Back in the year of Big Brother, Dan O’Bannon wrote, “Return of the Living Dead”. His movie seemed to agree that the eyes were indeed upon us, but without any real control over anything, except the outcome. He also infused his zombie movie with a true middle finger attitude, not just because a good portion of the protagonists were die-hard punk rockers, but rather the overall mind-set which prevailed over his film. It’s also a deliciously gory horror film laced with enough tar-black humor to make even the strongest cynic crack a smile. And it’s a classic.
It was a perfect choice to screen “Return”, on its 20th anniversary, at the American Cinematheque’s annual Fantasy, Horror and Science Fiction Festival. Eric Caiden of the Hollywood Book and Poster Company came to the prestigious art house theater with the idea and by August 13th, they had collected most of the cast and some of the crew, including legendary director and semi-recluse Dan O’Bannon along with James Karen, Clu Gulager, Jewel Shepard, Don Calfa, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Miguel Nunez Jr., Brian Peck, art director William Stout and Paul M. Sammon. Some of the actors greeted fans outside and signed autographs. Co-star and infamous B-Movie Queen Jewel Shepard came equipped with her own camera to document the event. Inside, Dennis Bartok gave the movie a quick and spirited introduction and pointed out some of the cast who were now getting comfy in their seats. Bartok also had to make the unfortunate announcement that splatter-fiends’ favorite leading lady, Linnea Quigley, couldn’t attend because she was dealing with a personal family emergency (our thoughts are with you Linnea). By the time the lights dimmed, the Cinematheque was hosting the event to a sold-out crowd and ‘Return” held up masterfully with its perfect blend of splattery gore, non-stop laughs and a few genuinely unsettling moments. Even 20 years later, after countless other zombie pictures have come and gone, “Return” still hits the mark right in the rotting eye.
Low budget genre movies, even those released within the studio system, rarely get the attention they deserve unless they truly transcend the genre, like the original “Night of the Living Dead”, so it’s always a thrill to see a major revival theater supporting the little guy. And it looks like all those who created this little guy were thrilled to be a part of it.
During the lengthy Q&A, several stories were shared, mostly from Dan O’Bannon, including a confession that he would have written the script completely different had he known he would be directing it (Tobe Hooper was the intended original director). And Sammon, the movie’s main champion at Orion, recalled the undue criticism “Return” endured, including being called “half a step above pornography”.
Absolutely everyone looked great, especially Thom Matthews, who smiled modestly when Clu Gulager complimented his tremendous ability to keep up with the more seasoned players. Miguel Nunez, demonstrated his indefatigable energy before he announced a trip to the men’s room, never to return… (In my best zombie voice: “More bathroom attendants please!”)
No other screenings were scheduled for the evening so in an unprecedented move on the Cinematheque’s part (who usually close their doors and let the party continue outside), the fans got to mingle with the stars in front of the impressive silver screen, creating a kind of impromptu horror convention.
Finally, the doors shut to the awesome theater and as folks filed back onto the mean streets of Hollywood, we still understood that a return to wonderful horror films is still just beyond our reach, but this return of “Return” was enough to satiate our zombie luvin’ appetite. For now.
Event photos courtesy of David S. Cohen.