All the living dead want is a chance to beat your door down and eat your brain. They're funny that way. Actually, they're hilarious. "The Return of the Living Dead," a kind of bargain-basement "Ghostbusters" now at area theaters, does to the living dead what Abbott and Costello did to Frankenstein once they met him; it plays fast and loose with their dignity but doesn't completely disarm them.
Which is not to say that a few of them aren't missing their arms. One is missing almost everything but her head and her spine, yet because this toxic gas leaked out of this big canister in the basement of this medical supply house (oh don't ask which toxic gas, which big canister, or which medical supply house, please), she joins her expired colleagues in popping back for a ghastly encore and a low-fiber midnight snack. You have to admire the living dead for their persistence.
Although it aspires to be, and probably is, the preeminent comic gross-out of the summer, "Return" actually seems more civilized than most of the teen-bait comedies to have so limply romped across the screen in recent months, and the living dead themselves, crowd of wanton slavering ghouls though they be, are very nearly personable by the standards of current screen company.
Early in the exposition, in fact during a deliciously portentous precredit tease, screenwriter/director Dan O'Bannon explains and dismisses his film's nominal resemblance to the "Living Dead" trilogy of director George Romero, the Poe of Pittsburgh. "Did you see that movie 'Night of the Living Dead?' " one character asks another. "Did you know that movie was based on a true case? What really happened was . . . " And off we go. Before long a former corpse has regained mobility and is stumbling amok. Unlike Romero's mute brutes, O'Bannon's zombies have a vocabulary, though it consists mainly of the pleas "Brains!" "Brains!" and "More brains!" and, after a pair of unsuspecting emergency medical personnel have been eagerly gobbled up, "Send more paramedics!"
Naturally it's gory as all get-out, but O'Bannon infuses the mayhem with a goofy felicity.
And then there's the gratifying competence of it all. O'Bannon, who also wrote the screenplays for "Alien" and "Blue Thunder" and makes his directorial debut here, has whipped the living dead into highly presentable shape. The movie takes off quickly and hits a nicely sustained pell-mell stride. Unfortunately, O'Bannon isn't clever enough to bring it all to a satisfying conclusion. Before too long, he is as surrounded as his besieged characters, with no avenue of escape.
One problem is that the action in the film is restricted to a few basic locations; the medical supply house, a nearby cemetery and an adjoining mortuary. Romero made highly productive use of confinement. O'Bannon does not, but he does earn points with inventive gall, and there are enough lunatic thrills along the way to leave one with the giddy sensation of having been alternately scared silly and tickled even sillier.
Action in the cemetery involves a convertible full of endearingly feckless punkers who have names like Scuz, Trash and Suicide. In terms of temperament, deportment and IQ, they are, of course, only a hairbreadth away from the living dead themselves. At least it occurs to the living dead to hunger for brains. You have to give them credit for that. The punkers are updated cousins of the bobbysoxers and hotrodders who rock and rolled their ways through "The Blob" and other exploitation horror pictures of the '50s, but they have '80s lusts, and wardrobes. They are amusingly unsavory, like the whole movie.
O'Bannon got the most from his cast -- not only the noggin-chomping extras, but also Clu Gulager, following nimbly in the deadpan footprints of Robert Culp, as the owner of the medical supply house; James Karen as Frank, a nervously owlish mortician; and Don Calfa and Thom Matthews as the two employes who stumble across the living dead in the first place and eventually become the dead living themselves, passing into the other world but retaining consciousness nevertheless. This gives Matthews the chance to utter the film's one persuasive stab at a profundity: "It hurts to be dead."
"Return" isn't a horror spoof, like "Young Frankenstein"; it satirizes some elements of the genre while earnestly deploying others. The film may strike some as an uneasy compromise; neither all frightening nor all funny. But the time seems right for someone to do to the living dead what O'Bannon does to them here. The funny central conceit of the movie has to do with the simple practical problems that devolve from having one dead person hopping around the house or a whole flock of them roaming about the streets and biting people's heads off. No, no, this just won't do; the dead must remain dead and leave the ruination of the earth to us, the living living.
The Return of the Living Dead, now showing at area theaters, is rated R and contains extremely gory scenes and some nudity.