The Return Of The Living Dead kicks off with a title card proclaiming that what we are about to see is based on actual events. Considering it’s a zombie movie, that's pretty punk rock.
The flick - widely considered one of the greatest horror comedies of all time - was a major trailblazer in a lot of ways, from the introduction of the now-standard "Braaaaaaaaains" refrain, to arguably the most famous zombie ever: Tarman. Although ROTLD may have been robbed of its original soundtrack for the home release thanks to some pesky ownership rights, its punk rock spirit remains intact regardless of which (great) bands are playing it out.
Originally envisioned as a straight sequel to Night Of The Living Dead, the script left most readers – including, notoriously, the cast – flummoxed. The producers couldn't envision how the opposing elements would come together to form a cohesive whole, let alone how writer-director Dan O'Bannon was going to pull off the necessary SFX required, on a minuscule budget.
Happily, O’Bannon’s unwillingness to budge (the cast described the shoot as a ‘war-zone’) led to a commercial and critical success, for what has since become one of the greatest and most subversive zombie movies of all time.
Thanks to a compulsory two weeks of rehearsals - highly unusual for a low-budget production, never mind a horror movie - the core group was as close to real friends as humanly possible once the cameras rolled. This was of particular concern to O'Bannon, who wanted the punk rock aspects to be authentic and originally intended utilizing real-life punks for his passion project. When this proved unfeasible, he settled for relative unknowns, most of whom were turned punk for the shoot (with the services of a top alternative hairstylist in L.A. called upon to create the now-iconic 'dos sported by the boys).
Threads were hugely important, too. The cast may have been, essentially, normal actors in punk rock drag, but they certainly don't look it (as Suicide emphatically states, it's not a fuckin' costume, “it's a way of life”). Brian Peck (Scuz) even enlisted the help of a British mod buddy, who gave him some killer pieces to further authenticate his alternative ensemble.
But it’s Trash - whose look was perhaps best-described, in 2011 documentary More Brains! A Return To The Living Dead, as a 'punk stripper' who “scared the shit out of” John Philbin (token nerd Chuck) - who has the wildest, most authentic look. Suicide may be draped in chains, and coated in leather, but Trash's don't-care mixture of patterns, textures and seemingly random items of clothing nails the punk non-dress code.
The costuming, and casting, may be on point, but if the group doesn't sound or act like real punks, the audience will see right through it. Think about how many times a movie or TV show has trotted out a ‘goth’ in corpse paint and a crucifix and asked us to buy him or her as a real human being. Thankfully, O'Bannon's screenplay is loaded with casual anti-establishment fuck yous ("He got a job!? What a dick!") that sound perfectly natural coming out of these kids' bored, feckless mouths.
The Army connection is, naturally, ROTLD's most obvious middle finger to The Man. From the outset, the message is that those guys haven't got a clue, and the despondent, still-shocking ending hammers the point home. However, O’Bannon’s approach to the living dead is hugely subversive in itself, also. O’Bannon refused to feature ‘dumb’ zombies, choosing instead to present them as characters. Again, going against perceived notions, his zombies are quick, violent and smart, demanding dispatch send more paramedics (the name of a sadly now defunct London punk band, who performed in full zombie attire) for them to feast upon when they run out.
Aside from boasting perhaps the greatest argument for man-in-suit over CGI ever in Tarman, ROTLD also contains one of the most iconic, effective zombie sequences in film history with the moving, speaking half-cadaver on the operating table. Controlled both by a puppeteer and Peck himself, it's a brilliantly-conceived idea that turns the whole notion of the living dead on its head.
ROTLD provides another, major twist on zombie movie tropes by juxtaposing the cast being terrorized by the living dead, while two of their own simultaneously fall victim to the sickness after breathing in some noxious gas. These methods of humanizing zombies also add an extra layer of scariness, as it is unclear when exactly the two humans will fully turn, and strike.
The music cues are suitably on the nose – the “do you wanna party? It's party time” lyrics that play out as zombies crawl out to scoff Trash being particularly pertinent. And, later, when it comes time for Trash’s bad-ass resurrection, her zombie strut down that same street she travailed earlier with her friends is scored by yet another awesome punk riff.
It’s sadly rare to see a subculture this well-represented, where the norms are token characters and comic relief instead of the weirdoes. Alternative culture is so often blandly misrepresented by Hollywood, if even featured at all. Usually, it’s little more than all-American hunks in bad wigs and fashionably torn-up band tees trying half-heartedly to convince us they're outcasts.
Thinking back over the thirty years since ROTLD was released, it’s difficult to even come up with one comparative film that captures a subculture as well as this one does (although Jason Lei Howden’s Deathgasm does a pretty good job of showcasing metal-heads in all their, erm, glory).
O’Bannon’s no-nonsense approach allowed for his unique vision to come to life, and the result lives on as a major 'fuck you' to everyone who didn't get it. ROTLD’s existence alone is anti-authority. It all adds up to one, big middle finger to The Man. As Scuz himself proclaims, while energetically narrating More Brains! (proudly sporting his very own ROTLD T-shirt, for good measure), this is the punk rock zombie movie in every conceivable way.