Do You Wanna Party?: RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is the Punk Rock Horror Musical Humans Don’t Deserve

As we approach the film's 30th anniversary, Jacob Knight revisits Dan O'Bannon's insane slice of pure splatterpunk.

The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.

“I like it. It’s a statement,” says Trash (Linnea Quigley), after the beat up, spray-painted cruiser comes to a stop in front of the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. Riding with the cherry red flat-topped goddess is a gaggle of New Wave scumbags: Suicide (Mark Venturini), Spider (Miguel Nunez), Chuck (John Philbin), Scuz (Brian Peck), Tina (Beverly Randolph) and Casey (Jewel Shepard). The Flesheaters’ “Eyes Without a Face” was just blaring moments before, as the cretins argued during their trip to pick up Freddy (Thom Mathews), Tina’s boyfriend and employee at this industrial Hellhole. Topic of debate: where the hell were they gonna party tonight? The only resolution to this squabble is to wait for Freddy’s input; because Freddy always knows where the best party spots are.

Now the monolithic depot intimidates the adolescents – well, all except Trash, who seems to be turned on by the drab dungeon’s sharp stone corners. Her monotone posturing could double as the mantra for Return of the Living Dead, a motion picture unreservedly committed to bringing George Romero’s black and white ‘68 zombie classic into the crusty, spikey-haired arena of ‘80s punk. What you’re about to witness is writer/director Dan O’Bannon’s bird flipping, dirt smeared love letter to rebellion and horror – all while he hurls face melting amp torchers at you from the soundtrack.

Even O’Bannon’s method to penning the screenplay for Return of the Living Dead was incredibly punk. After Night of the Living Dead co-writer John A. Russo won a legal battle against George Romero, allowing him to retain the “Living Dead” moniker on his unofficial sequel, O’Bannon all but completely threw out Russo’s draft (which revolved around religious reaction to the undead phenomenon) and started from scratch. What grew in its place was a script whose tone nobody else working on the production seemed to understand. Part comedic homage, part straight horror film, part rock and roll freak out, many of the principal players (at least when profiled in the BTS doc, More Brains!) cop to not completely comprehending what the hell O’Bannon was attempting to accomplish. But the novice filmmaker was the co-creator of Alien, after all, and who were they to question his demented genius? O’Bannon loved Romero’s zombie pictures, but he wasn’t concerned about paying tribute to them one bit. What mattered instead was his paint huffing version of a Hawksian standoff that occurs between the risen corpses and these snarling miscreants.

O’Bannon wasn’t the first director considered to helm Return of the Living Dead, as Tobe Hooper was initially pegged by the producers to step behind the camera. However, Hooper’s commitment to Cannon Films’ Lifeforce mandated the Texas Chain Saw mastermind walk from the project. Faced with a looming start date and no director in place, O’Bannon (who had no actual experience to his name) was tapped to deliver what was essentially his unique zombie vision all along. Coming from a USC “auteur theory” driven education, O’Bannon felt the need to have a say in every aspect of the movie’s making, and hired Production Designer William Stout to help him mold the ruddy, rain soaked microcosm the movie existed within. Combining their love for EC Comics and classic horror movies, Return of the Living Dead was then meticulously storyboarded; every ghoul and camera movement painstakingly sketched out.

By almost all accounts, Return of the Living Dead was a punishing six-week shoot, as O’Bannon pushed his performers (who he originally intended to be real life punks) to the limits of their abilities. Thankfully, the writer/director scheduled a two-week rehearsal that was just as fastidiously mapped out as the movie’s storyboards. O’Bannon essentially created his own black box theater inside of a dilapidated storage space, taping marks to the floor so that the blocking was just right, and had his actors sit on rickety dining room chairs that were arranged to mimic the seating inside Suicide’s sputtering cruiser. The chemistry this boot camp created was palpable, and carried over to the set when principal photography began. These cartoonish kids and their working stiff counterparts all inhabit their characters so thoroughly because they had adequate time to tweak their looks and demeanors, right down to receiving haircuts from a legit LA punk scene stylist.

The result is a discordant riff of a horror picture, careening out of control as if shot from a cannon. How O’Bannon kept the energy so high on set (especially while everyone was complaining about how cold, wet and muddy their artificial environments were) is nothing short of miraculous. Each performance is cranked to thirteen – including James Karen’s frantic foreman and Clu Gulager’s chummy Uneeda manager – to the point that it seems like the entire cast was fed a healthy dose of crank in-between takes. You’d think a thirty-eight-year-old polo shirt-wearing screenwriter would be nothing but a square poser for trying to make a “punk rock” zombie movie. Yet O’Bannon proves himself worthy by creating a tumultuous filmic mosh pit, ready to bruise and bloody its audience before sending them stumbling out of the theater after each showing.

It might’ve helped that half the cast wanted to kill their director. Gulager apparently became so incensed at the novice filmmaker’s instructional style that he hurled a can at the man’s head. Meanwhile, O’Bannon cruelly tricked Beverly Randolph into falling through a step, replacing one of the flights she was supposed to dash up with a dummy, causing the actress to tumble straight through to the floor. The writer/director even fired original SFX artist Bill Munns (who helped create the iconic “Tarman” zombie), after he failed to meet O’Bannon and Stout’s expectations on numerous creature designs (including his original take on the notorious “headless yellow man”). O’Bannon was a restless instigator – a rude misfit who didn’t know how to talk to people. So in actuality, he was the perfect choice to helm this rollercoaster into grungy Hell.

Aiding in no small part to this punk opera’s vibe is the stellar soundtrack, which acts like a leather sporting, safety-pin pierced Greek chorus, cheering on every moment of intense action. Tracks from The Cramps and The Damned add a speedy pulse to the proceedings; distorted needle drops that come in just when the shit starts to hit the fan. Besting them all is 45 Grave’s “Partytime,” which is easily one of the greatest song cues in cinema history. Swooping in like a metal Valkyrie signaling a cheery end to all you hold dear, the zombies suddenly have their own anthem as they rip and chew their way through their human dinners.

Return of the Living Dead goes as far as to stop cold for a song and dance routine. Only instead of featuring Liza Minelli roaring “New York, New York,” O’Bannon has Linnea Quigley mount a tombstone – bare as the day she was born – and perform a strip routine that would ignite the libidos of teenage crusties everywhere. Trash’s gyrations to SSQ’s “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)” are a showstopper in either the strip club or on the silver screen, and the dance is a ballsy mini-moment to halt all proceedings for. Between this and her impalement via a rack of antlers in Silent Night, Deadly Night just the year before, Quigley cemented her status as a bona fide Scream Queen.

The movie’s approach to its titular ghouls feels like a complete disregard of the “rules.” Return of the Living Dead’s zombies don’t shamble like Romero’s; they flock and charge – an invading throng that proves impossible to fend off. To throw more gasoline on this purist bonfire, O’Bannon has the beasts talk as well, calling over a CB radio for the cops to send in backup for them to chow down on. Anything goes in this world, as the captain of the ship doesn’t care whether or not it crashes into the side of an iceberg. All that matters is that the picture chugs on to the bitter end, following this relentless horde as they seek more brains to cease the “pain of being dead.”

There’s a distinct distrust of authority that permeates every frame of the film. After all, the zombie nightmare is unleashed thanks to an “army fuck up,” as Freddy and his boss inspect an ancient corpse-carrying canister in Uneeda’s basement. It’s a piece of cargo that supposedly caused the Pittsburgh medical mishap that Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is based upon (at least according to this piece of fiction). But the catalyst for chaos is nothing compared to the Army’s “final solution.” The bleak, apocalyptic finale of Return of the Living Dead finds the United States government remotely nuking the entire town in an effort to stop the plague from spreading, wasting innocent lives so that many more can be spared. It’s a nihilistic, “fuck the Man” tenet that is in tune with the rest of the movie’s horrific dissidence – a statement not to trust anyone in uniform, for they will sacrifice your life in order to save their own. But even after a committing minor holocaust involving its own citizens, the United States can’t stop further storm clouds from forming, carrying with them a disease sure to wipe humanity from the face of the planet.

“Splatterpunk” was a literary subgenre born around the same time O’Bannon’s movie became a minor success at the box office (grossing $14 million on a budget of four). Coined by writer David Schow in ‘86, authors like John Skipp and Craig Spector brought sex, gore and rock n’ roll to the page with printed horror classics like The Light at the End and The Scream (which may be the category's greatest work). But Dan O’Bannon was the true inventor of “splatterpunk,” combining old school horror with hardcore attitude; delivering a movie whose reckless spirit still has yet to be matched. Return of the Living Dead is a landmark because it doesn’t just supply nightmarish imagery, but also a philosophy that discards rules without so much as batting an eye. It’s the work of mad people, conspiring to make you scream and laugh until the two guttural noises become intertwined in a symphony of harsh harmonics. You either get on board with the movie’s wild theatrics, or get lost in the grue soaked car crash.

This isn’t a movie. It’s a fucking way of life. Now send more paramedics.

To celebrate the 30th birthday of Return of the Living Dead, Drafthouse is hosting its own screening. Be there.