Linnea Quigley is a familiar face to horror fans this time of year, especially those who can’t get enough of the Reagan Era, like me. I’d seen her in movies for years before I learned that she’s originally from Iowa: She was born in Davenport, and graduated from Bettendorf High School. I decided to rewatch three of the scream queen’s ‘80s movies from my collection this week and I had a blast.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985) — DVD, MGM
Frank (James Karen) and Freddy (Thom Mathews) are working late at Uneeda Medical Supply, just browsing the cadavers and shootin’ the shit. They unwisely take a peek at the contents of some highly classified US Army canisters, thereby releasing and inhaling a chemical that raises the dead. They call their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), and the three hatch a plan with master embalmer Ernie (Don Calfa) to dispose of the re-animated medical supplies. But it only makes the contamination more widespread.
This film features Linnea Quigley in her breakout role, and it remains one of her best and most famous performances. She plays the iconic Trash, out for a night of partying with a group of punks who take a detour into a cemetery where she enthusiastically divulges her fantasy of being eaten alive by old men. A few scenes later that becomes a reality. She is then reborn, hands-first, from a pit of mud, emerging as a nude, strutting, pink-haired, brain-eating corpse.
Writer and director Dan O’Bannon’s hilarious and horrifying classic was released seven years after the unrelated Dawn of the Dead (1978) — George Romero’s official sequel to his genre-defining Night of the Living Dead (1968) — and the same year as Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985). Return and Dawn are my two favorite zombie movies, and the directors’ visions are alike in some ways: They both have satirical undertones and disgusting gore and move at an unrelenting pace. But they are different in many ways, too, and I find some moments of the seemingly comical Return to be even more unsettling than the more overtly dreadful Dawn and Day (although Dawn has some comedy moments, too, including a pie fight).
O’Bannon was credited by Romero with originating the concept that zombies eat “not people — BRAINS!” and that they do this because “it hurts to be dead.” The idea that the dead are seeking to alleviate their own pain — “the pain of being dead” — casts their attacks in a new light so that they mirror an addict’s single-minded and pathetically human pursuit. Freddy’s heartbreaking anguish at realizing he’s dead is quickly replaced by an even more devastating revelation: that he’d kill the person who cares about him the most to temporarily relieve his own death-pain.
This movie flies by, and I’m always surprised by how abruptly (and perfectly) it ends. The seething mayhem on the streets is met by a coldly mechanized military bureaucracy that is both prepared for and unperturbed by the nightmare. In the current political climate I found the ending to be especially disturbing. Can you imagine a federal government that sees citizens as expendable statistics, that views US cities as enemy targets, that refuses to acknowledge its own role in spreading a pandemic? O’Bannon imagined it in 1985. Today, we don’t have to.
Night of the Demons (1988) — DVD
A group of teenagers decide to throw a Halloween-night party at an abandoned funeral home called Hull House and end up unleashing demonic forces that love smearing lipstick and dancing to Bauhaus. Linnea Quigley is great in this movie. She’s the first to be possessed by demons who travel from mouth to mouth. She kisses her best friend Angela (Amelia Kinkade) and they run rampant on their fellow revelers, who can’t escape the grounds because of an underground creek that’s also a wall, if I understand correctly. Human mullet Stooge (Hal Havins) has his misogynist tongue bitten off, but not before yelling: “Eat a bowl of fuck! I’m here to party!” A casket is used as a weapon of dismemberment. And Quigley transforms into a demon during sex and presses on a guy’s eyeballs until they explode. Considering how much she’s been ogled prior to this moment, it’s a fitting kill.
Directed by Kevin S. Tenney, who also did the Ouija board ghost story Witchboard and worked with Quigley again in 1989 on Witchtrap. Both movies are streaming now on Amazon Prime, as is Night of the Demons, which is also available in a Scream Factory Blu-ray edition.
Graduation Day (1981) — Blu-ray, Vinegar Syndrome
An objectively slow track star named Laura wins a race and then immediately collapses and dies. Soon, a killer clad in athleisure wear is committing sports-themed murders around the campus while timing himself with a stopwatch. Horror regular Christopher George is the coach who pushes the athletes too hard and then takes out his aggression on a local sports photographer. Linnea Quigley, in one of her earliest roles, plays student Dolores, who proceeds from an implied encounter with a sleazy piano-playing teacher and amateur lounge singer to a secret pot-smoking spot where she embarrasses a stoner cop.
This lesser but lovable Golden Era slasher features some of the fastest editing you’ll ever see: The screen looks like a strobe light during the opening power-walk competition. There is also a slow-motion decapitation during which the head does a full 360 before succumbing to gravity. Dolores discovers the head and is chased by the killer while a costumed band called Felony wails through an interminable song, “Gangster Rock,” so loudly that no one can hear her cries for help, and for so long that no one could hear my cries for help.
This Vinegar Syndrome Blu-ray looks great in a 4K restoration and features interviews with director Herb Freed and editor Martin Sadoff, among others.