Amongst other things, The Return of the Living Dead is notable for introducing and popularizing the idea of zombies wanting to eat brains to pop culture. Even if you disregard that little tidbit, it’s still a great piece of cinema on its own merits. I would even go as far as saying it’s right there with the Romero films in terms of quality. Personally I slightly prefer the Romero films, but only because I tend to emphasize compelling story above all else, and while this is really fun to watch and the humor is good, it does lack an emotionally charged, compelling dramatic story.
The brainchild of Dan O’Bannon, probably better known for writing the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s Alien, the movie is incredibly trashy, gleeful and cheesy zombie flick that doesn’t take itself too seriously and I do mean that in the most positive way possible. You have stuff like one of the female characters, Trash, for no reason deciding to strip naked and dance in the graveyard she and her punk friends have decided to hold a party at, and the dialog heavily implies the nude dancing is one of her defining characteristics. Do I need to extrapolate any further than that? There’s also a lot of black, self-conscious humor involved, that makes it different from most zombie movies. There’s for example, delicious tongue in cheek irony when Trash gives, out of nowhere, a small monologue how her worst fear is to die by the hands of a giant mob clawing her to death, a fate she meets under the exact same circumstances maybe fifteen minutes later when the dead start to rise from their graves. It’s delightful.
In case you were wondering if they use the trope of human nature being the real source of our own destruction, never fear, that is well covered here. This time it’s done in the form of two bumbling warehouse workers who first accidentally release the zombie plague and then make things worse by desperately trying cover it up by getting rid off all the evidence, which ironically just creates even more zombies. It’s wonderfully morbid like this through the entire movie.
Another aspect I like about this movie is just how indestructible the zombies are. You can shoot them in the head, chop them up to pieces, it has no effect. You simply cannot kill zombies in this, they’re virtually indestructible force of nature that require complete disintegration in order to defeat them. And even that approach only makes the situation worse in the story, as we see when the characters try to destroy the first reanimated corpse by putting its chopped up, still moving body parts in the incinerator: they get rid off one zombie but unknowingly reanimate the entire cemetery when the resulting toxic gas from the crematorium creates a rainfall and the zombie plague pours right back down as acid rain. The zombies are also intelligent, which gets depicted brilliantly when they kill an ambulance crew and then use the radio to call in more units to eat.
The ending is also a real kicker, O’Bannon certainly knows how to end his movies with a bang. In Alien the Nostromo was set to self-destruct to kill the xenomorph, here the entire town gets nuked by the military, only for it to unwittingly cause an even more widespread zombie infestation as the ensuing fires create a larger storm cloud made of toxic vapors that begin the cycle anew, resulting in an impending unstoppable zombie apocalypse in the horizon. What a lovely way to end your story with. No last minute hint of hope, humanity is simply screwed.