Thursday, October 18, 2012

Making Monsters #17: The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead, a comic take on the premise of Night of the Living Dead that is a favorite among horror fans, was a troubled production when it was filmed in 1984. The schedule was rushed, the original makeup effects artist was fired midway through production, and first-time director Dan O'Bannon developed a nervous twitch from the stress. And as a result, many of the effects are actually pretty shoddy - if you look in the background of any shot involving a crowd of zombies, you'll see extras wearing what look like Halloween masks or barely any makeup at all. Despite this, the movie works, thanks to O'Bannon's irreverent take on the material - a writer on many beloved genre movies, including Alien, Dark Star and Total Recall, O'Bannon's only directed one other film. Luckily, The Return of the Living Dead is a fully realized expression of O'Bannon's humorously jaundiced worldview.

The film does contain one zombie design, known to fans of the movie as Tar Man, that is technically impressive and influential to zombie cinema ever since. Designed by original makeup artist Bill Munns and tweaked by replacement artist Kenny Myers, Tar Man solved the problem of how to build makeup appliances on an actor while creating a character who is convincingly wasting away. They began by casting Allan Trautman, a very slender actor and puppeteer who went on to do puppetry for the Muppets and movies like Men in Black and Babe. Trautman war a black leotard which was then fitted with polyurethane bones and black latex made to look like ragged, decaying flesh. The makeup design, and Trautman's convincing physical acting, made Tar Man a believable and fun addition to the movie. And it's Tar Man's famous line - "BRAAAAINS!" - that popularized the idea of zombies as being primarily interested in snacking on grey matter. I knew one horror geek who resented the idea that The Return of the Living Dead made people think that all zombies are only interested in brains. These are the sort of things that horror geeks worry about.

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