The Return of the Living Dead: Subverting archetypes takes brains

2 of 2

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

The Kids Are All Archetypes

In the horror realm, the archetypes we usually think of are most often associated with young characters and they include the following: the virgin/”final girl,” the jock, the nerd, the slut, the joker, the token minority, the stoner, and the list goes on.

The kids in The Return of the Living Dead run the gamut in terms of our classic archetypes. At the same time, a few of them don’t possess any real discernible traits other than their punk identity (Freddy is also a little nebulous in this regard). At the end of the day, the kids are thinly drawn zombie fodder, which is fine as, again, we need them to augment the body count.

The Return of the Living Dead does present a “final girl” archetype: Beverly Randolph’s Tina.  She’s the only character among the group of punks who doesn’t have a foul mouth (“oh fudge!”), and she’s the only one who doesn’t embody the “punk” persona.  Tina is clearly set up as our chaste final girl.

Going in a Different Direction

Where The Return of the Living Dead completely defies our expectations is with the authority figure of Burt. Again, he initially comes off as a bit of a hothead, but once we spend some time with him, we realize that his anger and frustration is warranted; he’s thrust into an impossible situation, so there’s really no other way to act. Still, we keep waiting for his death because a cranky authority figure simply does not survive a horror movie. Amazingly, he makes it all the way to the end acting as the group’s de facto leader. He’s also the closest thing this ensemble film has to a lead character (Clu Gulager does receive top billing after all).

Ernie is another subversion of an archetype in that he is, arguably, the most sympathetic and human character in the film. He scoffs at the notion of burning the “rabid weasels” alive as it is too inhumane. In addition, he contemplates mercy-killing Tina with his trusty Walther P38 (another Nazi link?) to prevent “Zombie Freddy” from feasting on her brains. Initially, a bit of a wild card, he is quickly revealed to be a virtuous, pragmatic character who assists Burt in attempting to lead everyone to safety.

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

Frank, a bit of a buffoon and the film’s most overtly comedic character, ultimately has the most touching death—in an act of selflessness, he burns himself alive in the incinerator, while lamenting the fact that he must make his wife a widow. Again, you wouldn’t expect this somewhat absurd character to have such a heartfelt death scene.

Tina never really fulfills her destiny as the film’s “final girl.”  She survives to the end—at least before everyone dies in the nuclear blast that closes the film—but most of the characters make it to this point, including some of the punk “redshirts.”

Again, the film does end with a nuclear blast by the government intended to eradicate the zombie outbreak in Louisville, Kentucky, where the film is set. While Burt, Ernie, and several others defy their initial archetypes, they ultimately can’t escape the fate that is inextricably linked to the types of characters they represent.

A Different Experience

What makes The Return of the Living Dead such an enduring cult classic is its overall temerity and its desire to give us something different. Writer-director Dan O’Bannon had likely grown weary of the proliferation of teen horror films in the 1980s, which is why he went out of his way to alter this film’s character dynamics.

More from Zombies

While it is by no means a meta deconstruction of the genre, like Scream or The Cabin in the Woods, The Return of the Living Dead is somewhat of a progenitor to those types of self-aware horror films. Specifically, one of its main objectives is to have some fun with the fate of each character vis-à-vis audience expectations —  a major component of the meta horror films that would follow.

The initial setup suggests a movie about young punks being terrorized by a gaggle of zombies in a creepy, decrepit graveyard. Instead, we spend the most of our time with a guy in a “Members Only” jacket (lest we forget this film is from 1985), a pseudo Nazi with a heart of gold, and a frantic fool.

Another masterstroke by O’Bannon was his decision to allow the adults and the kids to coexist and work together to try to survive this zombie siege. The bickering is minimal, and all the characters are aware that they must work together if they hope to survive, which lends the film a touch of verisimilitude.

The Return of the Living Dead

is among the most entertaining films of all-time.  Its pacing is impeccable, and it is a master class in how to adeptly vacillate between bona fide horror and comedy/absurdity. More than anything,

The Return of the Living Dead

is an undisputed classic of the horror genre that will only grow in popularity in the years to come.

Next: Get undead with Return of the Living Dead Part II Blu-ray

Fan of The Return of the Living Dead? Find it massively underrated? Let the other zombies know what you think in the comment section below.