Not surprisingly, after each viewing of Return of the Living Dead, this conversation would take
place between my brother and I in our darkened house:
“You go up first.”
“No, you!”(repeat several times and add slapping and/or kicking)
“Ok, we’ll go up together…GO!”
And we’d all but trample each other trying to get up the stairs to the hallway light switch, because, as any kid knows, once you turn on a light, the monsters can’t get you.
And who were we frightened of? The formidable Tarman, of course. His bulging eyes, tendrils of goo dripping from his desiccated and gangrenous zombie body, and ridiculously pearly white toothy grin were enough to keep legions of kids from getting back to their bedrooms without some leakage of pee in their pajama bottoms.
Tarman terrified me to the nth degree as a kid. Before I saw ROTLD, there were few movies that made sleep nearly impossible. I saw ROTLD a few years after it came out, because we lived in a podunk town in Upstate New York where we didn’t get first run movies at our one screen theater and they certainly didn’t show a lot of horror unless it was Stephen King. In fact, we didn’t know many movies existed until they hit the shelf at the local video store.
At the time, I was really into Nightmare on Elm Street. Freddy was both my hero and something to be feared, a twisted love-hate relationship of sorts. My dad took my brother and I down to the video store one day to pick out a few flicks to watch while he and my mom went out for a date night, and instead of making a beeline for the Freddy stuff, the cover of ROTLD caught my eye. Two punk zombies, skeletons, cool graphics…couldn’t go wrong.
My brother and I always turned off all the lights and would hunker down in the living room armed with snacks and blankets before we’d settle in to watch scary stuff. It made the experience that much better. And so it went with our first viewing of Return. I remember being glad my dad hadn’t been home watching it with us when Trash got “nekkid”, because frankly that would have been more than a lot uncomfortable, and he might have even shut it off. But the scenes that will always stick with me most are the ones starring Tarman.
When Tarman first shambles out of the darkness, that’s classic. I remember I tensed up. After that, he was always lurking in the shadows, something to be feared in the darkened bedroom, the basement, or in the park behind the trees. Now I watch the movie and Tarman’s somewhat goofy, he’s almost laughable (“Brains!”)…but the kid inside me still looks around the room for the closest exit.
He was gross, he was freaky looking, he was GOOEY, and he wanted to eat our brains. There is no scarier creature than a zombie like that. One can’t connect with him on a human to human level; although he can speak, he’s barely human-like in form. He’s US, but he’s NOT. There is no other zombie like him anywhere in the zombie universe, and that’s what makes him special. (I refuse to acknowledge the existence of the second, sub par Tarman from ROTLD Part 2. Oh wait, I just did.)
Tarman still manages to get my hackles up, and I’m WAY older than I was when I first had the pleasure of viewing ROTLD. That’s impressive, since most of the horror greats I grew up with fail to affect me in the same manner they did back then (Freddy and Jason in particular). Long live Tarman, one of the great zombies of all time. I truly hope, one day quite a few years from now, he will also scare the bejesus out of my daughter.