BRAINS!!! Well, Kind of: 'The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead'

Horror nerds tend to have mixed feelings about this cult hit. The authors of this new celebratory volume might generate a bit more sympathy.

The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead

Publisher: Plexus
Length: 288 pages
Author: Christian Sellers, Gary Smart
Format: softcover
Publication Date: 2011-01

My feelings about the 1985 flick The Return of the Living Dead have always been mixed. Released in the same year as George Romero’s Day of the Dead, it overshadowed that vastly superior film. Moreover, its unfortunate that casual horror fans of a certain age are probably more familiar with The Return of the Living Dead than Romero’s canonical works and are constantly splicing the films together in their heads and in conversation. It’s annoying to horror nerds everywhere. Romero zombies don’t, and I repeat don’t, yell “BRAINS!!!” They just eat them.

Christian Sellers and Gary Smart’s new book The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead has made me change my attitude a bit, and even re-watch the original with some sympathy. Sellers and Smart show the film and the franchise that grew from it as what it was; a rock 'n' roll undead dance party that owed little to its darker zombie film cousins.

Romero’s work on Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead sometimes feels like medieval tableaux, dramas of morality and eschatological anxiety. By contrast, The Return of the Living Dead was more like an acid nightmare experienced as a '80s music video with gratuitous nudity and an ocean of gore. This was a roller coaster ride into screaming insanity that deserves its cult status.

Perhaps at least part of the explanation for the greatness and the madness of the SFX is how incredibly decentralized the whole effort really was. The over-the-top effects we see on the screen were not, it turns out, the result of any great planning (sometimes it shows). A series of quotes from make-up man Kenny Meyers notes that little or no production meetings took place given the limited shoot schedule of the film. This freed up Meyers and the rest of the effects team to make the creatures of their dreams and, of course, their nightmares.

Smart and Sellers choose to tell the story of the making of the film through short introductions and snippets of interviews from almost the entire cast and production team. This is largely effective, especially as the authors delve into what appears to have been a high tension and fairly contentious pre-production and shoot. The late Dan O’Bannon, better known as the talented screenwriter behind Alien could be tough on his actors. Beverly Randolph, who played helpless good girl “Tina” in the film, notes that her fondest memory of the shoot is when one of her fellow actors threw a vase at O’Bannon’s head.

Many fans will be somewhat dissatisfied at this approach. The book could have used a few extended interviews with key players. Fanboys and girls of scream queen Linnea Quigley will be disappointed at the small number, and brief nature, of quotes we get from her.

A book like this has to be packed with photographs and here The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead does not disappoint. Unseen production stills, shots showing William Stout’s truly inspired conceptual art and images from the film’s publication campaign are on every single page. And of course we get to look and hear about the building of the famous “Tarman” zombie, probably the most iconic image of the film, brought to life by a shambling Allen Trautman.

It's perhaps a gauge of how much conflict the shooting of this film generated that, more than 20 years later, actors, director and production staff are still taking shots at effects designer William Munn. Several pages of quotes light into Munn for how he handled the rising of "the dead", especially the animatronic skeleton that first pops up out of the grave. This admittedly adolescent effect (today it looks like a bad Halloween decoration) gets too much page space. Indeed, it feels like gratuitous piling on when some of the cheesiness of the film is exactly what makes it a beloved cult fav today.

The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead focuses primarily on the 1985 cult hit in the first half of the book. The reminder, disappointingly, focuses on the franchise as a whole. Even devout horror fans will be somewhat surprised to learn that The Return of the Living Dead has had no less than four sequels. These forgettable affairs have mostly been straight to video/DVD, their only notable aspect the continual raising of the bar of gory effects.

There are some other small issues with the book that distract from the overall effect. Seller’s and Smart introduce the first set of interviews by describing how The Return of the Living Dead would take Romero’s vision in a different direction from his “slapstick, comical direction.” While certainly Romero employed some dark humor as his series progressed, it’s hard to describe his bleak work as “slapstick” or “comical” especially in comparison to the stark raving madness of The Return of the Living Dead.

Finally, the authors spend only a few sentences on Romero’s attitude toward the films and suggest that he was never especially clear about how he felt about them. In contrast, numerous interviews with Romero and Romero compatriots over the years suggest that he found the zombies of The Return of the Living Dead vastly inferior to his own vision and felt (rightly) that his fan base would be a bit confused about whether or not The Return of the Living Dead was the real sequel to Night of the Living Dead.

Flaws and omissions aside, this is a book well-worth picking up for lovers of this film. Horror fans in general, especially those who, like, me, have never given The Return of the Living Dead a fair shake, should take a look, as well. It will cut down on your nerd rage the next time zombies are mentioned and someone yells “BRAINS!!!”


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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