Double That Feature #3: THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD
It’s that time of year again! Time to grill up some BBQ, crack open a couple of cold ones, light up some fireworks, and go through at least one explosive-related near-death experience… at least, that’s how it is in my family. In any case, all these things are what make up Fourth of July, or “Independence Day” as we say here in the States! What’s more American than beer, brisket, and banging, am I right? Banging as in explosions, because you know, fireworks. Not… not the other type… don’t let me tell you how to live your life, though. You do you!
Related Article: Double That Feature #1: John Carpenter’s THE THING
As a personal tradition to celebrate the holiday, I usually watch two movies from my youth that, while not entirely about the festivities, take place during the day in question: The Return of the Living Dead and Jaws. Now, I had a hard time choosing between the two, and while I love the classic ferocious fish flick with a passion, the punk-rock-zombie-romp just barely won out. That being said, these two films are a great Double Feature pairing that I highly recommend! In fact, Jaws is the unofficial top choice on this list. Just throwing that out there.
Here’s the part where I give a lowdown on The Return of the Living Dead’s premise. You ready?
There’s these kids, right? Not just normal kids, though, that would be boring. They’re PUNK kids. Super rad, fantastic outfits, badass attitudes, everything that comes with the territory. They decide to chill out in a nearby cemetery while they wait for their friend to get off his shift working in the local medical warehouse. Turns out, that warehouse was holing up some zombie gas, which resurrects corpses on contact. Not just recent corpses, by the way. I’m talking near-skeletons that have been rotting away for decades. The stuff gets out, and next thing our heroes know, they’re surrounded by the brain-craving living dead! Can they survive the night against the undying fiends? Or are their brains next on the menu? Someone should probably send more paramedics.
In my not-so-humble opinion, this flick is one of the best zombie films to ever grace the big/small/silver/golden/chrome screen, if not the best. It has the perfect mixture of humor and horror, rivaling many other great comedic-horror flicks like Evil Dead 2 and Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. So, with such a high praise, what films could stand toe-to-toe with it for a Double Feature night? Well… I’m glad you asked.
Grab a beer, scarf down some hot dogs, and don’t mind the fireworks outside, because we’re about to see if the whole “brains over brawn” thing applies to the living dead!
1. Return of the Living Dead 3 (Directed by Brian Yuzna; Starring Kent McCord, James T. Callahan, Sarah Douglas; 1993)
“Having recently witnessed the horrific results of a top secret project to bring the dead back to life, a distraught youth performs the operation on his girlfriend after she’s killed in a motorcycle accident.” – via IMDB.
No, I’m not putting in Return of the Living Dead II, you can’t make me. It’s not the worst thing I saw, but it’s so far below the original and this flick… it’s above Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis/Rave to the Grave, but that’s as much praise as I’ll give it. Let’s talk about the good sequel.
Return of the Living Dead 3 is great! I’d even go so far to say that its underrated. That tends to happen when you have Brian Yuzna as a director, especially when it comes to absurd gore and dark comedy (Bride of Reanimator, anyone?). That being said, this isn’t the most blood-and-gut-filled entry in his repertoire, focusing more on the story’s “dark tragic romance” aspect. But what’s there is pretty rad.
Now, I know what you might be thinking: “A dark, tragic romance? I thought this was Return of the Living Dead, not Love In A Time of Zombies!” To which I say… fair point. To counter said point, they had a chance to copy the first flick’s formula and managed to screw it up, so I feel the switch in narrative was well warranted. Besides, it’s not like it focuses completely on the lovey-dovey stuff. People get dismembered, brains get eaten, zombie headshots are made with some sort of future gun; all the stuff to satisfy us gorehounds is there.
Now, we need to talk about why this film is really remembered and cherished among the horror community… Julie, portrayed by the magnificent Melinda Clarke. She is the best, most badass character in the film, and the true star of the show. I mean, she’s on the cover… they knew what was up. Julie’s story-arc manages to be more captivating than it has any right to be, involving her trying to cope with being part of the living dead. All while attempting not to eat people to satiate her hunger for brains. She transforms not only mentally, but physically once she realizes pain helps subside the brain-craving, becoming a masochistic beast of blades and needles by the end, with enough self-torment to make the Cenobites take notes. Quite frankly, she’s rad as hell, and should be reason enough alone to check this flick out.
Also, itpairs well with The Return of the Living Dead… mostly due to being a sequel. So, there you go!
2. Night of the Living Dead (Directed by Tom Savini; Starring Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman, Tom Towles; 1990)
“When the unburied dead return to life and seek human victims, seven refugees seek shelter in a house in the Pennsylvanian countryside, but the group is at odds as to how they should deal with the situation.” – via IMDB.
Hot take coming y’all’s way, right out of the oven. I personally think that Tom Savini’s Night of the Living Dead remake is better than the original. It’s not even neck-and-neck or anything, I mean by a long-distance headshot. I know that might get me some side-eye glances, but the last thing I want to be is disingenuous to y’all.
But I’m not here to drag on the original, which I still like and hold in high regard for its significance to horror cinema. Let’s get back on track!
First of all, this flick has some of the best looking zombies I’ve seen in the sub-genre, right up there with the likes of The Return of the Living Dead (of course) and George Romero’s Day of the Dead (I dislike how I have to differentiate it now). I feel like when it comes to a zombie romp, that’s a pretty important factor… just call it a hunch. Given that only the recently deceased rise back up, the zombies aren’t too battered and tattered as they shamble around, but the effects team still managed to make them suitably creepy. Yellow-tinged skin, flesh and bits hanging off, blood in places that it shouldn’t be (which is pretty much anywhere outside the body); all of it looks ghoulishly graphic.
Onto the menu… I mean, heroes.
Tony Todd… oh, I need to say more? Okay, um… he’s really damn good. Of course he is, he’s the freaking Candyman, would you expect any less? The threat of being cannibalized by the living dead barely fazes him as he beats them left and right. A tire iron there, a well placed bullet there, just being a straight up badass. He’s not the only one; Patricia Tallman steps up to the plate as this franchise’s best version of Barbara. Good thing, because in the original flick, the only thing Barb contributed to is… dying. Here, she battles through the shock of witnessing her brother’s death (Bill Mosley, by the way), then proceeds to kick some zombie ass! Supposedly, Romero felt bad about how he portrayed the original Barbara, so he wanted to make up for it in some way.
The rest of the cast is pretty solid, especially Tom Towles, who plays a perfectly sleazy antagonist who’s hardheadedness and arrogance tends to be more trouble than its worth. However, the thing is that his ideas for survival aren’t particularly bad, he just communicates them with such an attitude that nobody wants to listen to him. As we know, proper communication is key to surviving the zombie apocalypse.
So, why double-feature this with The Return of the Living Dead? Well… they both have zombies in it… that’s a pretty good reason. Also, The Return of the Living Dead is technically a sequel to the original Night of the Living Dead (depending who you ask), so you could consider them part of the same series if you wanted. Highly recommend, whatever the case!
3. Re-Animator (Directed by Stuart Gordan; Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbott, Barbara Crampton; 1985)
“After an odd new medical student arrives on campus, a dedicated local and his girlfriend become involved in bizarre experiments centering around the re-animation of dead tissue.” – via IMDB.
Oh look, another zombie-flick suggestion to go with the zombie-flick this article is about. I think there’s a theme going on. Just can’t put my finger on what it might be, though.
Sarcasm aside, it should be no surprise that I’m talking about Re-Animator, given I’ve already mentioned it in a different zombie article. What can I say? I love the shit out of this movie. One of my top three zombie flicks, right next to The Return of the Living Dead and Zombi 2. Perfectly executed dark humor accompanied by ludicrous amounts of gore, it hits all the marks for a fantastic zomedy romp. That’s Stuart Gordan for you, hitting it out of the park yet again.
Just a warning, there is a scene where a severed head molests a woman in this flick. If that makes it a no-go for you, that’s completely valid and understandable.
Jeffrey Combs, great. Barbara Crampton, perfect. David Hale, suitably sinister and fun. The effects, bad but in the best way possible. Y’all know all this, and I don’t want to just regurgitate information everyone already knows. I mean, it’s Re-Animator… what else could I possibly add?… uh, did you know there was an Army of Darkness vs. Re-Animator comic book back in the day? Yeah, it had Ash getting sent to a prison where Herbert West was conducting experiments, both with the zombie juice and the Necronomicon Ex Mortis (roughly translated, “Book of the Dead”). Was it good? Eh… not really. Had something to do with some Lovecraftian Elder God and Alice in Wonderland, it was just weird and unsatisfying. You know what was a good Re-Animator comic, though? Vampirella vs. Re-Animator! I wrote about that in one of my Cursed Pages articles. I really enjoyed it! The crossover with Hack/Slash wasn’t too bad, either.
What double-feature potential does it have with The Return of the Living Dead? A lot! They both have zombies, are horrifically comedic, were made in 1985, have killer themes (though Re-Animator’s might sound a bit familiar), and subvert a lot of the common tropes usually pertained to zombies. I mean, these deadheads run around and talk and stuff! Terrifying!
4. Night of the Creeps (Directed by Fred Dekker; Starring Jason Lively, Tom Atkins, Steve Marshall; 1986)
“Alien brain parasites, entering humans through the mouth, turn their host into a killing zombie. Some teenagers start to fight against them.” – via IMDB.
Three horror-comedies and one serious zombie flick… maybe I should replace Night of the Living Dead with Evil Dead II so they all match.
Night of the Creeps is one of those movies that I often forget about, but fondly remember when reminded of it. How could I not? It has aliens, zombies, practical FX, Tom Atkins; all the ingredients to a delicious B-movie recipe.
Also Read: Double That Feature #2: TREMORS
An extraterrestrial science experiment (consisting of brain slugs) crashes on Earth, and the slugs start hopping into peoples’ craniums, turning them into zombies. This is where the “our zombies our different” trope shows its head, because these aren’t your normal flesh-eating living dead. Oh, they’re dead alright, but they’re main goal is to keep killing people until their head explodes into more brain slugs, allowing them to take over the corpses… or something like that. Whatever their intentions may be, it’s fun seeing the little buggers squirm around and launch themselves into people’s mouths, attempting to zombify them… much like that other movie… no, not that one. This one.
It’s amusing how without the overarching alien-zombie-slug plot, this flick could just be a cash-in on those John Hughes movies that were popular at the time. New kid on campus falls in love instantaneously upon seeing the popular girl. However, popular girl is dating jerkwad fraternity leader. New kid must join fraternity (with the help of comedy-relief best friend) to impress popular girl and finally win her over. Hilarity ensues… I’ll be honest, I’ve only watched, like, two John Hughes movies, and one of them was The Breakfast Club. I’m not sure if that’s the plot structure of any of his films, but I feel like it is. If not, then… whoops?*
Tom Atkins, as usual, steals the show as the hardass cop with weapons and one-liners at the ready. Par for the course, really, with his charisma and that mustache. Everyone else does a decent job too, his presence just outshines them all.
Again, the inclusion of zombies and comedy are the reasons I pair it well with The Return of the Living Dead. Just like the rest of them. Honestly, if you have a night to spare, I’d say just go ahead and marathon all five flicks. Why not?!
Well, once again, the day of our independence has come and gone. As the fireworks subside, go grab one last beer and finish off the night with some good ol’ zombie mayhem… or shark carnage, because Jaws is just as good of a Fourth of July flick.
Until next time…
*Hi! Giallo Julian here! I looked up John Hughes filmography and found that I’ve actually seen more of his stuff than I initially thought. Learn something new every day! Take care, friends!