The 80s gave us slasher horror movies that fans still love today. But the 80s also produced another horror subgenre of film- the black comedy horror film. No film is a better representative of this genre then Return of the Living Dead. Return of the Living Dead was a film that poked fun at itself and others like it throughout the film. It had a soundtrack that was modern at the time and featured Goth and Punk bands like The Cramps, The Damned, and 45 Grave. The film was released in 1985 and quickly nabbed a spot in horror movie history for changing the perception of zombies in the horror realm. Before Return of the Living Dead the public perception of zombies stemmed almost entirely from George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, which characterized zombies as eating the flesh of living humans. Return of the Living Dead was the first film to portray zombies as eating brains specifically and not just flesh. It was also the first movie to specify that the only way to kill a zombie was by a blow directly to the brain.
The similarities between Night of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead are not that surprising really. John Russo, who wrote the original story that the film stems from, also worked on Night of the Living Dead with George Romero. When the two parted ways they divided the intellectual property they had developed that contained the seeds of future movies. Russo took the rights to any movies using “Living Dead” and George Romero took the rights to any titles using “Dawn of the Dead”. It was a schism that could have ended the production of any type of zombie movies in the future but both Russo and Romero went on to create very popular films with their individual zombie franchises. Both created films that led to the role of zombies in modern horror and continue to be referenced in pop culture. Shows like South Park and The Simpsons have referenced Return of the Living Dead repeatedly. One of Homer Simpson’s most famous mannerisms is the way he says, “Brainsssssss” in a deadpan voice. That is a reference to the zombies in Return of the Living Dead looking for brains to devour.
One of the more interesting plot devices used in Return of the Living Dead is that people are infected by toxic rain and turned into zombies that way. In the movie barrels of toxic military waste are being stored in a facility that isn’t all that secure. The zombie inside one of the barrels is liquefied, and later turned into a gas which escapes and goes into the atmosphere. The gas becomes part of rain clouds and when the rain starts the infected rain causes people to turn into zombies. The influence of the idea of a mass infection that no one knows about can be seen today in The Walking Dead, where all the survivors are infected with a virus that will turn them into zombies once they die unless they are killed by a bullet or blow to the brain.
Modern horror films have changed horror in some ways, especially through the use of technology and sophisticated effects but fans still love the classic 80s horror films. Slasher films and the self-deprecating black comedy horror films like Return of the Living Dead and The Lost Boys are classics that fans still appreciate. They might not be as scary as some of the modern horror films in terms of straight up adrenaline rushes but they are comfortable niche for people who like the dark side of life and feel comfortable there. Films that don’t take themselves seriously are a nice break from the monotony of films trying to outdo each other in the use of over the top effects in an effort to drive box office sales. In every true horror fan’s personal collection you are sure to find copies of films like Return of the Living Dead and slasher classics like Halloween and Friday the 13th because of the sheer campy fun that bring to a genre that can take itself a little too seriously sometimes.