The story of how “The Return of the Living Dead” (TROTLD) actually came to exist in the first place reads, at first blush, like the painful unfurling of a typical Hollywood nightmare scenario: it’s the story of how two innovative young independent filmmakers from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - George A. Romero and John Russo – created a revolution in horror with their grungy black & white 1968 zombie classic “Night of the Living Dead”, but then fell into dispute over which direction they should take their newly spawned franchise. Amid much back-and-forth legal wrangling, they went their separate creative ways and each developed individual visions apart, Romero, of course, going on to create what has since become the definitive, official run of post-“Night …” sequels (although some might say he’s dropped the ball somewhat with his most recent efforts). Russo, meanwhile, hasn’t been quite so successful in bringing his own preferred vision to the screen: a re-edited 30th Anniversary release of “Night of the Living Dead” incorporating Russo’s newly shot scenes provoked unanimous dismay and ridicule when released in 1999; but Russo’s derailed attempts to get his own alternative sequel screenplay made is where our tale of Hollywood horrors really takes root, though: originally intended as a serious follow-up to the script he’d developed alongside Romero all those years previously, with ideas involving ad hoc religious cults springing up in response to the first zombie outbreak (a favourite Russo theme in much of his subsequent work), the film which actually appeared as a result of the involvement of would-be producer Tom Fox ended up becoming an entirely different beast after Russo was edged out of his own project and Fox brought in a new screenwriter to retool the entire thing … as a punk rock horror comedy!!
It sounds like a cruel joke, but what spoils this particular story of Hollywood skulduggery and behind the scenes maleficence is that the screenwriter who took over the project (and eventually manoeuvred himself into the director’s seat too, despite not much proven previous experience in such a job) turned out to be a driven genius of a man called Dan O’Bannon. He’d already assured himself cinematic immortality after working on the script for John Carpenter’s debut, “Dark Star” and collaborating with Ronald Shusett on the screenplays for Ridley Scott’s “Alien” and Gary Sherman’s cult horror sleeper “Dead and Buried”. In his screenplay for what became “The Return of the Living Dead”, O’Bannon junked literally everything Russo had planned to do, and instead concocted his own compellingly trashy and imaginative take on the contemporary zombie genre, which cleverly sets itself up as existing in the same world as Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” while spinning off from it with the development of a whole new and unique set of zombie traits and a separate mythology to boot.
The film succeeds in its own right as a direct result of being freed from all constraints of plausibility by the comedy direction the new script was now able to accommodate. O’Bannon’s screenplay actually starts off with characters discussing the film’s source, the original “Night of the Living Dead”, when a middle-aged Medical warehouse foreman Frank (James Karen) tries to impress a youthful trainee called Freddy (Thom Matthews) on his first day on the job, with stories about how the zombie classic was based on real events (O’Bannon compounds the joke, here, by actually starting the film with its own caption, claiming the outrageous events we are about to see are also completely true – satirising a common enough marketing ploy that’s still often used with success today). When the lad objects -- quite logically pointing out that the Romero film couldn’t possibly have been true because ‘it showed zombies taking over the world’, Frank idly dismisses Freddy’s disbelief with the get-out-of-jail-free rejoinder, ‘Well … they changed a lot of the facts around!’
As it happens, alongside the skeletons, split dogs and plastic-wrapped cadavers kept in a walk-in freezer, all waiting to be shipped out to medical colleges and hospitals across the country, the supply warehouse is also home to the remainder of the decades-old canisters of the military nerve agent Trioxin, supposedly responsible for the original zombie outbreak depicted in Romero’s film but now hidden away in the store’s basement. Frank finishes up his tour of the warehouse’s ghoulish delights by taking Freddy down to the basement to see one of the inactive corpses, sealed up alongside the remainder of this lethal substance. Unfortunately, his over enthusiastic cheerleading of the US military’s engineering competence when Freddy questions the safety of having this stuff hanging about the place is accompanied by him loudly tapping the canister for extra emphasis: a foolhardy act as it turns out, which causes an impromptu release of deadly Trioxin fumes and the re-animation of Tarman - one of the best-loved zombies in the genre …
Frank and Freddy are established as a likable double act from the start, although it’s the relationship which is the main source of the film’s best comedy moments rather than any actual jokey set-pieces. When they’re joined by their laconic boss, Bert (Clu Gulager), the hapless trio’s efforts to deal with their re-animated corpse ‘problem’ and cover the whole sorry episode up, only result in a further escalation of the incident. They look for help from Ernie (Don Calfa), an old pal of Burt’s who works late at the nearby crematorium and who suggests burning the body in the oven. But the fumes from the burning zombie turn out to be as dangerous as the original Trioxin, causing toxic rainfall which soaks into the ground of the cemetery where Freddy’s unsuspecting college friends have gathered to party while they wait for him to knock off work. These ‘kids’ are a freakish assembly, contrived to appeal to every youth tribe still existent in the mid-’80s (and who, in reality, would never be seen dead in each other’s company): a leather-and-chain-clad skinhead called Suicide (Mark Venturini) and a Mohican hair-sporting punk by the name of Scuz (Brian Peck); terminally grumpy New Romantic Casey (Jewel Shepard) and the floppy-haired college nerd hoping to ‘woo’ her, Chuck (John Philbin); and finally cool black street kid Spider (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.), a freaky pink-haired exhibitionist who goes by the name Trash (Linnea Quigley,) and cute girl next door (Freddy’s girlfriend) Tina (Beverly Randolph) are the unlikely friends whose midnight partying on the crypts goes in an unexpectedly unpleasant direction and results in them having to join Freddy, Burt and Ernie in the crematorium, where they attempt to barricade themselves against the increasing zombie hordes.
O’Bannon’s best move is to beak with the mythology established in Romero’s films and copied by just about everyone else at the time, which is that zombies can be disposed of by removing the head or disabling the brain, usually with a gunshot. The film makes a big point out of emphasising that this simply doesn’t work in this version of zombie lore (‘you mean the movies lied?!’ says Freddy as he Burt and Frank hammer a pick axe into a zombie’s head with no discernible effect). It also means that once re-animated, these zombies are virtually indestructible, something which (curiously) makes them at once scarier but also funnier – this is probably the key big idea of the film: the situation gets more and more out of control and impossible to contain, and every attempt to stop the zombie plague by disposing of the bodies only makes the epidemic worse. There’s actually a pretty acerbic environmentalist message lurking behind all this madness!
O’Bannon also dispenses with the idea of the shuffling, inarticulate zombie: many of those seen here are capable not only of fast movement (one of the running jokes of the movie involves a succession of paramedics and cops walking into exactly the same zombie-instigated flash mob ambush) but are self-aware and capable of speech, as is emphasised when Ernie ties the remaining torso of one particularly rotted and aged female zombie, recently risen from the graveyard, to his morticians’ table and interviews it in order to find out why the revenants are so desperate for human brains. Indeed, this was the film which first established zombies as exercising a particular culinary craving for brains rather than just human flesh in general. Although Lucio Fulci’s undead enjoyed gouging brains, they expressed no particular interest in feasting on them in “City of the Living Dead”.
Today, the film is an eighties period piece to be sure – a satire on both Romero’s zombie legacy and on mid-decade teen-orientated John Hughes comedies of the 1980s, during the course of which the ensemble of over-dressed youths who play Freddy’s friends replicate in pantomime version every teen fashion fad of the (then) past two decades … while attempting to avoid having their brains eaten by rotting, mud-caked zombies, newly arisen from the neglected local cemetery. But it works because the resultant comedy performances and slapstick prating come laced with a dose of anti-establishment cynicism that is as acute in its own way as anything in Romero’s anti-military zombie sequel (released the same year) “Day of the Dead”, softening up the viewer with laughs for what is still, to this day, the sudden appearance of some pretty heavy duty gore-drenched nastiness once the madness really kicks in. Few alleged horror comedies manage to strike quite the ambivalent tone as TROTLD manages while still feeling like a coherent and confident piece of work: at some points it’s almost like watching the bastard offspring of Lucio Fulci and Jim Henson (two of the main characters share the names of “Sesame Street” regulars, after all); one second we’re presented with a gambolling, bog-eyed revenant (the infamous ‘Tarman’ memorably played by Allan Trautman) lurching comically towards the camera while hollering ‘brains!!! … live brains!’, the next a victim is actually having their brain gouged out of their skull in as graphically hideous a fashion as anything the Italian master could have concocted in his run of early-eighties splatter classics.
Perhaps the most indicative example of how the movie is able to straddle the conflicting realms of humour and horror is summed up by the arc Freddy and Frank’s characters embark on over the course of the story, which sees them go from being likable, clownish comic characters to increasingly tragic ones as they very gradually realise the awful fate their exposure to the Trioxin has left them facing. The music is as dated as the fashions of course, conforming to an already-outmoded-at-the-time US conception of indie ‘New Wave’ which is really a glossily produced, commercial, middle of the road post-punk melange of styles. The Cramps and The Damned (from the original soundtrack - now made available here alongside the remixed version which removed their contribution) still retain their garage band cool perhaps, but mostly everything else here serves to underline the movie’s period origins - although it also still provides its original function, which is to convey a sense of freewheeling irreverence and a rollercoaster ride of crowd-pleasing, ‘anything goes’ recklessness.
The film looks excellent in HD and comes with three audio options: the original soundtrack in PCM 2.0 and a remixed version (with a different Tarman voice and slightly re-arranged soundtrack) in DTS 5.1 Digital Surround and PCM 2.0. The extras list is long and comprehensive, including hours of great material. Heading the list is a two-hour documentary (longer than the main feature) entitled “More Brains: A Return To The Living Dead”, which gathers the entire cast and most of the production crew for a meticulous dissection of most every stage of the film’s development, shooting and reception. Although the tone is jovial and light throughout, it becomes apparent that this was an extremely difficult and trying experience for some of the people involved. The documentary doesn’t shy away from addressing, for example, Dan O’Bannon’s sometimes difficult and demanding personality during the making of the film and the fact that he wasn’t too great at dealing with people at the time. The mutual dislike some of the cast members had for each other is also frankly addressed; and the difficulties special makeup artist William Munns had in satisfactorily realising some of the effects that were needed for the film to the satisfaction of both O’Bannon and production designer William Stout is given a thorough airing. Both sides of every dispute are given equal time, but it’s clear that the low budget and harsh night shoot conditions contributed to a sometimes rather tense atmosphere. On the other hand, there are others on both the crew and in the cast, who remember it as the best time of their lives and seem oblivious to the tensions which existed elsewhere. It’s a very schizophrenic documentary in that regard, with a lot of participants flatly contradicting each other, but crammed with entertaining anecdotes and detailed images from O’Bannon’s beautifully drawn storyboards which make the film’s origins in the dark ‘50s humour of E.C. Comics all the more apparent.
This would’ve been enough by itself to give any viewer a pretty decent understanding of every aspect of the movie from the casting to the making of the special effects, but there’s far more to come. There’s a conversation with Dan O’Bannon: the final interview (28 mins), in which the director, filmed shortly before his death, responds to some of the issues raised in the preceding documentary, mostly agreeing that he was at fault in his dealings with both the crew and the cast and for the various disputes which erupted across the shoot, while still reserving special opprobrium for cinematographer Jules Brenner, whom O’Bannon claims was unwilling to follow instruction from someone like him who ‘knew nothing about filmmaking’. At the time, O’Bannon seems to have been rather an eccentric but single-minded individual who was obsessed with protecting himself from home invasion and always kept a gun within arm’s reach. Beverly Randolph remembers turning up at O’Bannon’s home for a line reading and being scared off by the sight of numerous guns just left lying around all over the director’s house, and O’Bannon addresses that issue here also.
Curiously, there are also detailed ‘making of’ documentaries for the next two Living Dead sequels in the increasingly diffuse franchise: “They Won’t Stay Dead: a look at Return of the Living Dead part 2” (28 mins, 32 secs) and “A Love from Beyond the Grave: a look at Return of the Living Dead part 3” (20 mins) in which the cast and crews talk candidly about each movie, including a contribution from director Brian Yuzna, who was responsible for directing the third in the series.
There’s a not-too-great music video for one of the best known tracks from the movie: “Tonight” by SSQ, featuring Stacy Q on vocals. (3 mins); and there’s an extra 15 minutes of deleted scenes and anecdotes from the main documentary. “The Return of the Living Dead in Three Minutes” is the cast and crew’s jokey re-enactment of the key scenes from the movie in order to provide a potted three minute version; and then we have 9 minutes, 37 seconds in the company of stars Brian Peck and Beverly Randolph as they revisit the California settings of the original movie.
“The origins of Return of the Living Dead” is a 15 minute featurette in which John Russo relates the complicated origins of the film, going back to his involvement in “Night of the Living Dead” and the various deals which eventually led to a very different movie from the one he had originally planned (a worthy novelisation of that first version has now been republished in the UK by Titan Books though). “The FX of the Living Dead” (21 mins, 29 secs) sees production designer William Stout, FX artist William Munns and special effects wizard Tony Gardner recounting how various iconic zombie effects such as the Tarman makeup and the half-corpse on the gurney were brought into existence. The sensitive issue of Munns’ sacking half-way through production is also addressed in full, once again. “Party Time” (19 mins, 09 secs) takes a look at the West Coast underground punk scene of the early-eighties in the company of 45 Grave lead singer Dinah Cancer and Enigma Records music consultant Steve Pross. The 45 Grave track ‘Party Time’ became one of the best loved songs on TROTLD’s soundtrack and was also used over the end titles. Here Dinah talks extensively about her career and the group’s involvement with the movie, while Pross relates how the soundtrack project first came together. Finally two trailers for TROTLD are included (3 mins).
The comedy horror genre is littered with ill-advised wrecks (many of them more recent TROTLD sequels), but Dan O’Bannon put together an ingenious, witty spin-off full of laughs and scares in equal measure which captured the warped spirit of its E.C. Comics influences far more successfully than most other attempts to portray that unique yet cynical spirit which was exemplified in the artwork of artists such as Graham Ingels back in the 1950s. The cartoony punk characters, the memorable dialogue and sometimes gruesome effects create a uniquely entertaining and fun picture, and it gets an excellent airing in this new UK Blu-ray version from Second Sight. The film is also simultaneously released on DVD.
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