Have you ever spent years away from a film, then returned to it, having forgotten how much you loved it? It's a pretty common experience, and it's exactly the feeling I got after picking up the excellent special edition DVD release of Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead a few weeks ago at my favorite video store, Kim's Underground in the heart of New York's East Village.
The Return of the Living Dead was not my first experience with horror. Those who have read my intro to the right know how I got my first truly visceral shock watching The Exorcist as a little tyke. There were also all those classic Universal and Hammer flicks that syndicated TV piped my way on lazy weekend afternoons. But the one that grabbed my attention and didn't let go, the film that truly sparked my lifelong fascination with the horror genre, was ROTLD (as its fans so succinctly call it.)
Much as with my very life, it all started thanks to my parents. You see, they were horror freaks from back in the days when I had to stay holed up in my room just listening to the screams from downstairs, too young to sit in on the "grown-up" horror movies. I remembered them being particularly giddy over a picture that had zombies running around yelling "BRAINS!!" Needless to say, my interest was piqued.
By the time I hit the seventh grade, I felt old enough to confidently walk into a video store and rent whatever I wanted (except those secret flicks they kept hidden behind that beaded curtain...) Months before my 12th birthday, I boldly stepped into Video Reflections on Brooklyn's 18th Avenue and rented it. It would be the first of many times.
You have to remember that this was the first modern horror film I had ever watched from beginning to end. As I watched it unfold, I was filled with a combination of revulsion and fascination--a mix that has been repeated countless times since. It's funny that my introduction to post-Hays Code horror would be a flick that takes such an unflinching look at death in all its morbid detail. That's part of what sold it for me--despite being a movie about supernatural living corpses, it also dealt quite realistically with the subject of mortality.
Like most pre-teen boys, I suffered from an acute lack of irony, which naturally led me to take the film quite seriously as pure horror. Almost all the comedy was totally lost on me, which made it all the more fun to watch it now and be able to laugh instead of shiver. It's amazing how much I didn't appreciate back then. I'm not ashamed to say that the Tarman still freaks me out completely. In fact, I've never admitted it before, but to this day I can't walk up a darkened, partially exposed stairway without irrationally worrying that he might reach up and grab my leg. Don't tell anyone.
I had never seen anything like ROTLD before, and grew fixated on it, watching it a bunch of times over late 1986 and early 1987. I even felt the need to share it with friends at school who were also interested in genre stuff, rehashing the plot to them over lunch in the cafeteria. For me, it was a gateway movie, opening the door to so much more. My next stop was the Evil Dead flicks; then came George Romero; and the rest, as they say, is history.
Funny how I saw ROTLD before even having seen the Romero movies they were partially spoofing. It's also pretty amazing to think that a movie that easily could've been a throw-away '80s shlockfest merely aping great horror films has come to be considered a great horror film in its own right, even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Romero's series. And with Shaun of the Dead now being the hip zom-com du jour, it's clear that Dan O'Bannon was a man way ahead of his time, and his film really is a well-crafted gem that gets better with age.
So thank you, Mr. O'Bannon, for making me the horror fanatic I am today. And yes, Linnea Quigley did have a little bit to do with it as well. I was after all, an 11-year-old boy.