Return of the Living Dead is a nihilistic look at authority portraying those in power as completely incompetent to deal with problems until they escalate to an uncontrollable degree. Three main elements make Return of the Living Dead such a good horror film. It shows the failure of reason the failure of the authority, and it’s funny to boot.
First is the failure of human reason. Return of the Living Dead’s plays on our natural problem-solving ability to escalate the threat. This is evident in the encounter with the first zombie, the revived cadaver. When the main characters try to kill the first zombie, they first try what they saw in the movies, which is the destroy the brain. It doesn’t work, what’s the next best thing, you cut off its head. Oops, that doesn’t work either so what do they do, they burn everything. Oh, that works but the chemicals from the zombie mix with the rain and revive a whole graveyard who besiege the remaining survivors. Every reasonable action is foiled by the nature of the threat it plays upon an underlying fear, that even our most rational action will fail us. However, there was one course of action that the characters were unwilling to take.
The zombies are produced by a chemical that was contained in an army shipping container that was mistakenly given to the medical warehouse where the film takes place. Now the owners of the medical warehouse could have corrected this shipping error, and the film would have never happened, but I guess they couldn’t be bothered. Instead they decide to just leave the canisters alone. When the first zombie appears they have the option to call the police or the army, but Frank doesn’t want to do that because it would get the company in trouble. So instead, he decides to call, “the boss.” The boss, Burt, decides not to call the authority and deal with the problem in house. This, of course, leads to him burning the cadaver which causes the dead bodies in the graveyards to become zombies.
As you might have guessed the film has a pretty pessimistic look on authority as all of the authority figures in the series try to protect themselves from consequences at the detriment of others. This theme eventually extends to the ending where a colonel, the highest-ranking authority in the series, decides to nuke the town to resolve the problem. This short sided solution doesn’t work as it causes the chemicals from the incarnated zombies to mix with rain and cause more zombies to be created. So this is a rather bleak movie right, where we can’t trust our own reasoning and authority. But what makes this movie palpable is its sense of humor.
The movie has a very dry and dark sense of humor. The very first scene sets the humorous tone of the film when the corneal returns home to his cheerful wife. His wife as to how his day was to which he bluntly replies, “shit, the same as every other day.” The wife tries to comfort him by telling him that she made him his favorite, lamb chops. The corneal then response that he had lamb chops for lunch. This one joke sets the tone for the rest of the film, much like the coronals attitude this film is bleak and has no ray of hope in it. The comedy also comes from the distrust with authority, like in the very opening when Freddy ask of if the canasters are going to leak. Frank responds that of course not since it was, “made by the US Army Core of Engineers” after which it immediately leaks.
The comedy is also frontloaded into the first half of the movie. The reason for this is that there is not a lot of big zombie action until halfway into the move, for the beginning of the film they are really only dealing with one zombie. So they need to keep up audience engaged through the humor. Humor is a way for the audience to connect to the characters so that way the audience invested when the horror begins. The lack of humor in the second half gives the horror more impact as there is no relief from the terrible events that are unfolding.
So that’s what makes this zombie flick tick. The horror and humor has a pessimistic ideology behind it that makes this movie such an engaging watch.