Horror Bites - Rigor Mortis


"It worked in the movie!"

For whatever reason Dan O'Bannon's horror comedy Return of the Living Dead feels like something that gets overlooked these days in comparison to more stoic horror features. I guess that the whole idea about eating brains idea is pretty well known, but audiences tend to expect this to be deadly serious these days.  But as I've probably mentioned in past reviews this kind of thing with the corpses staggering about and chewing on people is always kind of silly as a whole. Sometimes a comedy works just better than a straight horror. I'm still a big fan of Romero's original flesh eater trilogy (with Dawn of the Dead taking top spot) but there are times when goofball nonsense is essential. This is one of them.

Fun for the whole family

Interestingly this semi-spin-off from Romero's original film is why the phrase 'Living Dead' was only used in the title of the original instalment. Once upon a time this could have been a serious sequel to that first entry. 1968's Night of the Living Dead was co-written by John Russo who retained those particular name rights and penned a follow up in novel form. Though I suspect anyone who has seen his Anniversary cut of of that film is probably very glad it never happened on screen. With the rights accidentally in the public domain it was basically butchered to include new material he'd written and filmed, resulting in a big mess.

Anyway, back the topic at hand. After various legal issues Return of the Living Dead retained the original name but mutated over time into something more ridiculous and often farcical. Though it's all still very bloody and has a lot of great horror moments throughout. It might not veer into the total madness of something like Braindead, where the total insanity of early Peter Jackson reigns and the humour is laid on in broad strokes as blood covers every surface. But it definitely falls firmly into that comedy splatter category. To my frequent amusement this can also be filed with none-more-80s style cheese and ham fests like Creepshow with the similar style of (over)acting.

This of course means that it also has a few neat practical effects courtesy of puppeteers from Jim Henson's Creature Workshop. Sesame Street this ain't. Along with insanely active (and very naked) corpses running amok, it also introduces one of the classic '80s horror creatures, the melting zombie known as Tarman. Released from a vat of military grade chemicals he causes havok in the basement of a medical supply warehouse where new recruit Freddy (Thom Matthews) and his boss Frank (James Karen) accidentally release the deadly gas. It's soon apparent that the material is spreading outside the building where a local cemetery starts to writhe with activity. 

Elsewhere there are a lot of other silly characters including Freddy's friends, a gang of assorted teen punks who think the graveyard is a cool place to hang out... and strip? Yeah I don't know. It's a weird movie. Some of the jokes about punk fashion land while other scenes feel like the result of too many late nights in Dan O'Bannon's zany writing office. There's also the introduction of Burt (Clu Gulager) a robe wearing, gun wielding mortician. Which works as things escalate into even stranger territory and decapitating and burning the zombies just makes things worse. There are a few nice rule breaking moments that keep it all feeling just fresh enough.

The rock and synth music used throughout also leaves feeling like a as a product of its time, but this at least fits perfectly with the tone. Personally I found that it loses momentum towards the third act, as things become more like a standard siege movie and the goofy dialogue takes a back seat somewhat. But overall it's a likeable experience that takes nothing seriously. Talking zombies call for emergency services and the eventual army intervention is nihilistic but darkly comedic. There are plenty of obvious reasons why it's got such a cult status.

Why the lasting pop culture mark all of this has left is that one random idea about zombies eating brains is more of a mystery however. It comes off as a throwaway gag here, and people being eaten entirely is something that gets featured far more in these kind of stories. Maybe that one Simpsons Halloween Special kept the idea in everyone's minds years later? Overall thought this is just a fun time. Other films remain king of the zombies of course but this is schlocky, ridiculous and always watchable.



On the theme of horror comedy in the same year, I guess we should visit an old favourite of mine from the archives of Hong Kong cinema. It's a great blend of all the usual martial arts stunts and humour you get in many of these Golden Harvest features, plus it has some of the weirdest vampire lore out there. If you like rule breaking storylines this is definitely worth checking out. Forget the garlic and the holy water, these are Chinese style bloodsuckers. They hop about on two legs because of rigor-mortis, and their state of death also leaves them blind. Hold your breath to avoid them or they'll smell you hiding. For some reason. They also have a strong dislike for certain kinds of rice... stick rice. Yeah I don't know either, it just has to be seen.

It's a fresh take on all the tired old clich├ęs and once things get moving it all fit together in the film's own world. Master Kau, (Lam Ching Ying) a Taoist priest come exorcist has to deal with the physical and ghostly forms of the living dead here, with his two incompetent assistants and a corrupt police inspector hindering his efforts along the way. It's all played for laughs and there's a lot of slapstick nonsense, including a voodoo/possession style sequence in which the inspector is forced to hit himself. But it still retains plenty of atmosphere when Kau's reburial of a man who was not at rest  goes awry and a new breed of long nailed creatures of the night comes to town.

Did I forget to mention that other vampire attribute? The finger nails. This is also a thing apparently. They grow long blue claws during the transformation process. As a result there's far less biting with fans and instead a lot more neck stabbing action. Their rigid arms trying to slash the living is another arresting visual in a film full of generally interesting weirdness. That's without going into the subplots in which one of Kau's inept assistants is seduced by a ghost. It shares many similarities with Sammo Hung's Spooky Encounters, and Tsui Hark's A Chinese Ghost Story. For supernatural fun all of them are well worth a look, making for a great trilogy of zany spells and Eastern culture.