When a couple of medical centre attendants go down to the basement to check out some mysterious metal drums, they accidentally break one open causing the corpse inside to disintegrate into a noxious gas. And this gas has the power to reanimate the dead...
Dan O'Bannon took over directing duties from Tobe Hooper for this reworking of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead. O'Bannon wrote the script based on an original story by John Russo, Russ Streiner and Rudolph J. Ricci, who had all worked on Romero's film. What they came up with was a jokey variation on the traditional zombie movie.
Mind you, back in the eighties, just about every horror movie coming out of Hollywood was a jokey one - the horror comedy ruled the shelves of the video store. O'Bannon doesn't really pepper the film with witty gags, he lets the comedy arise from the situation and the offbeat characters, so this is more of a shocker with a dash of humour added.
The characters consist of people who work with the dead, such as Ernie the mortician (Don Calfa), and a group of young oddballs who are out looking for a good time, with stereotypical Hollywood punks (i.e. the kind who have spent too much time in the makeup department) inexplicably mixing with out-of-place square kids ("Oh f...fudge!"). When they're not all screaming - and this cast must hold the record for the most screaming - they have matter-of-fact conversations about how to get out of their sticky situation.
The undead themselves are satisfyingly rendered, different from the traditional zombie by being articulate ("More Brains!") and unkillable, not even by a shot to the head. Although RofLD tries for an innovative spin on the genre, you're always one step ahead of the story (you just know that cremating the first corpse is a bad idea), and the apocalyptic ending is an anti-climax, looking more like they ran out of good ideas.
On the other hand, it's mainly enjoyably predictable viewing, and it made a kind of star of Linnea Quigley, so maybe it's the eighties horror fans' equivalent of the comfy slippers and warm mug of cocoa. Followed by four sequels; Part II is poor, but Part III is worth checking out. Soundtrack includes records by the Damned and the Cramps.