The Return of the Living Dead retrospective

“More Bbbrrrrraaaaiiiinnnnsssss” ever wondered where that popular zombie trope comes from. Well wonder no more because it is the subject of this week’s retrospective so let’s take a look back at The Return of the Living Dead.

Which is a 1985 American comedy horror film directed by Dan O’Bannon and is also a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, so how the hell did we end up getting two sequels that spawned separate highly influential cult film franchises that have gone on to define zombie horrors to this day from the one movie, let’s start at the very beginning.

John Russo co-wrote Night of the Living dead with Romero but they parted ways with each other after that film had wrapped with Russo retaining the rights to use the moniker the Living Dead. 

Whereas Romero was free to use the concepts they had created in any future films he may want to go on and make using the Dead as a moniker. 

Which he eventually did making Dawn of the Dead and it’s four sequels, with several remakes and 12 unauthorised sequels and or remakes also having been produced of this series.

As it turns out Russo was a prolific author and that is where the original genesis of this particular film lies, with his book of the same name. 

Originally Russo and his producer Tom Fox planned to bring the book to the big screen via 3D which was a craze in the early to mid-80’s believe it or not with Tobe Hooper in the directors chair, he of Lifeforce fame. Another movie I covered on this channel last year.

Dan O’Bannon the eventual director was actually brought in to give the script a bit of polish and ended up being offered the Director gig when Hooper backed out to go direct Lifeforce instead.

He accepted on the one condition he could give the script a major overhaul to differentiate this series from that of Romero’s Dead series. Saying that it was too much of a serious attempt at making a sequel to the original, and he did not want to

“…intrude so directly on Romero’s turf.” 

He rewrote the film to occur in a fictional universe where Night of the Living Dead is a movie “based on true events”, with more humor, up to the point where it only superficially resembled the novel.

The Return of the Living Dead was a moderate commercial success on release earning $14.23 million on a budget of $4 million.

But has earned far more rave reviews critically holding a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes with that man Roger Ebert again pontificating that the film is: 

“kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it’s done with style. It is.”

I am a massive fan of horror comedies. So I really appreciated the direction this movie went in to differentiate it from Romero’s series that has a mix of social commentary, sometimes humour and horror.

I think a straight sequel to Night of the living dead without Romero’s genius for blending the horror with social satire would probably have failed to have hit the right note with me.

One thing that always hits the spot for me is Linnea Quigley and she gives probably her most infamous performance of her career here. Stripping then dancing full frontally nude on top of a gravestone about 20 minutes in, before being naked for the rest of the film’s 90 minute runtime.

I first watched this as a fairly young person and for 3 decades now I have always thought she was full frontally nude. Turns out VHS and old TV hid a multitude of sins because researching this movie I discovered that, at first she was and in fact showed pubic hair. 

However, producer Graham Henderson visited the shoot that day, threw a temper tantrum and told Dan O’Bannon that “You can’t show pubic hair on television”. 

So they sent her away and told her to shave the area in question, which is the part Linnea herself found embarrassing apparently. 

Then whilst doing another take, Graham Henderson cried out “Oh god it’s even worse, you can see everything!”. 

At this point they sent her over to Bill Munz and William Stout, where they made a crotch piece and glued it on. 

So she isn’t in fact fully naked at all in her own words she is “like a department store mannequin.”

The nude scene absolutely encapsulates and sums up this movie’s manic punk energy and style that is exuded throughout, more than complimented by the amazing soundtrack which features several legendary LA based punk bands of the mid-80’s, it absolutely matches the pace, energy and style of the action on screen.

The zombies themselves are really well done and were based on bog-people from Wales and desiccated Mummies from Mexico. Being a mixture of puppetry, make up, costumes and practical effects meaning they have aged well and don’t look too ridiculous and in parts are very gross looking.

This picture did however popularize various zombie tropes in the popular imagination, with it being the first to have zombies eat brains and groan “braaaaaiiiiinnnnssss” as they shuffle along. 

It was also the first appearance of zombies being able to run, talk and be capable of a modicum of intelligent thought and planning rather than just possessing base animal instincts.

All tropes that are more or less fairly normalised in modern zombie horrors, even if they are all mainly played for laughs here.

The cast are absolutely playing this entirely for laughs and seemingly perfectly aware of what they are making so their goofy acting, scenery chewing and general over the top style perfectly mesh with the films tone and comedic stylings.

James Karen as Frank and Clu Gulager as Burt are the obvious standouts.

All of the above combines to create what is in my mind a flawless zombie horror comedy. 

Whereas last week’s flick was probably the greatest zombie horror film of all time, this week could well lay claim to being the greatest zombie horror comedy of all time.

The film also went on to spawn four sequels that provided less entertainment as the series went on sadly.

So that was the Return of the Living Dead, a movie based on a book that was a straight sequel to a movie that had already spawned a massively influential zombie horror series so went in an entirely different direction being just as equally successful in that endeavour in my mind.  

If you’ve made it this far you may as well drop me a like, a comment and maybe even think about subscribing because next week I’m doing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or the Goonies or maybe Tremors or something I will be doing something (it is something else entirely).

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