It's no surprise to me, that the protagonists of Return of the Living Dead are young punks and old men.
The zombie genre has experienced a renaissance over the last few years. Who ever thought the walking dead would be the new vampires? I think a lot of it isn't the zombies themselves that fascinates us, but the fall of civilization. We're so worried about how dependent we are on our technology, we wonder how we would cope if it failed.
Civilization doesn't fall in Return of the Living Dead. The action is confined to a few blocks of Louisville, Kentucky. Nearly all of what we see happens in a graveyard, a funeral home, and a medical supply warehouse. Vehicles work fine. There is nothing wrong with the telephones. Emergency responders--police, paramedics, and the military are in plentiful supply. They're a phone call away, and they show up promptly when called.
What kind of zombie movie is this?
It’s a damn interesting one. It reverses one of the conventions of the genre in a way that isn‘t often repeated. Most zombie movies make the collapse of society part of the problem. The zombies are often a secondary problem to the loss of social order. There are no police to keep order or paramedics to take care of us or military to fight back the scourge. Telephones don’t work; vehicles run out of gas; bullets are in short supply.
In Return of the Living Dead, society becomes part of the problem--every attempt by the existing social structures to re-establish order makes the problem worse . The police and paramedics are not only incapable of handling things, they end up being used as bait to lure in more victims. The military's 'surgical' attempt to solve the problem not only kills the patient, it spreads the contagion far and wide.
The failure of technology is similarly subverted in Return of the Living Dead. The humans in most zombie movies are plagued with gasoline and ammunition shortages, insufficient medical supplies, and inadequate communications. In Return of the Living Dead, technology works exactly as intended. Unfortunately, it ends up working in the zombies favour. Not only does every phone call the protagonists make lead to more victims for the living dead, the zombies themselves--many of whom are capable of speech--use police and ambulance radios to lure in more emergency responders.
The zombies in Return of the Living Dead are much more human than we‘re used to seeing. They run. They talk. They use technology. They have individual self-awareness. Like us, they move away from pain, in this case, the pain of being dead.
Oddly enough, they even look to kill humans the way humans typically kill zombies. Most movies kill zombies by attacking the head. The Return of the Living Dead zombies cannot be killed this way. They do, however, have an unquenchable hunger for human brains which means they frequently attack people by going after their heads.
In other words, they kill us the way we usually kill them.
An impartial observer could be forgiven for asking: so what’s the difference between the humans and the Return of the Living Dead zombies?
Maybe there isn’t one. And maybe that’s why the movie has the protagonists it does: teenage punk rockers and middle-aged to old men. Neither demographic buys into the existing social order. Punks like Suicide refuse to conform to or be indoctrinated into the status quo. Middle-aged men like Frank have seen themselves betrayed by the status quo (“typical army fuckup,“ Frank grouses), and older folks like Ernie--whose choice in music and World War II era pistol hint at what he may have lived through--have seen enough status quos come and go that they don't buy into the bullshit.
Monster movies work best when the humans are isolated. Typically, it's a physical isolations like the the cabin in Dog Soliders (or Evil Dead, Cabin in the Woods, and countless others), Anatarctic research station in The Thing, or even a spaceship or deserted planet (Alien and Aliens, or Pitch Black).
There's another way to isolate a monster's victims, and that's socially. The young gang members in Attack the Block are not cut off from civilization physically--the movie happens in the middle of the city--but their social status makes them outcasts. Sweater-clad dream-slasher notwithstanding, the heart of the A Nightmare on Elm Street series is the unbridgeable gap between parents and their children, the way neither can ever truly see into the other's world.
In Return of the Living Dead, the protagonists are united by their skepticism of authority. The military could have been involved much earlier had it not been for Frank’s mistrust of them and refusal to phone the number on the side of the gas cannisters. In the end it is Burt, the man closest to a societal authority figure, the type of person who trusts in the protection of the social order that makes the call.
The results are…sub-optimal.
Watching Return of the Living Dead reminds me of how much we need our skeptics. They are not separate from society; rather, they are an essential part of it.
We need our young men in studded black denim who aren‘t afraid to point out the hypocrisy of the adult world. We need our quirky girls who read much and see even more. We need our old men who spout inappropriate truths at wedding receptions.
Or as Robert Charles Wilson puts it in his short story The Perseids:
“We're social animals, basically, but the group is more versatile if you have maybe a couple of hyperthymic types for cheerleaders, some dysthymics to sit home and mumble, and the one guy--you--who edges away from the crowd, who sits up when everyone else is asleep, who basically keeps the watches of the night. The one who sees the lions coming. Good night vision and lousy social skills. Every tribe should have one.”
I don’t remember a thing about the short story, but I’ve never forgotten that quote.
Praise be to those who keep the watches of the night. The stand-up comics and the pro wrestlers, the burlesque dancers and the heavy metal musicians, the young punks and old monks. Circus acrobats, mixed martial artists, and mountain climbers. Political activists and Anonymous computer hackers.
They keep us adaptable, spearhead change, and force us to question what our culture tells us is important. They see the zombies coming, yes, but more importantly, they recognize where they come from.
They recognize that all too often, the zombies are us.