by Aaron AuBuchon
We live in a weirdly hyperbolic time where people can’t say that a thing is “good.” They instead have to say that a thing “will change your life.”
“How’s the avocado dip?”
“Oh my god, try it. It will change. Your. Life!”
I find that fucking irritating. The things that truly change your life come along infrequently and when they arrive, they are like cataclysms. If you reflect on them, they’re the things that either altered or confirmed your life’s trajectory, the things that set you on your path and literally made you who you are. So the kinds of people who will try a new shampoo and then gush about how it just changed their lives are doing it wrong, goddammit. It only changed your life if you remember it years later; if you wouldn’t be who you are without it.
So listen, babies, when I tell you my truth: the Return of the Living Dead Soundtrack changed my life.
If memory serves, the film debuted on cable sometime in 1986 when I was 12 or 13 years old- I can’t seem to find a reference online to zero in on the date, but that seems right, since its theatrical release was in August of 1985. What I do remember is that I not only watched it the night it premiered, I taped it too. Some kids had church or baseball or whatever, I had taping things off cable; along with reading, it was my ritual. Having gotten our first VHS player/recorder the year before, I had developed a symbiotic relationship with the machine thanks to daily use. The swarm of home-recorded Polaroid T-120 VHS tapes I created had grown into several sizable boxfuls and was my library, my collection, my education. Each tape contained three films recorded in ELP mode, as ten bucks a week in grass cutting money meant I had to be economical with media buying and couldn’t afford to think much about image or sound quality. And by the time ROTLD came along, I left nothing to chance- by that point I was recording anything that looked remotely interesting, sight unseen. I could always tape over it if the film was a clunker, but I almost never recorded over a film I’d taped. If I had somehow accidentally taped over Return of the Living Dead, my whole life would be fundamentally different. This is no exaggeration.
When I was 12, I was purposefully trying on different personas. I came from a small, horrible redneck town, and always felt pretty far outside of the culture there, so I only flirted with being a townie, but I did flirt. I listened to Aerosmith and Boston and feathered my hair and could have easily continued down that road to its logical conclusion. God knows most of the people I was around at that time did exactly that. My young adulthood could easily have been spent in a series of nights with a stereo crackling out Free Bird, wherein I might have drunkenly “protected the honor” of a mean spirited girl with floofy hair against a jean jacket and mullet-clad baboon that was my mirror image, a circle of similar primates whooping around me in a field somewhere, close enough to a running Chevy truck to have its sharp fumes flavor the blood in our mouths. Why all that? Because, growing up, that is what my peers called “leisure.” Actually, not that, as that would have sounded “faggy” to them. They just called it “fun.”
That sort of “fun” makes me pretty sure we are soulless, hollow ghosts screaming together in agony, spending out some sort of karmic purgatory on this plane of existence. I didn’t want their fun, and I didn’t want them. I wanted something else, and was lucky enough to have media from which to glean examples of other ways of being. After seeing Revenge of the Nerds, I found some old safety glasses and put some tape in the middle and wore those around for a while, thinking that maybe I’d be… whatever that was. Unspecified nerd, I guess. Then, as I knew nobody who listened to modern country music, I gave that a go for two months. Then it was heavy metal, or what passed for it in Bumblefuck, Missouri at the time. At some point, I got into astronomy, nature, Doctor Who, National Geographic, and radio-controlled cars- that was an odd one as I never actually operated a radio controlled car, but read every issue of a magazine dedicated to the hobby in our school library. None of these disparate appropriations felt right sitting on my skin. They felt like masks with the eyeholes in the wrong places.
Then, I found this movie. I watched it that first night, and then again, and again, and again. Eventually I did the math and realized that I have watched it over 200 times. Movies were a huge part of my life growing up and I often watched 2-4 movies a day. This one was just one of many I’d watch, but I watched it over and over, and after realizing that half the time I was watching it I was really just listening to the music, I did something I’d never done before: I bought a tape of the soundtrack. If you’ve not seen the film or heard the soundtrack recently or at all, the decision that was made for Return was that instead of an ongoing orchestral score, they would instead license the music of actual bands, many of them punk or alternative, to match the film’s main characters to serve as the backing music. And the stuff they chose lit a fire inside me that consumed the uncertain parts and left me sure of who I was and what I was into. This was my music. These characters were my people. The flavor of this film, deeply reflective and deadly serious while also being goofy and fun was to shape the overall tone of my life. This music was like the (spoiler alert) atom bomb that goes off at the end of the film in my life. Boom! Everything changes.
If there was a punk rocker in a mid-80’s film, they were usually some no-name heavy. The dumb clown grasping the handle of a switchblade in a quick mugging scene or the obnoxious toughs on the subway- you know, that sort of asshole. But not this film. It not only casts punks and misfits in the main roles, it also delves into their music, which is to say their culture. It gave me a window into a fascinating world that began to feel like my world. This world allowed for self-expression. It allowed you to make up your own look. It allowed you to spit in the face of what the world told you was possible or acceptable. And the music gave me a starting point, a way to find myself out of the dull repetition of music at that time and into uncharted territory.
And the music they selected for the film was an interesting and eclectic mix that wasn’t quite as straightforward “punk” as it is often remembered as being, but much more post-punk in its sensibilities. And the bands and song selected seem like such odd bedfellows at first glance, but together they make up this really glorious tapestry that kicked off the me that I am today. So let’s go through the tracks:
Psychobilly godfathers The Cramps are up first with their utterly perfect “Surfin’ Dead.” Watch ROTLD again, and imagine the scene where Spider, Scuzz, Burt and Ernie go try to shore up the windows in the mortuary and chapel, but swap out orchestral music for the Cramps’ jangling zombie stomp. Impossible. And in most films, that’s exactly what would have been playing in that scene, and it would have been just every other movie at that point. A big part of the irresistible flavor of the film is this weird juxtaposition of generally fun and relatively uncomplicated music during moments of high drama and terrible consequences. It may not be wholly unique, but it’s not overly common to use music that is tonally opposite of what you’d expect in a horror film.
The moment the skeleton comes out of the ground and jacks open eyes and mouth to the first handful of notes of 45 Grave’s “Partytime” is likely one of the things people most associate with this film. Gleeful punk rock nihilism makes it to the big screen in one perfect alignment of sound and image. The imminent murder and consumption of our human heroes it triggers is also reframed as a zombie’s idea of a party. If you’re starved for something, and you and your friends can get a bunch of that thing, that’s pretty great! So if that thing you’re starved for is brains, and there are some brains walking around that are woefully uneaten, you are about to have a collective good time. A party, if you will. And if you can put yourself in their place, that seems as good an analogy as any. But that’s about as black as comedy comes. It was a real shocker when I bought the album containing the original version of Partytime, 1983’s Sleep In Safety and discovered that 45 Grave sounded almost nothing like the version of the song on the soundtrack. The soundtrack is a straight rocker, but the album version and that album itself are often incoherently fast, sometimes experimental with bells and other instrumentation, etc. Also, the original song is about a 5 year old girl who gets beaten, raped and killed by her mother and her mother’s friends. According to an interview with lead singer Dinah Cancer in ScannerZine, (https://www.scannerzine.com/45graveinterview.htm), though the producers liked the chorus and some of the music of the song they offered, they hated the part about raping and murdering a toddler, and that that does seem to be a slightly different vibe than what they were going for with this film. Which is funny, as the film actually kills thousands of innocents, but this one song about the vileness done to one innocent seems far worse than that. I guess Stalin was right about one death being a tragedy and a million deaths being a statistic. But the rape and murder version would not stand, so they came up with what they called the “Zombie Version” which appears on the soundtrack.
Next is TSOL’s “Nothing For You,” a song that appeared in the film before it made it to an album. The album, Revenge, was a bit of a departure from the band’s previous mix of straight ahead punk and gothic rock. The song has always struck me as a kind of bravado pasted over a pretty achy loneliness. TSOL was often questioning things, and this track seems to be questioning the value of human interactions in the face of the self and its needs. That it’s a rocking song masks the fact that it is also the song on the soundtrack that probably bears the most reflection.
Art punks The Flesheaters follow with their song “Eyes Without A Face,” which makes sense. Like the previous band, The Flesh Eaters hailed from southern California, but their pedigree was even deeper, with lead vocalist and band auteur Chris D being a regular fixture in the LA punk scene from its inception. His fascination with art and film creates a song that is characteristically experimental and weird with a depth that allows the listener to play all sorts of aural Rorschach games. Taste this bit:
“Sometimes you look at me and see destiny
Yeah, I’m hurting inside
Sometimes your eyes can’t see no matter how close they get to me
Writing me a history of misery
My eyes without a face
Yeah, I’m hurting inside”
The next track ignited a lifelong love affair. I mean the whole soundtrack did- I own at least one album from every band on here, but Roky Erickson… man, that guy really rang my bell. If you’re not familiar with Roky’s story, go check out You’re Gonna Miss Me, the outstanding 2007 documentary about Roky, a guy who helped invent psychedelic rock in the 1960’s, went to a mental institution for smoking pot and came out with vast and terrible mental ailments that made him think that the monster movies he loved were real, and that he was required to use his natural gifts for music to sing about them. The results are some of most interesting and heartfelt music you’ll ever hear about vampire nights and alligator persons. The track included here, “Burn the Flames,” sets off one of the most poignant moments in the film, and much of that poignancy is from the music itself. This song is for late nights staring into a candle. This song has a depth that is lyrical and tonal.
That ends side one, and if that’s all there was, it would have changed my life. Honestly, I think that the first side is the superior one, but the second side is pretty amazing too. First on that side is a track from probably the most recognizably “punk” band on the soundtrack, The Damned. This track, “Dead Beat Dance” is an interesting one, with decidedly heavy metal guitar riffs, cackling laughs, and maybe a theremin in there somewhere? Can’t tell exactly. But the lyrics, which hint at a sentient afterlife are appropriate here. Sadly, recent releases of the film don’t actually contain this song in the driving scene near the beginning. I’m not sure who is responsible for that, but I hope they are eaten alive and burn in hell for all eternity.
I’m not kidding about that either.
The Tall Boys’ “Take a Walk” is always struck me as a snotty punk song, but there’s a simplicity and straightforwardness to the story told in the song that makes it taste a bit like early rock and roll. Couple that with the bloody screams and the tribal drums and I suppose the folks who have called this proto-psychobilly have a point. Whatever its proper shelf in the music store, the song has a jumping sort of quality that makes it feel logically zombie-ish in nature. It feels like it might even be sung by the very specific type of zombies from the film.
Psychedelic post-punkers The Jet Black Berries’ “Love Under Will” is up next and I’m so glad it is. Others have suggested that it would have made more sense to use a cut from their then-recent album Sundown on Venus called “They Walk Among You,” and maybe it’s just because I’m so used to Love Under Will’s place in the film, but I find the song they actually used to be perfect. It’s a song that doesn’t defy description, but its inclusion feels, tastes and smells so very different than the rest of what’s all around it. It is like but not of the rest of the soundtrack somehow, and I like how that serves to cleanse the palette.
Just before her synthpop one hit wonder “Two Of Hearts,” Stacy Q was in the band SSQ. Actually she was still sort of in SSQ when she scored that saccharine hit, as the members were her backing band. But as SSQ, they made even more interesting, almost transgressive music, especially the cuts here. SSQ ends the album, first with “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Till We Die)”, a provocative piece that delivers candy sweetness and still manages to posit the line “I once slept with the devil/it was really no big thrill.” Notoriously, this is the song to which Linnea Quigley performs probably the most famous striptease in horror history, a scene that is seared into every adolescent horror fan’s memory from the mid 80’s on. Appropriately, it is the instrumental Trash’s Theme, the cut that plays when we first see the resurrected and weirdly blue-skinned Trash.
Any one of these songs being on the soundtrack to a widely released film was (and remains) improbable, but having this whole motley, disparate, and downright badass collection of miscreants in one place on one film was unique. The soundtrack taught me that there was a whole ocean of music out there to explore whose tides were far more varied than the meandering creek of styles I heard on rock and roll FM radio. It developed and cemented a lifelong fascination with punk rock music, culture, aesthetics, and ethos. In the often-awkward teenaged years that followed my first hearing it, this album cemented friendships, which led to skateboarding, guitar playing and fashion choices which singled me out as Other in Podunkington. I’ve been a proud Other ever since. This soundtrack poured the foundation for the life I eventually built and the person I became.
It’s even better than that avocado dip, y’all.