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Return of the Living Dead
by yo go re

As Poe once taught us, Night of the Living Dead was originally meant to be a horror comedy involving aliens that ate humans for food, but it grew more serious in subsequent drafts. George Romero and his co-writer John Russo disagreed on what direction the sequels should take, so they parted ways, each starting his own franchise.

Russo got to keep the "Living" part of the title, and wrote a novel called Return of the Living Dead in 1978; he intended to turn the novel into a movie, but it took a while to get everything together, and by then the director wanted to rewrite the story to set it apart from Romero's work. He upped the comedy angle, and made the whole thing much more slapstick.

According to the new story, Night of the Living Dead was a dramatization of real events: a military herbicide, 2,4,5-Trioxin, was accidentally released in a Pittsburgh hospital, and it caused the bodies in the morgue to reanimate; George Romero planned to make a documentary revealing all this, but the government threatened to sue him, so he made a "fake" movie instead. Anyway, the stuff about destroying the brain to kill them was part of the fiction - there's no real way to kill a zombie, so the government just sealed them all in canisters like nuclear waste.

The most iconic image of RotLD is... well, it's Linnea Quigley going full-frontal (and backal) for a dance in the graveyard. But the most iconic zombie is the so-called "Tarman." He's black and gooey, with the only part of him that's still obviously human being the top of his bald head. His face is skeletal, and he has a bright pink tongue.

The fictional 2,4,5-Trioxin gas gets its name from a combo of 2,4,5-T (half of the compound defoliant Agent Orange) and Trioxane (a formaldehyde used by morticians), and is obviously toxic, able to kill (and reanimate) healthy adults after even a small exposure. It appears that the zombies generate the gas somehow - when the canister's seal was broken, the gas came jetting out under pressure - and in a heavy concentration, it seems to act as a preservative, because Tarman was a normal-looking corpse until exposed to air. Oh, and that "tar," by the way? It's actually the dissolving remnants of his skin and muscle tissue. Ewww, gross! (Well, in kayfabe - in real life, it was mainly Methocel, a non-toxic pine-pulp thickener used in milkshakes, toothpaste, eyedrops and lots of other stuff. It can even replace gluten in bread!)

Tarman was, just like Bub, sculpted by Jean St.Jean. The tarry body is sloughing from top to bottom, so while the face, torso and arms are down to little more than bone, the legs are thicker. The gloppy soup is sculpted to look like it's flowing toward the ground. The "skirt" of goop on the front of his legs is molded on, while the matching drops in the back are separate pieces glued in place (same as the ones on his arms). His ribcage, spine and shoulder blades are detailed wonderfully in both sculpt and paint.

Athough the sculpt is terrific, the articulation is not. Tarman only moves at the neck and shoulders - the packaging claims the head is a balljoint, but it certainly doesn't seem to be anything more than a swivel. The jaw is hinged, but loosely: it moves up and down, but it doesn't stay where you place; on the plus side, that means the jaw moves on its own as you turn his head, as if he were talking. The shoulders are swivel/hinge joints, so at least he can flail around pretty well. Still, why no waist? Tarman moves around a lot in the film, so you can't even make excuses for his immobility here.

The zombies in Return of the Living Dead broke tradition by actually being called "zombies," and they actually originated one of the most famous zombie tropes of all: they eat brains. Romero zombies eat flesh. All flesh. Whatever flesh they can grab. Russo zombies eat brains. They bite through your skull and eat your brain, because it alleviates the pain of decomposition (somehow). They're also the ones who walk around moaning "braaaiiiins," which is associated with all zombies, even when it's not true. Tarman is the first to speak, the first to declare his desire for some of that sweet, sweet skull-fruit, so it's fitting that the figure comes with a brain that's had a bite taken out of it.

He also comes with a display base meant to represent the basement of the Uneeda Medical Supply company. There's a spot where the brain can rest, some broken boards (possibly from the third step on the stairs), a lead pipe (perfect for locking yourself safely inside a cabinet) and, for some odd reason, the lid of a Trioxin canister that appears to be embedded in the wall. You can see the "pre-Tarman" Tarman zombie hunched up in there, but the canister was basically a 55 gallon drum with a window on the lid - how is it resting flat against a wall? It's like they wanted to include it as an Easter egg for fans of the film, but then couldn't find a logical way to hatch it. The base is 5¾" x 4" x 3⅜", and features two footpegs to attach the figure securely.

Tarman is a memorable zombie, and a groundbreaking one, as well: he's the first to talk, the first to crave brains, and the first to really use complex reasoning in his quest for said brains. He looks great, but doesn't make for a very good toy. So he'll be a nice bit of scenery if you can get him cheap, but disappointing if you pay too much.

-- 10/25/13

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