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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 30: Return of the Living Dead (1985)

return-of-the-living-deadDirector: Dan O’Bannon

Writers: John Russo, Rudy Ricci, Russell Streiner, Dan O’Bannon

Cast: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Matthews, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Miguel Nunez, Allan Trautman

Plot: At the Uneeda Medical Supply company, manager Frank (James Karen) shows around trainee Freddy (Thom Matthews), and asks him if he’s ever seen Night of the Living Dead. Showing off, Frank tells Freddy the film was based on reality. A strange chemical called Trioxin animated corpses in Pittsburgh, but the truth was suppressed… and the bodies are being stored right there in barrels of the chemical. Frank shows the barrels to Freddy, but accidentally causes a leak of the gas, dousing both men and reanimating the dead bodies – even the parts of dead bodies – kept in storage at Uneeda. Freddy’s friends – a group of punk teenagers who look like the 80s threw up leather and piercings all over them – decide to kill time in a nearby cemetery while waiting to pick him up from work. As they proceed to party in the graveyard, Frank and Freddy wake up from their encounter with the Trioxin gas feeling sick. One of the barrels has broken open and is empty, and Frank assumes the body melted. They soon find the rest of the corpses (human and otherwise) throughout the warehouse animated and hungry.

Back in the graveyard one of the teens, Trash (Linnea Quigley) begins to fantasize about the more horrific ways to die, leading to one of the most bizarre and gratuitous striptease sequences in horror movie history. Frank and Freddy summon their boss, Burt (Clu Gulagar), about the cadaver screaming and banging on the walls of cold storage. Remembering Night of the Living Dead, Burt tries to kill the cadaver by driving an axe into its brain, then cutting off its head, but it doesn’t kill the monster. They reach a horrible revelation: the movies lied to them. Burt decides to bring the cadavers to his pal Ernie (Don Calfa) at the crematorium, hoping to destroy them that way. It works, but the smoke that spills out of the oven seeds the clouds above, and it begins to rain on the graveyard. The water filters down through the soil, into the coffins, and the dead begin to claw their way to the surface.

Frank and Freddy are getting sicker and sicker, and Ernie calls an ambulance. Meanwhile Freddy’s girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), has made it to Uneeda, where she finds the place seemingly deserted. As she searches for Freddy, she encounters the zombie that escaped from the first barrel, a slender figure that has become known as Tarman (Allan Trautman). The rest of the teens arrive just in time to save her, but Tarman gets his first snack of brains in the process. The paramedics arrive to treat Freddy and Frank, but are unable to find a pulse or blood pressure in either one of them, and their bodies are room temperature. The teens are attacked in the cemetery, and three of them (Tina included) make it to the mortuary, while two more get back to Uneeda. As the paramedics return to their ambulance, they hear screams and try to call for back-up, only to be attacked and devoured by the swarming dead. The survivors in the mortuary board up the place to hold out the zombies, and Freddy begins experiencing pain as his body goes into rigor mortis. One of the zombies manages to make it into the mortuary and Ernie straps it down, questioning it. It tells the survivors they want to eat brains because it relieves the pain of being dead. Burt locks Freddy and Frank in the mortuary chapel with Tina, who insists on staying with Freddy. Burt, Ernie, and Spider (Miguel Nunez) begin to seek an escape, while in the chapel, Freddy attacks Tina, hungry for brains. Spider and Burt make a run for the police car, fighting the zombies on the way. They drive the car to the door to collect Tina and Ernie, can’t get through the mob and drive away for help, but a swarm of zombies traps them at the Uneeda warehouse. Not wanting to become like the rest of the zombies, Frank turns on the crematorium, says a prayer for forgiveness, and climbs into the oven. Burt calls the army hotline on the Trioxin barrel and reports what has happened, and the army activates its contingency plan. Ernie and Tina hide from Freddy while the survivors at Uneeda protect themselves from Tarman, and just as everyone makes a final stand, the army drops a bomb on the whole damn city of Louisville, Kentucky, wiping it – and the zombies – off the map. But as the zombies burn, the smoke rises… and the rain starts to fall.

Thoughts: This movie has perhaps the strangest pedigree of any film on this list. George Romero – writer and director of Night of the Living Dead – got into a disagreement with co-producer John Russo about the direction of the franchise. Russo walked away with the right to use the “Living Dead” name for his own franchise, and this was the result: a world where Night of the Living Dead was a movie, but was based on its own reality. It’s a weird premise, to be sure, and I was at first reluctant to include this movie in my little horror movie project, mainly because I think it may be more deserving of a place in the eventual horror/comedy project I intend to present in the future. But I decided use it for two reasons: first, like Night of the Living Dead, this movie helped influence the way zombies are portrayed in popular culture even today, and second, I’m not really convinced that all of the comedy in this movie was intentional.

The zombies (with the exception of Tarman) are all kind of silly, particularly the first, fresh cadaver, where the actor seemed to just be stripped, shaved, and painted yellow. And a lot of the violence seems to be played for laughs. Trash’s legendary tombstone striptease isn’t really scary or sexy, just weird. On the other hand, the parts that probably were intentionally funny (such as the hungry zombie calling for “more paramedics” on the ambulance scanner) are legitimately funny. Even the 80s-style montage (in this one the characters are barricading themselves in the mortuary instead of training to win the big ski tournament) is funny enough, juxtaposed against a goofy rock ballad about the Living Dead.

The characters in this movie really are jokes, especially the teenagers. They’re all caricatures, and the way one of them (I don’t even remember the characters’ name, making it impossible to look up the actor, that’s how generic they are) gives a speech about how his leather and chains is a “way of life” and not a costume is groan-inducing, and the way they resist calling the cops (because they’ll “kick our ass”) even as one of their buddies is having his brain eaten takes them from the realm of stereotype to the land of the remarkably stupid. It’s really no loss when any of them gets turned into a zombie hors d’oeuvre. As for naming the two old chums “Burt” and “Ernie”… really, O’Bannon? Sesame Street was pushing 20 years old at the time you wrote this script, you can’t tell me that wasn’t intentional.

There seems to have been an ill-fated attempt at poignancy with “Trash,” who proclaims early in the film that she believes the worst way to die would be to be eaten to death by old men, but seeing as how she says that immediately before she begins taking off her clothes for no apparent reason, it’s doubtful most audience members remember that bit. Frank’s suicide is a little more satisfying from an audience standpoint – it’s the one point in the movie where someone shows anything like a little human regret – and the moment where he dies is a good capper to what little of a character arc there is.

The zombies in this movie are different from Romero zombies in many ways. First off, they’re more intelligent, with the ability to speak and reason (although later Romero films did start to show zombies exhibiting a few higher-order skills). Second, they can’t be killed by a simple bullet to the brain, and in fact, dismemberment does no good as each individual chunk of the zombie continues to move of its own accord. Finally, and most importantly to popular culture, this is the movie that gave us zombies obsessed with braaaaaaaains. A Romero zombie (and those of most of his imitators) is perfectly happy with any chunk of living flesh, and it’s these zombies that we still see in most movies and TV shows. If you’re a fan of The Walking Dead, you’re watching a Romero zombie. But whenever you see a zombie that wants specifically to chomp on a brain, you can thank John Russo and Dan O’Bannon.

From the perspective of a horror movie fan, there’s nothing in this movie as scary or visually cool as Tarman. The first zombie, one whose flesh has mostly melted into slime from years of Trioxin storage, is a grotesque, slimy creature that could give anybody nightmares. Allan Trautman, who played the character, is rather underappreciated in the strata of horror icons. His slim frame and marvelous physical performance created the best monster from this movie, and one of the most memorable single zombies of all time. While the other zombies aren’t nearly as recognizable or as entertaining, there are a couple of cool scenes. The moment where the rainwater filters down through the ground into the coffins and the dead claw their way out to the surface, for example, looks really great, and the zombie Ernie interrogates is a nice piece of puppeteering, even if the movement of its mouth doesn’t remotely match the words she’s saying.

The end of the movie is almost as literal a deus ex machina as one could hope for. There’s a short bit earlier where someone from the army shows a bit of concern about the barrels (which have been missing for sixteen years thanks to some sort of paperwork screw-up), but it seems tacked on to justify a conclusion that otherwise would come totally from out of the blue. While I give the filmmakers credit for going for the nuclear option (pun intended), it makes everything else in the movie feel somewhat hollow.

While Return of the Living Dead is by no means the only movie to use the “we swear it’s a true story” gag, it’s by far the least convincing. And although there’s fun to be had in watching the movie, it’s horror movie fun at its cheesiest. It’s hard to imagine this film being sincerely frightening to any adult, but there’s still room for enjoyment in watching it. Just don’t go into it looking for a scare.

Stephen King makes one more appearance tomorrow, with one of his most down-to-earth tales of horror… and, I admit, one of my personal favorites: Misery.

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Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen Day 23: Alien (1979)

alienDirector: Ridley Scott

Writer: Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett

Cast: Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Yaphet Kotto

Plot: In the far future, the mining ship Nostromo is making a run to Earth, hauling a refinery and 20 million tons of ore for a Corporation. The ship’s computer awakens the crew from its cryogenic sleep, and they expect they’re approaching hope. Captain Dallas (Tom Skeritt) informs the crew they’re only halfway to Earth, but the ship has intercepted a strange transmission that may be of intelligent origin. The ship is damaged upon landing on the planetoid, and Dallas, Kane (John Hurt) and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) go off to search for the source of the transmission while Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), Ash (Ian Holm), and engineers Brett (Harry Dean Stanton) and Parker (Yaphet Kotto) remain behind to monitor them and make repairs to the ship. Kane’s team discovers an alien ship in ruins. The body of the creature inside the alien craft is enormous, and was apparently destroyed from the inside-out. Kane discovers an alien egg, which bursts open, allowing a tiny creature to affix itself to his face. Dallas and Lambert return him to the ship, but Ripley initially refuses to allow him to enter the ship, citing quarantine regulations. Ash defies her and allows them inside, where he tries to examine the creature. Dallas and Ash try to cut the creature off, only to discover it has acidic blood. The creature dies and Kane wakes up, seemingly in good health. As the crew sits down to dinner, though, he begins going through horrible convulsions. He falls over on the table and his chest explodes, setting free a tiny creature that escapes into the ship.

Hunting for the beast, Brett and Dallas are killed in short order. Ripley investigates the ship’s computer, only to discover that Ash is acting under special orders of the Corporation that sent them into space in the first place. They were deliberately sent to the derelict to find an alien organism and return it for study, and the crew is considered expendable. Ash attacks Ripley, displaying extraordinary strength and leaking a strange white fluid when wounded instead of blood – he is an android. Parker and Lambert save Ripley and destroy the mechanical man. Parker and Lambert go off to retrieve coolant while Ripley preps the escape shuttle, planning to blow up the ship. The alien kills Parker and Lambert and Ripley rushes to activate the ship’s self-destruct mechanism herself. She manages to fight her way to the shuttle and escape the Nostromo before it is destroyed, unaware the alien has boarded the escape craft with her. She comes across the creature sleeping, puts on an atmosphere suit and opens the hatch, blasting the creature into space. As the film ends she records a message to anyone who finds the ship and climbs into suspended animation, hoping she is found sooner rather than later.

Thoughts: I’ve largely avoided science fiction movies in this list, mainly because I hope this “story structure” experiment will be something I can do again and again, and science fiction most certainly deserves its own category (if not several). However, out of all the movies that straddle the fence between science fiction and horror, there are a few that keep to the horror side so firmly that to not include them in this project would be a disgrace. Hence, Ridley Scott’s Alien.

In essence, Alien is a haunted house movie in outer space. It meets the tropes of that genre very nicely – you’ve got a small cast in a confined area from which they cannot easily escape or summon outside help. (How many good Haunted House movies take place in a remote location, during a power outage, or in some sort of horrible weather? There’s always a reason the people trapped in the house can’t just leave, otherwise they look like idiots.) As they run around the “house” (or in this case, spaceship) they make their way through enormous labyrinthine hallways, find evidence of a creature that is beyond human that appears with greater, more violent, and more alarming frequency, and are picked off a few at a time until a single or small group of survivors finally manages to escape. You see parts of the monster, or shadows of its inhuman shape, long before you see the creature in all its glory, building the tension and the fear as you go along. This is why Alien had to go in this list – not only does it fit every Haunted House trope other than the ghost itself, but it does so brilliantly.

Aside from Ridley Scott getting great performances from his actors, much of the credit for this film’s success has to go to creature creator H.R. Giger. Giger’s artwork helped inspire screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, and thus he really was the logical choice to design not only the alien creature itself, but also the environments found on the alien spacecraft. There are scenes, admittedly, where you can tell you’re looking at a matte painting, but it’s an H.R. Giger matte painting, and that automatically makes it 99 percent more awesome than any other matte painting you’ve ever seen, including the one you helped color on your 11th grade production of Oklahoma.

Even certain things that could have looked terrible under other circumstances really work in this film. When Dallas is attacked in the air vent, the beast thrusts its arms at him. If you do a freeze-frame on the image, it’s kind of goofy… the creature throws out jazz hands like it wants to give Tom Skeritt a big, motherly hug. When you only get a glimpse of it, though, it’s scary as hell. And like all good scary movies, you get caught up in it enough that you forget some of the logical holes, like why the ship’s self-destruct mechanism is so damn far away from the escape shuttle. (Seriously, The Corporation? Talk about a design flaw.) Or the fact that we can hear the big ol’ Nostromo explosion in the vacuum of outer space, which is impossible… and this from the film that uses that little nugget of science in its own tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.”

The English teacher in me also has to give O’Bannon credit for abandoning the film’s original title, Star Beast. This was 1979, both Star Wars and Star Trek were heavily on the public consciousness and going with the “Star” title probably would have made the film successful. But Alien is just flat-out a superior title. It works both as a noun – describing the creature that hunts the crew of the Nostromo – and as an adjective, describing the fact that the thing they’ve found is utterly unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the universe. It’s a nice bit of wordplay that I think helps the movie just a tad.

When the time came, inevitably, to make a sequel to this film, the filmmakers realized it would be nearly impossible to replicate the terror of the original. After all, much of what makes Alien so scary is the fact that you don’t really see the adult creature in full until the near end of the film, allowing the deadly power of the human imagination to do its work. By the time Aliens went into production, the creature was already pretty much public knowledge, so James Cameron took the film in another direction: instead of making an awesome sci-fi/horror movie, Aliens was an awesome sci-fi/action movie. This, of course, was followed by Alien3, a film that was a hybrid of science fiction and “a movie so poorly conceived and directed I got disgusted with the whole franchise and, to this day, haven’t seen the fourth one.” There are also, of course, the two Alien Vs. Predator movies, of which there isn’t much to say. I am looking forward to Ridley Scott’s upcoming film Prometheus, though, which is apparently going to be connected to Alien, although how tightly or in what way is something he’s still playing very close to the vest.

Tomorrow we return to Earth, Stephen King, and the more traditional haunted house idea with Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining.