By the mid-1980s, the horror genre was in a strange, beautiful place. People were taking interesting risks and plumbing the decade’s quickly-mutating musical subcultures for new concepts of darkness. At the same time, the musical movements of punk and goth were looking to classic horror films for inspiration, writing songs about humans flies and Bela Lugosi’s death. And yet, though horror and punk constantly orbited each other, no one had made a horror film that truly united the two in perfect harmony.
And then on August 16, 1985, Dan O’Bannon’s The Return of the Living Dead oozed its way into movie theaters around the globe and blew everyone’s mohawk off. With its putrid corpses, well-mapped punk characters, toxic waste barrels, and one of the more horrific decapitations ever set to celluloid, Return of the Living Dead showed the world at large the perfect unity of schlock horror and trashy rock and roll. And the world responded with a resounding, “BRAINS.”
A little background: Return of the Living Dead was originally a novel by John Russo, one of George Romero’s collaborators on 1968’s Night of the Living Dead. While Romero could make sequels to the original, Russo got the rights to use the phrase ‘Living Dead’ in his future works. Originally, he planned to make a 3D movie of the novel with Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper. But when Hooper dropped out, Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon took over, rewriting the film both to refrain from biting off Romero too hard, and to give it a deliciously dark sense of humor.
For those of you who’ve never seen this cinematic gem, the story goes that Frank and Freddy, two employees at the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, are getting ready for July 4th weekend when Frank reveals that in the basement are barrels containing corpses infected by a military-grade poison called 2-4-5 Trioxin. Apparently, the substance has the ability to bring the dead back to life, and was what inspired the original Night of the Living Dead. The two examine the barrels and one leaks, poisoning them and reanimating the cadaver they have in cold storage. Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends, a gang of fun-loving punks and goths, have a raging party in a nearby cemetery, which includes their friend Trash (played by scream queen Linnea Quigley) ripping her clothes off and dancing naked atop a crypt.
Of course, when the medical supply team finally cremates the reanimated corpse, the Trioxin get into the air, comes back down as acid rain, seeps into ground in the cemetery, and boom, out come the dead. Suddenly, the punks, medical warehouse crew, and a local mortician are facing off against an army of gooey, shrieking zombies — among them the liquefying corpse from the Trioxin barrel, known colloquial as the Tarman — with one thing on their minds: “BRAINS!” Things go from bad to worse as the zombies overcome the town, paramedics are gobbled by the truckload, and a mushroom cloud engulfs Louisville, Kentucky.
What sets Return of the Living Dead apart from its peers from the get-go is its zombies, designed by veteran artist William Stout. Unlike the lumbering metaphors of Romero or the flavorless gut-bags of Fulci, the undead of Return… are straight off of a punk rock or metal album cover. They talk, they scream, they run, and they look like slowly-putrefying bags of pus and rot. Most notable among the throng is a near-skeletal old woman whose undying torso is captured, and who explains that she wants to eat brains because “she can feel herself rot” and consuming human gray matter rids her of “the pain of being dead” — all while her spinal cord swings around like a tail. These are the zombies ‘80s rock fans had wanted for ages, repulsive, unstoppable creatures who would do anything to chomp that skull. One scene so famous it spawned a band name is when a zombie pauses in devouring a dead EMT, picks up the ambulance’s radio, and moans, “Come in, dispatch — send…more…paramedics.”
But what makes this movie a counterculture milestone is how the punks are treated in it. These aren’t the all-purpose street rats of early ‘80s cinema, a la Jeff Goldblum in Death Wish — these are typical kids with unique personalities, who are, granted, getting drunk in a cemetery. There’s Scuzz, the chill mohawked punk; Spider, the African American metal dude; Tina, the new-wave good-girl; Trash, who’s turned on by thoughts of her own death; and of course Suicide, the heavily-pierced death rocker who’s too spooky for school (“You think this is a fucking costume? This is a way of life!?” he snaps while Trash literally humps his leg). Meanwhile, when the zombies attack, the punks react like actual kids, defending their friends against the hungry corpses and telling adults to shut the fuck up and listen to them.
Perhaps the smartest thing O’Bannon did was follow through on the movie’s soundtrack. Return of the Living Dead contains an incredible line-up of songs by some of the greatest bands ever to combine punk rock and horror. You’ve got trash-punk legends the Cramps singing about the surfing dead, psychedelic dark star Roky Erickson cackling about burning in flames, and death-rock legends 45 Grave performing their massive hit “Party Time” just as a skeleton explodes out of a grave. By backing this gauntlet of ludicrous gore with actual horror rock, O’Bannon showed that his punk rock characters weren’t just a series of expendable teenagers in distasteful clothes, but a gang of counterculture heroes who the viewer can root for.
Today, horror and punk are forever intertwined, with bands like AFI and Creeper lending an artsy grimness to that merging. But in the mid-’80s, punks were seen much like zombies — grotesque avatars of a reanimated rock and roll dream, who were best killed en masse to keep the world safe. The Return of the Living Dead took audiences everywhere to a place where even the twin trash heaps of punk rock and grindhouse gore cinema could be made in brilliant, entertaining harmony. All it took was a little brains.
Words by Chris Krovatin