Film Review: The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Directed by Dan O'Bannon, written by Dan O'Bannon, John A. Russo, Russell Steiner, and Rudy Ricci, and starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Miguel A. Núñez, Jr., Linnea Quigley, and Beverly Randolph.

"In 1966, Darrow Chemical Company was ordered by the military to develop the top secret chemical Trioxin. They were told it would be for marijuana defoliation. An accidental leak into the Pittsburgh VA Hospital morgue resulted in a contamination that literally reanimated corpses. The Army Corps of Engineers obtained the bodies in a cryonic state inside airtight biohazard drums. A shipment of six drums was lost in the rushed transport to a storage facility. The bio-warfare experimentation that could create indestructible soldiers in the event of war was launched using this new weapon: 2, 4, 5 Trioxin. The military’s orders to medical supply warehouses for cadavers are common and assumed to be for ballistic tests. What the Army did not know is that the lost Easter Eggs had been rotting in the basement of the nation’s largest medical supply warehouse in an industrial park outside Louisville, Kentucky. All was revealed the night of Friday, July 3, 1984 and by Independence Day, 12 hours after the last Egg hatched, yet another cover up had begun…"
In 1968, George Romero and John Russo released their zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, which would go on to inspire hundreds of horror movies. Romero and Russo went their separate ways, and both continued the saga in their own form. The Return of the Living Dead is Russo's answer to a sequel. The zombie rules in The Return have changed since Night of the Living Dead: they crave brains instead of human flesh, they can speak (which subsequently made its way into Romero's Day of the Dead the same year as well), they are much stronger and more intelligent, and destroying the brain no longer works. Only burning their bodies completely destroys them.

But most notable of all is the fact that these zombies can run. That's right. Zombies stopped walking and started running back in 1985. It wasn't 28 Days Later, or Zach Snyder's Dawn of the Dead remake. It was The Return of the Living Dead. Casual zombie fans often overlook this because usually the only zombie movies they've seen before the last ten years are Romero's films. Thus one can even gain a whole new perspective on Romero's dread for the fast moving undead considering his dispute with Russo, who continued his own version of sequels to their original creation. Perhaps Romero still holds a grudge and doesn't take too well to people enjoying and becoming inspired by his former colleague's own series.

"The same year Day of the Dead premiered, Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo released a film titled Return of the Living Dead. Russo's film offers an alternate continuity to the original film than Dawn of the Dead, but acted more as a satire than a sequel. Russo's film spawned four sequels. The last two — Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis and Return of the Living Dead: Rave from the Grave — were released in 2005 as television movies. Return of the Living Dead sparked a legal battle with Romero, who believed Russo marketed his film in direct competition with Day of the Dead as a sequel to the original film. In the case Dawn Associates v. Links, Romero accused Russo of 'appropriat[ing] part of the title of the prior work', plagiarizing Dawn of the Dead's advertising slogan ('When there is no room in hell [...] the dead will walk the earth'), and copying stills from the original 1968 film. Romero was ultimately granted a restraining order that forced Russo to cease his advertising campaign. Russo, however, was allowed to retain his title."

Together, Romero and Russo created the modern image of zombie horror, but without Romero, Russo created modern zombie camp that still resonates today, and has gone on to inspire countless cult classic, horror genre films. But not all credit can go to Russo, since "O'Bannon refused to direct it as it was written. He felt that it was too much of a serious attempt at making a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, and did not want to 'intrude so directly on Romero's turf.' It was re-written with more humor." The acting is cheesy, but intentionally so, as is the dialog, which gives more than a few good laughs. The soundtrack is a stand-alone classic, featuring deathrock and punk rock bands like SSQ, The Cramps, 45 Grave, The Damned, and The Flesheaters. But this review can't go on without mentioning the infamous Tarman, the first zombie to mutter "BRAAAINS..." on screen. Taking that into account, and his gruesome visage, even by today's standards, one can count Tarman among the few truly creepy zombies in horror history. Few living dead have appeared so disgusting.
The series has spawned four sequels since it all began, and has definitely lost its luster along the way. George Romero may not be too happy with Russo's spin-off from their Night of the Living Dead, but no one else can deny that this was Russo at his best. If he had instead opted for a more serious take on his quasi-sequel like he originally intended, I can safely say that it would not be as well remembered as this fond classic. So thank Dan O'Bannon for that. One last interesting tidbit: "Some of the zombie extras were paid more to eat real calf brains in the film. Dan O'Bannon didn't want the actors to do anything he wasn't willing to do and ate some raw calf brains first in front of them." Punks, zombies, nudity, gore, camp; what more could you possibly need? One has to wonder though, if Hot Topic had been around in 1985, then would the goth and punk kids have been hanging out there instead of a cemetery? If they would have, then they would have been just fine, right? I'd like to think so.

Best quote: "I try not too think about dying too much."

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