Thursday, September 16, 2010

Year of the Zombie: 1985

Author's note: this was originally a Facebook note I did on October 30, 2009. Since I have plans for the month of October for this blog, I decided to post this note now to get it out of the way and have it in an easy-to-access place. The only difference is I added pictures. Hope you enjoy.

In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd discuss a rather prolific year in the undead sub-genre. The strange thing, in 1985, the height of sequel sameness, all these zombies were different and unique in their own way. Today, everyone is making zombie movies, and they all seem the same, but for some reason, back then, that wasn't the case. I think I'd attribute that to the different creative minds involved then, compared the assembly line Hollywood has become now.

Anyway, here are the main zombie movies to arrive in theaters in 1985. Any of them would make a great Halloween viewing. Just don't bring snacks.

Day of the Dead: George Romero's third (and for twenty years, final) zombie movie, continuing with the legacy that began with Night of the Living Dead in 1968 and Dawn of the Dead in 1978.

By now, zombies outnumber humans 400,000 to 1, and a group of scientists and soldiers have holed up in a missile bunker, desperately seeking a solution. One scientist, nicknamed Frankenstein, believes in taming the zombies, teaching them not to attack. Tensions are high as the soldiers, led by the psychotic Captain Rhodes, grow increasingly agitated and impatient with the seeming lack of results.

Definitely the goriest and bleakest of Romero's Dead films, Day is something of a black sheep because it's not as groundbreaking as Night or as fun as Dawn, but it's my personal favorite. Many people dismiss it as too talky and repetitive, but Romero takes the time to examine philosophical and social issues of the time, especially the jingoistic, militaristic policies of Reagan, man's inability to communicate with each other, and the nature of what makes us human.

The Return of the Living Dead: A spoof of Romero's work, it actually proved to be more successful than Day. Both a witty send-up and an effective horror piece in its own right, Return was written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, the screenwriter for Alien.

Postulating that Night of the Living Dead was an actual event, Return shows the results of an industrial chemical leaking out and creating a legion of brain-hungry zombies. And these aren't stupid shamblers; these zombies run, think, and outwit their human victims. They even talk. Plus, a bullet to the brain won't put them down; they have to chopped into pieces and completely incinerated.

Return also takes the time to show two doomed humans slowly transform into the undead, providing some of the biggest laughs as the paramedics inform them they have no pulse, blood pressure, or body temperature. The zombies themselves are well designed, particularly the tar man and the half-woman.

Re-Animator: Based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, this would probably offend him because it deviates from the source material and tosses in a load of gore, but for fans of dark humor, it doesn't get much better than this. Mad scientist medical student Herbert West (played to perfection by Jeffrey Combs) has a developed a re-agent that brings the dead back to life, bringing death and destruction on all those around him.

Although a zombie movie, Re-Animator is closer in kinship to Frankenstein. The ghouls aren't flesh-eating walking corpses so much as reactivated bodies imbued with a consciousness that has rendered them insane and violent. Think of them as really cranky people who just woke up from a very deep sleep with their brain functions ceased.

The movie is much more controlled than the premise would suggest. The jokes are built up logically and told in an absolute straight-faced manner with buckets of blood. It's not slapstick so much as it is situational irony and context. Stand out scenes include an angry black cat, a gruesome morgue resurrection, and a visual pun involving a severed head. Sick and twisted, but well-crafted.

Lifeforce: Tobe Hooper's first movie after Poltergeist, he goes for broke. He includes Hayley's Comet, space vampires, soul-sucking zombies, the destruction of London, a murder mystery, body hopping, insane asylums, psychic connections, outer space hijinks, glass coffins, giant bat creatures, and Patrick Stewart kissing a man.

The plot doesn't make much sense. Astronauts find these humanoid creatures in the tail of Haley's Comet, but they turn out to be vampires that suck the souls out of people, leaving their victims dessicated husks who seek more victims until London is overwhelmed. Technically, these are vampires, but the victims are zombie like, and that's good enough for me. They need to drain the lifeforce out of people every two hours, or they dry up and disintegrate.

A huge failure at the box office, this movie ruined Hooper's chances in Hollywood, but it's great fun in the tradition of space operas. The original title was The Space Vampires, but that was changed to the more serious-sounding Lifeforce by the studio to make into a blockbuster. It's wild and outrageous, and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Thanks for reading. I hope you seek these movies out and enjoy them.

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