Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ask Me a Question: The Return of the Living Dead 30th Anniversary

The Egyptian Theatre is three nights in to it's awesome Night of the Living '80s: A New Wave of Horror series celebrating zombies, slashers and evil spirits. Re-Animater and From Beyond kicked things off Thursday night with an appearance by director Stuart Gordon. The Changeling and Poltergeist followed Friday with director Peter Medak while Saturday was the big one, the 30th anniversary of horror-comedy zombie classic Return of the Living Dead and alien slugs invade a college town cult favorite Night of the Creeps. It's not even Halloween but this ended up being an incredibly strange evening as I dealt with road raging drivers on the way there then spotted a first, a guy trying to find a vein and shoot up in a trash can off Hollywood Boulevard. Before the film, you had people in costume showcasing scary clown from IT, Tar-Man from Living Dead and some chick with a bloody ax and racoon tail while funny clips screened discussing Satanism, the music video for Big Trouble In Little China, a funny teaser for upcoming Beyond Fest and much more. Creepshow Cabaret started things off with some tantalizing peekaboo action with one scary clown disrobing, one sad clown doing a show, the ax wielding lady gripping and grinding it seductively and finally a lap dance for unstated guest of honor, Clu Gulager.

The Return of the Living Dead takes place in Louisville, Kentucky where Uneeda Medical Supply provides skeletons, cadavers and taxidermied animals to local schools and hospitals. Frank (James Karen) is breaking in new hire Freddy (Thom Mathews) and we learn that the zombie movie Night of the Living Dead was based on true events and that Uneeda has some of the creatures in storage downstairs. The dim witted duo go to take a look at the frozen subjects, housed in Army Corp. of Engineers designed tombs but they end up springing a leak. Trying to contain the situation, owner Burt (Gulagher) doesn't want to call the police or army and decides to ask neighbor Ernie (Don Calfa) to incinerate a resurrected cadaver in his mortuary. Unfortunately the resulting smoke goes into the clouds, comes back down with rain and raises a cemetery's worth of brain hungry zombies where a bunch of Freddy's friends are waiting to pick him up after work. 80's greatness follows as the surviving humans barricade themselves in, try to find a way to kill the zombies and escape.  There's laughs, scares, brains, blood, tits and synth galore from writer/director Dan O'Bannon with story assists by Rudy Ricci, John A. Russo and Rusell Streiner.

At roughly 90 minutes, Dead moves fast and uses it's few locations economically where you don't feel closed in or that the low budget production couldn't afford to do more. The cast throughout is great with Clu playing Burt big, serious and near rabid while James Karen and Thom Mathews make a terrific team of bumblers, Miguel A. Nunez Jr. gets to say Fuck a lot and call Gulager a honky while Linnea Quigley's sole purpose is to be naked for the duration of her screen time. Mark Venturini is hilarious as the angst ridden, taken advantage of Suicide, Beverly Randolph gets to play cute and shrieky as Freddy's girlfriend Tina while John Philbin and Jewel Shepard play the not to be couple Chuck and Casey. Don Calfa as embalmer Ernie comes off just creepy enough you think he'll turn on our survivors but does not. Matt Clifford's synth and rock song score is fantastic and great at pumping up a crowd. Zombie shenanigans are laugh out loud funny while also gory and disgusting with brains being eaten, heads knocked off with bats and the like all gloriously done practically with prosthetic limbs, costumes, fake blood and cow brains. All in a really enjoyable time capsule that was great to see for the first time on the big screen with a packed and enthusiastic audience.

After the film a MAMMOTH panel was introduced by our film historian moderator David Del Valle that included actors Clu Gulager, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Thom Matthews, Brian Peck and Jewel Shepard, production designer William Stout and I believe documentary producers/authors Gary Smart and Michael Perez as well as make up artist Kenny Meyers. It was a bit of a warbled affair as Del Valle didn't introduce anyone or their role in the film then asked the 10 person panel how they met Dan O'Bannon and what it was like to work with them.

- Clu found O'Bannon very smart and praises Living Dead as having a near flawless last 10 minutes.
- Thom Mathews auditioned a couple of times and calls Living Dead the best experience he ever had on a project.
- Meyers was brought in last minute as previous f/x man was fired. O'Bannon screamed at Perez not to tell him "no problem". As that what was the last guy kept saying.
- Stout believes that O'Bannon and George Lucas changed cinema by finding production designers who came from other arenas of art and not just architecture.
- Brian Peck had a agent horrible who wouldn't put him up for a role, went in multiple times then heard nothing. One day reading Variety sees the film was ramping up for production and he was listed as part of the cast.
- Jewel Shepard met O'Bannon in a strip club where she worked and was offered role of Trash. But Shepard was tired of playing the naked girl and ended up as Casey instead.
- John Philbin auditioned half a dozen times, didn't think O'Bannon liked him.

Things got crazy when Gulager reminisced about his early career when someone told him, "walk softly and carry a big dick", not knowing what that meant, the actor unveiled a giant penis and said he carried it around town until realizing it was stick, not dick. So here's an 86 year old actor in front of 500 people, talking to a giant penis, asking it questions then answering in a falsetto voice. That was a moment of greatness before things took an awkward segue with much of the panel talking about the differences of making films in the 80's compared to today. Back then you could be an unknown and land a leading role while today you need a demo reel and credits to even get an agent. Shepard remarked that it was easy for her, she just got naked. Thom Mathews didn't seem to appreciate that advice as his 11 year old daughter was in the audience. Beverly Randolph got things back on track as there were two copies of documentary More Brains! up for grabs and Brian Peck asked a couple of trivia questions. There was still Night of the Creeps to screen but already pushing 11:00 PM it was time to go home. After a quick chat with filmmaker Larry Brand we hit the road and one of the weirdest, oddest, realist nights in my Hollywood experience came to an end.

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