Thirty years ago, America’s two best horror films emerged: Return of the Living Dead (written and directed by Dan O’Bannon) and Re-Animator (co-written and directed by Stuart Gordon). Both function farcically. In Return, mistake begets mistake until good intentions make a blood bath. In Re-Animator, man’s attempts to improve reality only expose his incompetence to do so. And, in reminding us of our limitations, both films affirm traditional morality, even while appearing to mock it.
The Return of the Living Dead occurs courtesy of our absurd war on drugs. A “typical Army fuck-up” mistakenly sends barrels of 2-4-5 Trioxin, an anti-marijuana toxin that happens to reanimate the dead, to a Louisville, Kentucky medical supply warehouse. Instead of returning the barrels, warehouse owner Burt (a perfect Clu Gulager in a deathlessly uncool Members Only jacket) hides them in the basement. Then Frank (James Karen), Burt’s dim-witted underling, accidentally ruptures one while showing off for new employee Freddy (Thom Matthews). The 2-4-5 Trioxin revives the warehouse inventory: Pinned butterflies flutter, split dogs bark, and a naked, piss-yellow cadaver (call him “Yellow Man”) thunders against his freezer’s door.
Burt attempts a cover-up. He persuades Ernie (Don Calfa), the mortician working late at the neighboring Resurrection Cemetery, to cremate the reanimated inventory. But this multiplies his problems. A flash thunderstorm rains the contaminated smoke onto the cemetery, reviving its residents. Soon, rampaging zombies besiege not only Burt and company, but also Freddy’s punker friends, who’ve been partying in the cemetery. As the zombies overwhelm dozens of heavily-armed police called to the scene, Burt contacts the Army for help. The Army responds by nuking Louisville. This is the ultimate error. The incinerated zombies mix once again with the rain, threatening another outbreak.
“Optimism[,]” Voltaire observed, “is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” And so we have Re-Animator‘s Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs, in his iconic role). West, a Miskatonic University medical student, has derived a reagent that reanimates the dead. That his reanimated patients become violent monsters doesn’t deter him. Each brings him closer to perfect reanimation. And the mounting death toll? He can always reanimate them, too.
When the cadaver West reanimates in Miskatonic’s hospital morgue kills the med school dean (Robert Sampson), West reanimates him. When Dr. Carl Hill (West’s nemesis, a flawless David Gale) attempts to blackmail him into letting him take credit for the reagent, West kills him. And then he reanimates him. And even after Hill steals the reagent and creates a small army of zombie minions (“They will give me power! Undreamed of power!”), West still risks a final experiment: overdosing an already reanimated subject with reagent. The result is a Cthulhu-like explosion of killer intestines engulfing him as a squid would its prey (Don’t worry, he returns for two sequels).
Return and Re-Animator do what the best horror films do. They disturb our moral reality. Zombies represent fundamental perversion Christian doctrine: Jesus emerges from the tomb looking to eat your body and blood, instead of allowing you to eat his. They also upend traditional notions of sexuality and Creation’s order. As filmmaker Danny Boyle observed while staging an adaptation of Frankenstein in London, “Frankenstein is creating life without women.” Only God gets to do that, and we’re not Him. Both Return and Re-Animator frame the action in anti-Edens. Return’s Yellow Man is naked, as is the female zombie who explains why zombies eat brains. (Here’s another play on Christian doctrine: Whereas Adam and Eve die by eating of the tree of knowledge, zombies eat brains to kill “[t]he pain of being dead.”) Moreover, Trash (scream queen Linnea Quigley, in her prime) graces Resurrection Cemetery with a naked tombstone dance. Besides appeasing the fanboy libido horror films often attract, this scene recalls Eve right before the serpent strikes.
Re-Animator’s anti-Eden is more explicit. Dr. Hill’s zombie army emerges, all nude, in Miskatonic’s hospital morgue, just after Dr. Hill perpetrates forcible zombie cunnilingus upon the dean’s daughter, Megan (scream queen Barbara Crampton, also in her prime). (The film’s original, unrated cut affords the most explicit view of what must be the highlight of necrophilia’s cinematic history.) Zombie Adams and Eves, unashamed of their nakedness, exalt their anti-God creator, Dr. Hill (and they do what they’re told).
Perhaps the greatest subversion of all is that these subversions affirm traditional morality: Man shouldn’t play God, and when he does, Hell follows. Subversively affirming the dominant paradigm fulfills one requirement (to paraphrase William Goldman) of all good films: Give the audience what they want, but in a way they don’t expect it. Because having our biases confirmed, even subversively, is better than having them challenged. That would be too much.
Note: Updated 1/16/19 to credit William Goldman, whom I didn’t know I was paraphrasing when I originally wrote this.