• Jeff South

Other Summer Movies of the 80s: The Return of the Living Dead


Released: August, 16th, 1985


Clu Gulager: Burt

James Karen: Frank

Don Calfa: Ernie

Thom Matthews: Freddy

Beverly Randolph: Tina

John Philbin: Chuck

Miguel A. Nunez: Spider

Linnea Quigley: Trash


Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon (story by Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo, Russell Streiner)


Directed by Dan O'Bannon


Rated R


The last movie I saw before leaving Poplar Bluff for college was The Return of the Living Dead, a horror/comedy about two guys who at a chemical plant who accidentally release a vapor into the air that raises the dead. Those undead beings now roam about looking for brains to eat, which according to Wikipedia, makes this the first movie to feature brain-eating zombies rather than the garden variety flesh-eating types. At this point in my life I was not a fan of gore. I loved monster movies, but most of the slasher stuff of the 80s up to that point didn't appeal to me. Halloween was an exception, but it wasn't particularly gory in comparison to what the imitators it spawned. I have no idea what possessed me to go see The Return of the Living Dead, but I'm glad I went.


My trek to Cape Girardeau for school was only a couple of days away and I was a bubbling cauldron of nerves, anxiety, excitement, and adrenaline. My dad and I weren't getting along well at the time, as he didn't want me to leave. He tried to forbid me, but it was a short-lived attempt. I was an 18-year old high school graduate. Time to do whatever I wanted. He felt I should stay in Poplar Bluff, go to Three Rivers Community College there using a free ride scholarship they offered me, and work. Save money, then go to Cape Girardeau. That was his rationale. Looking back, it was a solid plan and I might have benefited from heeding his advice. Two things prevented me from doing so.

First, he presented his idea with blunt force. He didn't offer an alternative so I could weight options and make a rational decision. Instead, it was a demand of his. If he was going to give me his blessing, it would only be if I did what he wanted me to do. That didn't sit well with me. I wanted to go to college on my terms and that played a part in the second reason I didn't follow his advice. The only place I'd really known up to that point in my life was Poplar Bluff and I was worried that if I didn't leave then, I never would. My dreams were calling and I was scared of missing my chance. If I didn't take advantage of the opportunity to leave Poplar Bluff right then, no other opportunity would come.


After another contentious debate about it all, I decided I needed to get out of the house for a bit, so I drove into town and decided to catch a movie. The only one showing that I had yet to see was The Return of the Living Dead. I wasn't a zombie guy at the time, but I needed an escape. Turns out it was just what I needed. I laughed a lot during The Return of the Living Dead. I wasn't sure what I was dealing with at first, but once it became clear to me what the movie was, I had a blast. The experience reminded of what I had come to love about movies in the first place. The escape. Two hours away from my problems and the drain of life. Not to ignore them and hope they go away (though, that would be nice), but to be able to refocus and take a different perspective.


Sometimes a movie I'm watching will have some tidbit in it that applies to something I'm dealing with and the catharsis helps. The Return of the Living Dead didn't have anything like that, but it did provide relief. A few laughs to extinguish the stress. Dad eventually warmed to the idea of me leaving even if he didn't like it. He became supportive of my efforts to get a degree, so I guess it all worked out in the end.


Two weeks into my college days, I was sitting in the lobby of my dorm floor watching a movie on TV with our floor's resident advisor. He asked me about my major and I told him it was theater and then launched into all the exciting things I wanted to do. He patiently listened for a moment but then his eyes started to glaze over. I was boring him. It was clear that once again, as with high school, I needed to find my people.





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