Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Dr Strangelove of Zombie Movies

Calling your attention to freebies when I can - I direct your attention to Hulu and their hosting of Dan O'Bannon's horror gem Return of the Living Dead.

Released in 1985, ROTLD has an interesting history. It specifically references George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, the rotting grandaddy of all zombie movies, without being a sequel to it, and it came out the same year as Day of the Dead, a genuine sequel. In fact, O'Bannon and producer James Russo had been involved in various capacities with Romero. As a result they made an effort to distance their movie from Romero's, if for no other reason than professional courtesy.

The result winds up being the Dr. Strangelove of zombie movies, an examination of a horrific subject which is funny precisely because everyone in it behaves in a logical manner.

Casting helps. Clu Gulager, a veteran character actor, plays Bert, the owner of a medical supply house in which the Zombie-making gas is mistakenly stored. He's just pitch perfect as a small-time business owner trying to wrap his mind around an impossible situation - does he inform the authorities or risk his little empire? James Karen as his barely competent assistant makes the most of a role that requires little more than jocularity and screaming.

Rounding out the cast of sly veterans is Don Calfa as the mortuary attendant next door, who strikes the just right note as a grounded weirdo. It's hard to put into words, but he's a joy to watch and he has such a strange magnetism it's surprising he didn't turn up in more roles.

There are also a bunch of standard-issue new wave punk kids, of whom Linnea Quigley is the standout because, well, she's naked throughout a lot her screen time and she looks good naked. Damn good.

ROTLD was a surprise hit for MGM in 1985, which at the time was the only kind of hit they were capable of producing.  And a little story - I saw this at the United Artists Coronet in Westwood, a matinee show which was mostly ruined by an annoying guy one row ahead of me who couldn't stop talking to his seat mate. That guy was Howie Mandel. I forgive you now, Howie.

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