1985 was a good year for zombies. Not only were we bestowed such bona fide classics as RE-ANIMATOR and DAY OF THE DEAD, but also today's entry, THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. The film's notable for quite a few firsts: in addition to being the first movie to directly play off Romero's original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (and using it for comedic, non-parodic effect), RETURN also marks the first zombies hungry specifically for brains. It's also the first film directed by screenwriter Dan O' Bannon, who replaced Tobe Hooper (who's originally wanted to film in 3-D--now that would've been cool!), who took over the project from John Russo (in his first attempt to sodomize the movie that made his career). Hey, it's also the first movie Linnea Quigley made that wasn't crap!
I'm sure the specifics are well-familiar to the readers of this blog so I won't go into detail here. I do however think the film's opening scenes are its best, establishing an underlying sense of doom as it introduces its setting and characters; that is maintains this feeling even as it dabbles in comedy is all the more impressive. O'Bannon deserves credit for deftly handling this tone, but it's James Karen's performance that really sells the humor; even as his condition spirals out of control and he gets more and more hysterical he never gets to that dangerous, over-the-top realm that hinders so many actors in horror-comedies. Actually, the cast is uniformly excellent, imbuing their characters with a sense of credibility and personality, if not true depth. (Don Calfa also bears mentioning in a quieter, more subtle performance.)
Another pitfall that RETURN manages to sidestep is when it transitions from grim humor to focus more on horror; sometimes the tonal shift can derail a film's momentum, but O'Bannon's script is better constructed than the average zombie flick. As the situation worsens, he simply lets the events dictate the mood, and that transition is barely noticeable (though when you do notice, the film's already gearing up for its downbeat, inevitable finale).
I also have to give O'Bannon props for not playing the zombies for laughs--or rather, using them as the butt of any jokes; the "send more paramedics" line is not only funny, but nails the underlying dark humor that runs throughout the film. And we can't forget the memorably kick-ass zombies that populate the film, like the female torso that explains the undead's motivation (note to screenwriters: when laying down backstory for your film, having half of a living cadaver deliver your exposition is a good way to keep the viewers' attention) and the Tar Man.
Of course, like all great horror flicks--hell, like all great flicks that aren't directed by guys like Scorsese and Lynch--RETURN begat a number of sequels of varying degrees of shittiness (and which will all get their due attention here), but fortunately none of them were able to tarnish the original's reputation.
Oh, and one more thing: THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD gave us "fast" zombies almost twenty years before 28 DAYS LATER and the DAWN OF THE DEAD remake. So there.