of the Living Dead that one must shoot the brain in order to kill the zombie. Then, when that approach doesn’t work, one character shouts out “but it worked in the movie!”, a moment which just doesn’t stick.
The hip angle to this film would have worked had the link to Night of the Living Dead not been presented in such a forced manner. It’s as if O’Bannon simply thought the audience would laugh based on the reference, but he just makes the reference too obvious. We groan at that moment, and it is not a groan with the film, it is a groan directed at the film, something that harms a motion picture even if it’s a comedy.
Also contributing to the forced comedy angle are the characters. These are the most obvious, annoying stereotypes I’ve ever seen. Characters constantly react with goofy mannerisms and totally over the top shrieks, something that doesn’t help O’Bannon’s decision to film this flick as if it was a straight horror picture. That instantly causes the viewer to say: “Are we supposed to laugh with these characters, or just wince whenever they appear?"
O’Bannon was always a great writer, and yet his characters and the words he puts into their mouths here are just atrocious. In one scene, a Goth character talks about death complete with staring off into the distance with squinting eyes and evil expressions. In another, a punk character screams “What the F*CK???!!!!!” all the time and waves his arms everywhere. These aren’t the types of characters one identifies with. Now, before you think that it was O’Bannon’s intention for us to hate the characters, consider this: in a film, you have to have a character you can root for, one that doesn’t annoy you; it just generally helps the audience connect with a film. However, if no such character exists, and all we get are a bunch of bad jokes, we just can’t identify with anything. Even if you want to, you just can’t film a bad movie and present it as intentionally bad unless you’re really good at doing so. O’Bannon isn’t, so the film isn’t so much a spoof of bad zombie films, as it is a bad zombie film.
Another major snafu comes in the zombie monsters themselves. O’Bannon obviously thought that having monsters one couldn’t kill would add suspense and a feeling of hopelessness. What he doesn’t realise is that monsters in films have to have a weakness, otherwise the proceedings grow tired quickly. Our characters never find any way of killing off the creatures, as the zombies still move around even after they’ve been chopped up. The only real way is to burn them, and there’s the problem: there’s simply no way to burn a whole raging horde of zombies to ash. Knowing this, we immediately feel that the film just can’t go anywhere, and we can predict the outcome of scenes in which characters try to battle the zombies some forty-five minutes before they happen.
For example, when O’Bannon has a whole team of policemen pull up to the morgue, he kills them all off. Then, when he had a whole blockade of officers at another point, he does the exact same thing. There’s simply no suspense anymore, because every time a new set of characters is introduced, those characters have to be killed off so O’Bannon can stick with the established zombie rules. It appears O’Bannon hadn’t seen the 1978 Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which had a sense of hope within it that the humans could survive. In Return of the Living Dead, that never happens, so there’s just no tension in the scenes. Much of the film just becomes endlessly boring as the exact same set-ups keep getting used.
Dan O’Bannon cannot handle pacing. I swear that this film moves slower than rocks. How many scenes do I have to sit through in which the camera sits still in ONE SPOT for a few minutes while boring dialogue, some usually having nothing to do with the plot, is spoken? How many poorly developed moments (just as the zombie attacks, which are hideously stale and lifeless) do I have to watch before the movie finally rewards me with something exciting?
O’Bannon also makes the severe mistake of having his characters separate once the zombie attacks begin. The main group heads into the morgue, while two others run into a small supply hut near the morgue. O’Bannon never properly cuts between these scenes. In fact, he shows us the characters in the supply hut, and then stays with the characters in the morgue most of the time. That creates a problem in the sense that when O’Bannon cuts back to the characters in the supply hut, we have forgotten about these characters, and the moment just seems awkward. Plus, we wonder why those characters have been safe for at least an hour while the others in the morgue have fought against a constant onslaught of zombies in the same amount of time. The zombies definitely saw those two characters enter the supply hut, so with their cunning and intellect, there’s no reason why they wouldn’t have been trying to get them.
O’Bannon, having created creatures that couldn’t be destroyed, was obviously put into a narrative corner in terms of how to end the film. He decided to go for a dark ending, which totally goes against the already failing horror/comedy tone. When going out with some kind of bang would have saved this film slightly, O’Bannon for some reason decided to leave the audience with a whimper. While the action does get a little more hectic, O’Bannon simply pauses what’s happening to go away from the action to a bunch of government talking heads who will decide the fate of the characters. He does this too late in the game, and with too little subtlety. He had already actually conveyed that theme, most likely without realising it, by making the government the main creators of the toxin that raises the dead. However, in the last section, he resorts to long oppressive camera angles that make the government talking heads look like soulless snipers.
The ending moments of the film are not only a complete let down, but they are also cheap and insulting. As soon as the problem seems to be solved, O’Bannon indicates that everything has come full circle, as more dead bodies begin to rise from the grave. Okay, that’s cool…except that the bodies rising is the EXACT SAME FOOTAGE WE SAW AT THE BEGINNING. He even uses the same shot of the skeleton that rises up and opens its eyes that he used to show that the dead were rising earlier in the film. It has become clear that this way a lazy project from the get-go.
What’s perhaps even worse is the acting.
It seems that O’Bannon must have asked the actors to play their roles completely over the top. Unfortunately, that harms the film since it’s inexplicably shot like a serious picture and ends like a serious picture. The performances are just too obvious and blunt. Actors just run around screaming the dialogue at the top of their lungs, at the same time giving out huge gestures with their hands. That just doesn’t fit in a movie that tries to be serious comedy/horror.
This movie features terrible special effects. While the blood does look fairly convincing, much of the prosthetics just don’t have any life to them. The famous Tar Man zombie is questionable, and just looks fake. I was never scared by this thing, and if O’Bannon was trying to go for a funny feeling, he failed miserably since every movement of this thing just looks like a guy in a rubber suit moving around with difficulty. The brains on which the zombies chow down are just a pink mess of nothing, and hardly look like brains at all. When people are bitten by zombies, the bites look as if the area being bitten suddenly turned into plastic. In one scene with a blood spurt, the spurt is constantly going on and off as if the effects crew was having trouble.
Although composer Matt Clifford tries to create exciting music, he simply fails. That’s possibly due to the blandness going on onscreen, yet it’s also probably because of poor musical choices. There are certain parts in the film that are scored by rock tunes, indicating that the composer thought the scene was exciting. Unfortunately, thanks to O’Bannon’s bland direction and the shoddy editing, the music, and especially the rock tunes, end up having no place in the onscreen action. The images look bland, and the music tries to entice excitement, and yet they are supporting images that have no excitement in them. That creates a problem I can’t really describe, except to say that the music just feels wrong for the film, in a very unpleasant way. Too bad, since music could have been the saving grace for the film.
In the end, Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead is a movie that just can’t hold up. The performances are forced, the special effects look fake, and the direction is extremely stale.Really, Return of the Living Dead isn’t the disaster that many other horrific zombie films have been, but it isn’t exactly the classic many claim it to be.
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originally posted: 12/28/03 04:08:57