The Return of the Living Dead: Subverting archetypes takes brains

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The Return of the Living Dead — Courtesy of Fox Films Ltd

1985’s The Return of the Living Dead is a horror-comedy classic. One of its greatest strengths is the way it defies our expectations with regard to its characters.


Writer-director Dan O’Bannon’s (Alien) The Return of the Living Dead is one of the greatest and most criminally underseen horror-comedies of all time.  The Return of the Living Dead should be spoken of in the same breath as such horror-comedy classics as An American Werewolf in London and Shaun of the Dead.  Instead, it lives on as a cult classic with a modest, but extremely passionate fan base.

Most people don’t know it, but The Return of the Living Dead created the modern zombie archetype by introducing the notion of zombies having an insatiable appetite for brains.  The Tarman’s (Allan Trautman) perpetual cry for “brains!” gradually became ingrained in our collective psyches.  Now, it is often the first thing our minds conjure up when we think about zombies.

Subverting Archetypes

In addition to creating the zombie archetype, The Return of the Living Dead also subverted our expectations with regard to character archetypes.

Much of the film is split between two groups of characters.  In the first group, we have Burt (the great Clu Gulager, perpetually exasperated), Frank (the hilarious James Karen), Ernie (the late Don Calfa, sublime), and Freddy (Friday the 13th Part VI’s Thom Matthews). This first group consists of all older characters with the exception of Freddy who is in his late teens or early 20s (the age of the kids in this film is never addressed, but the actors were all in their 20s at the time).  In the second group, we have Freddy’s punk friends.

Conventional wisdom dictates that most of the action will revolve around the young punks.  Most horror films, especially those produced in the 1980s, would tend to focus on the terrors that befall a group of unsuspecting youngsters.

The Return of the Living Dead bucks the trend by centering the bulk of the action on the adults.  The main plot is set in motion when Frank foolishly triggers the release of 245 Trioxin gas, causing corpses to reanimate and transforming some of the living into the “living dead.”

You would certainly expect the somewhat dimwitted Freddy to be the one to release the 245 Trioxin.  Instead, Frank serves as the ignoramus who creates the film’s “undead” calamity.

The Adult Archetypes

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In horror films, older characters often serve as authority figures (parents/principals/police), creeps/weirdos/soothsayers (think Friday the 13th’s Crazy Ralph, definitely a creep, but also a bit of a soothsayer), comic relief (in the case of The Return of the Living Dead, James Karen’s Frank fits the bill), or nondescript fodder for the source of the horror (hey, we have to pad that body count somehow).

In The Return of the Living Dead, Burt Wilson assumes the role of the authority figure.  Burt, who sports a “Members Only” jacket that would make Tony Soprano’s assassin proud, is the owner of Uneeda Medical Supply (ground zero for the 245 Trioxin mishap) and boss to Frank and Freddy.  Initially, he is presented as a grouchy, surly character, which is usually the kiss of death for any authority figure. Horror films like to go out of their way to make authority figures a**holes as a way to give the audience a level of satisfaction and catharsis when they inevitably perish.

For the creep/weirdo archetype, we have Don Calfa’s undertaker, Ernie. When we first meet Ernie, he’s having a little too much fun working a corpse out of rigor mortis. More perceptive viewers may also ascertain the subtle intimations that Ernie may be a Nazi sympathizer—fun fact: in the DVD Commentary, Dan O’Bannon revealed that he initially conceived Ernie as an actual Nazi in hiding. For instance, in his introductory scene, he’s listening to the German Afrika Corps march song. There are several other clues sprinkled throughout the film that link Ernie to the Nazi Party.