This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.
What a bumper crop of horror films, zombie cinema in particular, 1985 affords to us. We said that 1981 was indisputably the best year in the history of the horror genre for werewolf movies, and this year their ghoulish siblings, the zombies, take precedence. No other single year can match this one for zombie classics, made all the more memorable for how each of those classics handle the walking dead in significantly different ways.
At the top of the heap is George Romero’s Day of the Dead, the third entry in the director’s original “of the dead” series, and the most likely entry of the series to be badly underrated by the average viewer. Indeed, the more discerning horror geek might even consider Day of the Dead to be Romero’s true magnum opus, the most bleakly individualistic of all his zombie films, and the entry with the most satisfying expansion of the core mythos of what it means to be a ghoul. The action this time is taking place in a military research bunker in the months after the fall of society, as a team of doctors works furiously to search for survivors and conduct research on the nature of the zombie plague. It’s the first time in the series that we really get to see the zombies approached in a clinical, scientific manner, which yields some fascinating results: Select ghouls, like this film’s iconic “Bub,” do seem to retain some knowledge and memory of their past lives as living humans, and it may even be possible to train them not to attack. Sadly, these discoveries are lost on the megalomaniacal military leader of the bunker, Capt. Rhodes, played with overinflated glee by actor Joseph Pilato, and the brewing conflict between researchers and soldiers gradually leads to the explosive breakdown we all knew was inevitable—complete with plenty of incredible zombie carnage.
Next in the zombie pecking order (although you could probably make cases for all these films as #1) would probably be Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, the film that introduced most horror fans to the joys of soon-to-be genre staple Jeffrey Combs. Here, he’s playing Dr. Herbert West, loosely adapted from the H.P. Lovecraft story of the same name, but bearing more of the personality of Peter Cushing’s Dr. Frankenstein from the Hammer Horror revival years of the 1950s-1970s. Like Cushing’s take on the doctor, West is an imperious dick to everyone around him, but he backs up his god complex with utter brilliance—he earns the right to look down on everyone, because he’s just that much smarter than them. Of course, his “re-agent” serum could still use a little tinkering … it would be nice if it revived people as cogent conversationalists rather than screaming, superpowered, homicidal zombies. But you can’t have everything, right? With a twisted sense of humor and one of horror’s best lead performances from Combs, Re-Animator is always a joy to revisit.
The rest of the 1985 roster remains plenty deep. Lamberto Bava’s Demons is another great zombie movie in everything but name—the creatures may be apparently “demons,” but the structure of the film is much like an urbanized Night of the Living Dead. Beyond the plethora of zombie fare, though, you’ve got high school spaz vs. charming vampire next door in Fright Night, the hilarious consumerist satire of The Stuff, the constantly naked space vampire in Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce, several above average Stephen King adaptations (Cat’s Eye, Silver Bullet) and the uniquely homoerotic Nightmare on Elm Street 2, to boot. Certainly, this year is among the best the 1980s has to offer.
1985 Honorable Mentions: Day of the Dead, Re-Animator, Demons, Fright Night, The Stuff, Phenomena, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, Cat’s Eye, Lifeforce, Silver Bullet
The Film: The Return of the Living Dead
Director: Dan O’Bannon
The choice of The Return of the Living Dead as the “best” horror film of 1985 is not an easy one to make. There’s no doubting that as far as this year’s zombie gems go, Day of the Dead has far more to say about the human condition. At the same time, Re-Animator has the far more compelling central character in Herbert West, and nobody else can touch Jeffrey Combs’ performance in that movie. But damn it, ROTLD makes up for its lack of gravitas or well-developed characters by just being delightfully, deliriously fun. It’s one of the most relentlessly entertaining films in the history of the genre, capturing 1985 as a perfect pop cultural time capsule that keeps the feeling of the era fresh, like it’s been stored away for decades in an untouched vault—or a cannister full of half-melted zombie. It’s indicative of everything horror fans love about this particular decade, and the whole manages to be quite a lot more than the sum of its parts. It’s the quintessential ’80s zombie movie.
The film has its roots in the split between zombie godfather George A. Romero and the less heralded John Russo, co-writer of Night of the Living Dead. After parting ways following the first film, Russo retained the rights to the phrase “Living Dead,” whereas Romero’s films followed the “of the dead” nomenclature. Thus, ROTLD functions as a long-delayed follow-up in Russo’s mind to the original Night of the Living Dead, name-dropping the 1968 film as if ROTLD takes place in a universe where those events secretly happened and were then turned into a popular horror film. In terms of tone, though, ROTLD diverges wildly from the nihilism and cultural criticism of Romero’s films, especially this year’s dour Day of the Dead. Here we have Dan O’Bannon’s baby—a hilarious, satirical send-up of 1980s youth culture, torn apart by some of cinema’s funniest and fiercest ghouls.
The characters of ROTLD are the perfect pastiche of 1980s punk rock teen tropes, alternatingly bedecked in leather, piercings, mohawks or looking like wannabe versions of The Talking Heads’ David Byrne. Teenage lead Freddy is played by the wavy-haired Thom Matthews, who would secure a place in horror immortality via the combination of this film and next year’s excellent Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. But in reality, despite the heavy teenage focus—and the accompanying soundtrack of emerging punk and hard rock music—it’s the older characters who shine. Clu Gulager and James Karen (RIP, 2018) are hilarious as Burt and Frank, two harried warehouse operators who try to sweep an emerging zombie breakout under the rug, and only make things far worse in the process. Karen in particular engages in a series of constantly redoubling meltdowns, taking histrionic horror performances to a new level.
The zombies of ROTLD, meanwhile, have also evolved in important ways. Here, for the first time, they’re specifically craving human brains rather than general flesh, and are able to sprint (and speak!) rather than simply shamble to and fro. Combined with the fact that they’re no longer able to be destroyed by headshots or “destroying the brain,” remaining active even when chopped to pieces, it makes these perhaps the most purely indestructible zombies that the genre had ever seen. Even burning them to ashes leads to some truly messed-up, unintended consequences. It was a portrayal of the living dead that nicely refreshed the genre in the years to follow, and eventually so colored the pop cultural presentation of zombies that the mental image of zombies lusting for “braiiiinnnnnssss” wrongly became a trope associated with all zombie movies, including Romero’s sequels to Night of the Living Dead. So to did the film create the distinction between “fast zombies” and “slow zombies” as a way of categorizing the genre, sorting them into camps that include Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead or 28 Days Later on one side, and Shaun of the Dead on the other.
In the end, Return of the Living Dead simply remains a joy to watch, one of the A+ picks you can choose to throw on your flat screen TV during an adult Halloween party. Its effects are suitably gross, its encapsulation of the decade and nostalgia factor are through the roof, and it’s as funny today as it ever was. If you’re a zombie fan who somehow hasn’t seen this movie, then you’re doing yourself a grave disservice.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.