Some things are said to age like a fine wine. One needn’t be a wine connoisseur to understand the expression, just as one needn’t be the biggest horror fan to appreciate Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead. It is very much designed to entertain the viewer, to draw them in, to beat them over the head with its simple theme of brain-devouring zombies. Much like Friday the 13th, this is definitely a fun movie, referenced by pop culture in plenty of hidden ways. Any time someone refers to a zombie eating brains, it is no doubt harking back to this film. Also, this movie rather humorously examines the pointless, pseudo-rebellious, wannabe-nihilist pastiche that permeated the punk culture.

Return of the Living Dead “Punks Up” the Zombie Genre While Attacking Reagan-era Militarism

In the 1980s, punk rock was a relatively new phenomenon, even though it was already in decline. However, plenty of 1980s movies got in on the fun, mocking punks for converting rebellious impulse into mere commercial fashion. Keep in mind, this was the 1980s when people were seemingly less afraid to flip the bird to anyone and everyone. The movie largely focuses on some punk rocker-types, typified by names like Spider (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), Scuz (Brian Peck), Trash (Linnea Quigley), and Suicide (Mark Venturini). What tough names, man! Suicide is responsible for one of the best funny quotes in the film. In a vaguely self-aware moment, he looks at his punk style and proclaims: “You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life.” That’s hardcore!

Of course, Suicide’s brains are as tasty as anyone else’s to Tarman (Allan Trautman), so all his style and edginess are for our entertainment value (much as they would be in real life, although “serious punkers” would deny this hardcore because a spiky clothes and spiky, dyed hair mean so much). Then you have Trash, largely known for supplying the female nudity of the film. It’s possible that she serves no other role beyond combining sex and death.

However, Trash is reminiscent of punk-goth “chicks” who think they’re rebelling by brandishing their sexuality at every opportunity. Basically, her character was designed to cause concern to prudish parents, much like punk in general. Still, let’s be honest: While punk rock often did frighten the establishment, there never was any doubt who would come out on top. Return of the Living Dead reminds us that, no matter how renegade-like we act, the establishment has the guns and the bombs…and also the freaky chemical and biological agents.

Having a Go at Reagan

Admittedly, Return of the Living Dead never explicitly goes after Ronald Reagan. Aside from the punkers, the story mostly involves workers at a medical supply warehouse ⁠— Burt (Clu Gulager), Frank (James Karen), and Freddy (Thom Mathews) ⁠— who must deal with a bizarre zombie virus uncorked from a leaky storage barrel. By the time they scramble to mortuary worker Ernie (Don Calfa) for assistance in cremating the re-animated dead, it’s too late! The chemicals cannot be contained, as they permeate the corpses buried in the nearby cemetery. This is literally a comment on how most problems cannot simply be destroyed, as they won’t stay dead. No matter how hard we try, they keep creeping back and biting us.

While this may sound bizarrely philosophical, I am reminded of nuclear disasters, plagues and moral panics, as well as the complacent scourge of apathy. As the world inevitably rides roughshod over the masses, those cracking the whip from above often forget that, ultimately, not all among them will remain immune from what they create…at least not forever. The funny thing is, I am not just arbitrarily politicizing a silly horror movie. All of these social commentary elements are in this film, and you don’t need to look very hard.

Life often looks like a special blend of natural and man-made disasters, and we most likely pathetically look for the powerful to solve our problems. However, their big solution most often involves bombs and guns (as this movie very much suggests). On the flip side, if we rebel against the establishment, the question emerges: What do we replace it with? More of the same? Eventually, something will pop that cork of panic again, and we’ll probably be back to square one.

What are your thoughts on Return of the Living Dead? Gnaw at our brains in the comments!

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Wade Wanio is an author.

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