The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

A bunch of 80s stereotypes on their way to party in a cemetery

Monkey status: There are monkeys featured in this film

My first memory of this film came from surfing the channels on the family television with the volume down and the lights off way after my bedtime some night back when I was seven or eight years old.

I remember stumbling across the scene where an oil-covered zombie, played by Alan Trautman, stumbled out from the corner of a room and says ‘BRAAAAAINS’ in a voice that sounds like Leonard Cohen in slow-motion.

Needless to say it scared the shit out of little me. The figure underneath that mass of black stuff and slimy zombie skin looked emaciated anyway – it seemed to me that even if he took off the costume and did the scene just as a regular human I would have been terrified anyway. He just seemed to live in that border area, the abject. That was a word I probably didn’t know at the time – but it was an idea that we could all sure feel. That’s why dumb horror movies like this stick in our minds forever.

Alan Trautman as the famous ‘Tarman’

It should be noted that Alan Trautman, the fella beneath all of that make-up, went on to be a star puppeteer in the webseries Simian Undercover Detective Squad as an orangutan detective. So there’s some monkey points straight up.

This one is a bit of a cult classic in terms of dumb horror movies. It was created in part by John Russo, the co-writer of Night of the Living Dead alongside George A. Romero, who we talked about last week in our review of 1980’s Creepshow. After a falling out, the two decided to split the patent of the modern zombie right down the middle and go theirseparate ways.

Romero went off to make Dawn of the Dead and the films that followed it, and they are sternly creepy films with a consistent tone and critical appeal to this day. Russo, along with director and co-creator Dan O’Bannon made this. It doesn’t really have a third act. The protagonist role is handed around like a baton in a relay as main characters get sick or die. James Karen moans like a literal newborn for two thirds of the run-time. It’s a really hot mess.

The gist of the plot is that the workers of a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, inadvertently start off a miniature zombie apocalypse after becoming contaminated with a government-created evil undead toxin. At the same time, a group of punks are getting naked in a nearby cemetery. Then a bunch of zombies show up, people yell ‘Jesus!’ at each other, and then all of the characters die in a nuclear blast. The end.

That’s the whole plot. The tone is so over-the-top that anything more sensical would be nonsensical. The lines are from the mouths of aliens trying to emulate humans after watching the home movies of Tommy Wiseau.

From a monkey perspective, films like this kind of show how we are not so different from our furrier cousins. The characters wail and moan and run around and hit things with sticks. If you squint it looks a little like the first scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Linnea Quigley does an impromptu striptease in a cemetery and her gaggle of friends dressed as 80s stereotypes dance around her hollering like a pack of Chacmas. It’s fun.

You might watch wondering where our monkeys show up. This one is just for the eagle-eyed. Or actually perhaps not even them. Although monkeys are in this film, they aren’t actually even directly visible.

After Bert chops up the animated cadaver, ties its body parts up in rubbish bags and takes them to his friend, Ernie the mortician (notice that the characters are named Bert and Ernie – and Trautman later worked with Jim Henson – curiouser and curiouser), the monkeys have their little cameo.

So in order to create the effect of the body parts moving around on their own accord inside the rubbish bags, wind-up monkeys with cymbals were used. The toys were wound up prior to the big scene and then let to play from inside the bags. The effect is a bunch of bin bags moving around creepily all on their own, and it’s perfect.

So it just goes to show – even when monkeys aren’t taking centre stage in a piece, they still somehow manage to contribute to the best of films. And the best of films this most certainly is.

The toy monkeys are inside the black rubbish bags seen in this scene

This film has a lot more hiding under its unturned stones. Take Don Calfa’s character, Ernie. When we meet him he is listening to German War Marches on his walkman. He carries a luger, swears in German and has a picture of Eva Braun on his bulletin board. None of this is noticed or mentioned by the other characters. Did Dan O’Bannon simply decide to heavily imply that one of the heroes of his film is a Nazi?

The more you look into O’Bannon, the more you uncover. He’s probably most famous for writing the original screenplay for Alien. During the 1970s he was a college friend of John Carpenter’s and went on to make similar fare.

But he seems like an eccentric when you look at the internet’s opinion of him. During the making of this film, extras playing zombies were required to eat calf’s brains. Not wanting anyone to have to do something that he wouldn’t do, he organised the cast and crew around the set and had them watch as he ate them himself. OK, I called that eccentric – but he actually seems like kind of a good dude for that.

He eventually died of Crohn’s Disease. And before he died, he said that the inspiration for that chest-burster scene in Alien came from his experiences with it. Watching this film you have to wonder if James Karen’s agonising rigor mortis and Linnea Quigley’s morbid obsessions aren’t somehow connected to the writer’s experiences with chronic illness.

O’Bannon died in 2009, but not before leaving us with a bunch of crazy films, and not least of which one which couldn’t have been the film it was without the participation of a bunch of toy monkeys.