Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Not A Bad Question

Several weeks ago I was having dinner at Il Capriccio with two delightful people. At the next table there was a young couple who had a baby, maybe about ten months old. The kid seemed happy to be there as he waved at everyone, including one of the women I was eating with, who happily waved back. The husband stepped away as they were about to leave and my friend asked the wife what the baby’s name was. “Clu,” she replied. “Clu?” asked my friend.” “Yes, Clu,” was the answer. “He’s named after his Grandfather.” “Oh,” I said. “There’s a terrific character actor named Clu. Clu Gulager.” “Yes, that’s his grandfather,” was the reply, explaining that her husband was Clu’s son. I mentioned that I had seen Clu Gulager at the New Beverly a few times, we chatted briefly about what he was up to, then as the husband arrived they left, with little Clu continuing to wave up a storm. Once they were gone, my dinner companions grilled me on just who Clu Gulager was.

I filled them in on some of the basics, like Don Siegel’s THE KILLERS and his son John (not the son who was at the restaurant that night) who recently directed his father in FEAST as part of the Project Greenlight series. But I neglected to go into much detail about one of my very favorite films that he appeared in, 1985’s RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.

An early example of a horror film that makes use of comedy in addition to prior knowledge of horror films, Dan O'Bannon's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was something that I watched a lot when I was a teenager. As a matter of fact, when I mentioned this fact to somebody recently, she replied, “It’s a perfect movie for a teenager.” She meant that in the best possible way and I unerstood. Maybe this was why I was a little reluctant to watch it again—that cynical punk clusterfuck feeling of the film was perfect for a certain age, but maybe I would just be a little cold to it now, especially after countless viewings of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, a movie which I connect with now even more than I ever did with RETURN. The happy surprise was how well RETURN still played in its own scrappy way over twenty years after it was first released.

As Uneeda Medical Supply foreman Frank (the great James Karen) is showing new employee Freddy (Thom Matthews of FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES) around the warehouse he takes him down to the basement to show him a few containers containing a few corpses which inspired the “true” story that was made into a certain famous zombie movie. Unfortunately, they actually release the deadly Trioxin gas which not only leaks but begin to revive several nearby cadavers and even a few lone body parts. As warehouse owner Burt (Gulager) and the local mortician (Don Calfa) are brought in to help deal with the problem, some of Freddy’s friends hang out at the cemetery next door, unaware of the smoke that will begin to rise from a nearby chimney and how it will affect the cemetery’s residents.

James Karen’s Frank doesn’t just mention zombie movies to Thom Matthew’s Freddy. He specifies NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, going on to explain how the whole thing was based on a true story. Exactly what the legalities for this consisted of, not to mention the issue of the near-concurrent release of DAY OF THE DEAD in the summer of ’85, is something I’m a little hazy on, but right from the get-go this helps establish RETURN with its own reality. It’s very obviously a spoof (or, more, correctly, a comedy) but set in “the real world” where the issues of how to deal with the zombies won’t be as easy as Romero made it. Attempts to deal with them wind up failing (“It worked in the movie!” “You mean the movie lied?”) and it also presents us with the then-novel concept of zombies who run. The DAWN OF THE DEAD remake presented this idea as a revolutionary concept, but it’s more naturalistic use in the film’s deadpan aesthetic works just fine for me.

The sociopolitical angle used may not be exactly how Romero would have approached such a scenario, but it is fairly consistent with his films. In fact, the character interplay is one of the things that holds up so well for me after all these years. The adults as represented in the film by Clu Gulager, James Karen and Don Calfa are a terrific bit of casting. Karen’s performance (one of two that most people seem to remember—more on the second coming up) pretty much welcomes us into the film, as he fills us in on the exposition in a jovial manner. His continued freakout as his character gets progressively worse has an amazing effect. Gulager serves as the rock of the whole film and his screen presence make us sit up and listen to everything he says. The most stoic character of any of them, he has to make some bad decisions which kick the plot into high gear, but the movie accepts them as being more cautiously pragmatic than evil in any way.

Most surprising to me was the performance of underutilized character actor Don Calfa as mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner. Calfa’s basic screen persona gives the impression the he’s going to function as a sort of comic relief, but he unexpectedly turns out to be the most level-headed and resourceful of anyone. He’s a fairly familiar face—maybe best known as Dudley Moore’s neighbor with the “iniquitous” arrangement in “10”—but his work here is so funny, so fully realized (it’s strongly implied on the commentary track that his character is supposed to be a Nazi in hiding) that he walks away with the film and I’m surprised he never became more of a name. I just looked up the Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actor from 1985—none of them measure up to Don Calfa in this film.

The other group in the film consists of the gang killing time waiting for their friend Freddy by hanging out in the nearby cemetery. It’s a genuinely unique ensemble, with some characters displaying quirks that are enjoyably never really explained. Some of them are punks but some of them are, um, what exactly? What’s the deal with the preppie kid? Linnea Quigley’s performance as Trash (along with James Karen’s Frank, possibly the character most representative of the film) is the cult actress’s finest hour but each of the younger actors make a favorable impression, especially Thom Matthews’ performance as Freddy. The Laurel and Hardy act he cultivates with Karen (“Watch your tongue boy, if you like this job!” “Like this job?!”) was always one of my favorite parts of the film, so I was happy to see how well it held up this time around. The two actors returned for the semi-related sequel RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II, paired up again as different characters, but it just wasn’t the same.

One of the things that remains most interesting to me is how when the disparate elements come together in various ways there are no unnecessary pieces of conflict, like the normal guys against the punks. Everyone focuses on the matter at hand and even within the totally unbelievable scenario which is occurring all of the characters remain consistently drawn out. The movie never treats the punks as being extra-weird just because they’re punks. If anything, the way the Gulager, Karen and Calfa characters treat them make them seem more normal, and the older characters more strange and likable because of this, making them seem like outsiders as well. It’s no surprise that the DVD audio commentary by writer-director O’Bannon and production designer William Stout references Billy Wilder and Howard Hawks. These guys knew exactly what kind of movie they were trying to make and weren’t going to ignore the people in the film just because it was a zombie flick. If anything, one of the things that really makes the film memorable (and, I suspect, kept drawing me back to it when I was a kid) is its unique array of characters. That, and the extreme gore, of course.

But most of all, the fact that the film places each of those characters on the same level with each other underlines just how much they’re all the same in the grand scheme of things. It’s the government who is really in charge in this world and it’s one of the great mistakes the characters make to put such trust in it. It seemed an appropriately cynical ending when I was a kid. Now, the fact that the ending seems all too real makes me realize just how cynical I’ve become.

There are points where the low budget begins to show, such as how certain scenes are staged and the feeling at the end that maybe certain things hadn’t been shot when the production wrapped. But the deadpan comic tone holds along with the scares, the gore and the appropriately nasty overall tone(“I love you…and you’ve got to let me eat your BRAAAINS!!”. Plus the ensemble is a reminder of how the actors in some of these movies are so important to the reasons why some of them last for people. Top-billed Clu Gulager is only one part of that ensemble that helps make this movie so special, but he’s an important part of what was a big favorite of mine a long time ago and now I guess still is. I don’t know if he takes any pride in his work in RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, but he deserves to. Everyone involved with the film does.

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