The Return of the Living Dead (1985, d. Dan O’Bannon) deservedly stands out among the zombie movies. People usually point to the better characterization of the zombies, but I would point to great writing in service of comedy. I’ll give you an example.
One set of characters in the movie are punks looking for some kicks. Among them are Trash (Linnea Quigley) and Suicide (Mark Venturini), whose character names hint at their promiscuity and nihilism, respectively. Their one significant scene together is a masterpiece of subversive parody.
When the group has broken into a cemetery for an evening party, Trash manages to sexually excite herself by recounting her favorite fantasy and she begins to disrobe while someone matter-of-factly yells offscreen “she’s taking off her clothes again!”
Meanwhile, Suicide is off by himself. His exquisite costume is over the top leathers with chains, studs (including a studded collar), piercings, and you name it, together with a nearly shaved head. A chain stretches from his lip to his ear. He’s manifestly unhappy because he doesn’t get the respect he thinks he deserves.
As a 21-year-old when I first saw the film, I was naturally following Linnea Quigley’s Trash with great interest at this point, but my interest was immediately arrested and redirected by Suicide’s impassioned, outraged soliloquy as Trash attempts to get his attention:
Suicide: Nobody understands me, you know that?
I fuckin’ bust my ass for you guys and what do I get?
‘You’re spooky!’ Fuck you, man! Fuck you all!
Trash: I like spooky.
Suicide: I got somethin’ to say, you know?
What do you think this (refers to his getup) is all about?
Do you think this is a fuckin’ costume?
This is a way of life!
Trash: (groans in appreciation of Suicide’s leg).
Suicide: (notices Trash) Hey, what’s wrong with you, man? (pushes Trash away roughly)
Show some fuckin’ respect for the dead, will ya?
The disjunction in Suicide’s character has always made me laugh aloud. He presents as the embodiment of “live or die, doesn’t matter” nihilism, yet we find him earnestly and passionately engaged in his ‘way of life.’ To compare great with small, you would not expect a devoted Marxist to be so wrapped up in his dogma to the detriment of his sex life (“. . . if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow . . .” -Lenin. Wait! “Lennon”.)
Venturini’s fairly high-pitched delivery and his outraged tones compare unfavorably to, for example, Clancy Brown’s classic Kurgan (figure 2) in Highlander (1986, d. R. Mulcahy). The Kurgan really is a nihilist; he is what Suicide would like to be. The Kurgan is genuinely in it for the kicks, and laughs at the world even as he knows he is about to lose his fight at Highlander’s end.
Suicide is such a bad nihilist that he even thinks to remonstrate with Trash for her disrespect for the dead. He is such a bad nihilist punk that in fact his leathers, chains and studs are, precisely, a fuckin’ costume.
I do not hold the rights to either film still published here. I rely on a fair-use justification for including them in this critical essay.