The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 American zombie comedy film that was followed by several sequels. The film was written and directed by Dan O'Bannon and starred Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph and Linnea Quigley.
The film tells the story of how two men accompanied by a group of teenage punks deal with the accidental release of a horde of brain hungry zombies onto an unsuspecting town. The film is also known for its soundtrack, which features several noted deathrock and punk rock bands of the era. The film was a critical success and performed moderately well at the box office. It also spawned four sequels.
The film begins with a prelude screen proclaiming that the movie is based on actual events and states that the names and events are all real. At the Uneeda medical supply warehouse in Louisville, KY, foreman Frank informs his clumsy new employee, Freddy, that the film Night of the Living Dead was based on true events that occurred when a gas called 245 Trioxin was released into the morgue in the basement of a Pittsburgh, PA VA hospital, causing the bodies to jerk around as if they were alive. The military, unable to get a handle on the situation ended up putting all the corpses into barrels and sealing them shut. The story eventually leaked out, and although the government allowed Night of the Living Dead to be made, they ordered the filmmakers to alter the story and say it was fictional. Through a clerical error, the few barrels containing the Trioxin-infected bodies were shipped to the warehouse and have remained there for 14 years. A skeptical Freddy doesn't buy it, so Frank takes him to the basement and shows him the barrels. Inside the windowed barrel, they see the now-mummified remains of a human body . When Freddy becomes concerned about the barrel's durability, Frank tries to reassure him of its solid military construction by slapping it on the side. Unfortunately, the barrel springs a leak, exposing both men to the Trioxin, which knocks them unconscious. The body's eyelids and skin dissolve and the gas is shown escaping into the vents of the warehouse, eventually getting into the cadaver freezer.
Meanwhile, Freddy's girlfriend, Tina, and their friends (Casey, Chuck, Spider, Scuz, Trash and Suicide) are going to pick up Freddy from the warehouse after his shift. They arrive early, and, in an effort to pass the time, decide to hang out in the cemetery next door. In the warehouse, Freddy and Frank awaken and see that the body in the canister is gone. Assuming it completely dissolved upon contact with the air, they head upstairs to try and sort things out. The two hear a strange noise coming from one of the shelves, and upon investigating, discover that a bisected dog anatomy display has returned to life, whimpering in pain and panting. Horrified, Freddy and Frank attempt to silence the dog by bashing it with a walking crutch. Soon, other things in the warehouse, such as the dead butterfly display, begin reanimating as well, culminating in the screams of the cadaver in the warehouse freezer. After several minutes of panic, the two decide to call their boss, Burt Wilson.
Burt arrives a short time later, and after Freddy and Frank explain the situation, Burt angrily scolds Frank for going near the tanks. The three devise a plan to kill the zombie cadaver based on the method that worked in Night of the Living Dead: bash it in the head. Upon opening the freezer, the cadaver runs for Burt and after wrestling it to the ground, Burt impales its head with a pick axe. Despite this, the body continues to thrash around, even when they cut off its head with a bone saw. The three men decide to take it over to the mortuary next door, run by Burt's old friend Ernst "Ernie" Kaltenbrunner, and have it cremated.
Meanwhile, back in the cemetery, night has fallen and the gang of kids are listening to music and talking amongst themselves. Tina is worried about Freddy, who should have been off work by now. She leaves the group to go investigate. Meanwhile, the discussion turns to death and imagining the worst possible way to die. Trash imagines the worst way for her to die would be to be surrounded by a bunch of old men that start eating her alive. As she says this, she rips off her clothing and begins dancing to the music atop a grave, much to Spider's delight.
At the mortuary, Burt, Frank and Freddy convince Ernie to cremate the sawed up remains of the still twitching cadaver. Though the furnace successfully destroys the zombie, Trioxin-contaminated smoke is released into the clouds, causing it to rain. In the cemetery, the kids, after discovering that the rain burns their skin, seek refuge in their car, but are forced to move into the warehouse when the car's convertible roof starts to leak.
Meanwhile, inside the warehouse, Tina wanders into the basement to look for Freddy, where she notices the empty Trioxin canister. Disgusted by the smell, she turns to leave, but notices someone moving around behind some hanging sheets. Unfortunately, it is the reanimated corpse from the canister, half-melted and covered in black tar who greets her by saying "Brains!". She immediately tries to flee upstairs, but falls back down after a step breaks (with the zombie slowly following behind), and quickly locks herself in a locker. The zombie, desperate for Tina's brain, finds a chain and begins pulling off the door with a winch.
Tina's friends, hearing her scream, head into the basement to look for her, and find the zombie still trying to pull the locker's door off. Suicide tries to see who's doing this and pulls back the sheet where the zombie is standing. The zombie turns around and bites the top off of Suicide's skull, killing him. Tina escapes the locker and runs to Spider's arms. Spider picks up a paint can and throws it at the zombie (who's busy eating Suicide's brain). The zombie looks up and sees the rest of them and happily cheers "More brains!". This prompts the gang to immediately run upstairs. To make sure that the zombie doesn't come upstairs, Spider boards up the door so it can't get out. Fleeing the warehouse, they make a run for the mortuary, having seen some men enter it earlier. During this time, the tainted rain has been seeping into the ground, causing the dead bodies in the cemetery to reanimate. As the group takes refuge at the entrance to a mausoleum, they can hear the muffled screams and pounding of the dead under the earth. As they listen, they spot the skeletal remains of a corpse, rising from the ground, its eyes opening and jaw dropping. The group then proceeds to run in panic and splits up; Tina, Spider and Scuz heading for the mortuary, Chuck and Casey heading back to the warehouse, and Trash remaining behind in the graveyard. She falls into a puddle of muddy water, panicked and crying, only to be surrounded by a group of undead who proceed to eat her.
During this time, at the mortuary, Frank and Freddy are starting to feel very sick and are looking deathly ill. Ernie calls the paramedics. Tina, Spider and Scuz show up claiming that there are bodies getting up out of the ground in the cemetery. The paramedics arrive at the rear entrance and find that by all medical reasoning, Frank and Freddy are dead and shouldn't be moving around. The paramedics want to get them to the hospital for further testing and go to get the stretcher and report in to the dispatch. They are subsequently attacked by the zombies from the graveyard who proceed to request that the dispatch "send more paramedics." The mortuary is then attacked by the zombies at the front of the building and the remaining people start to board up the place. They then hear the second ambulance arriving and are witness to its instant mobbing and attack by the zombies. One of the boarded windows in the storage room is broken open and needs to be reinforced; during this, Scuz is killed but Ernie manages to snag half of the zombie that did it and subdues her. They take her back to the embalming room and tie her down and ask her questions. She is able to respond despite not having a lower half and suffering from decades of rot and decay. Asked why they attack and feed on people, she corrects Ernie and says "not people, BRAINS!" When asked why brains, she tells them it is the only thing that stops the pain of being dead: "I can feel myself rotting!", leading Ernie to the conclusion: "Apparently it hurts to be dead." The zombies attempt to break into the mortuary again and Ernie ends up breaking his ankle.
Meanwhile, Trash, who has become a zombie, entices a homeless person and bites into his skull. Police have been sent to investigate the two ambulances not reporting in and are attacked. The zombies radio to "send more cops." Frank and Freddy are slowly becoming zombies and are moved to the chapel area to be sealed in. Tina stays with Freddy who dies, reanimates and then tries to attack her. She screams for help and the others come to her. Freddy has acid splashed in his eyes and they manage to lock him into the chapel. Frank, meanwhile, before becoming a shambling zombie, makes his way to the cremation furnace and incinerates himself. It is decided that the only way they are going to be able to get help is to try to escape in the police car. Burt and Spider make a run to the car and are able to get in and move it to the door of the mortuary, however they quickly become surrounded by zombies and must leave without the others. They are able to make their way to the warehouse where they can try to phone the police to warn them of the situation. The police have set up a blockade around the area of the cemetery and send in several squad cars which are directed into the scene by a now zombified policeman. The cars are attacked and it is witnessed by a police helicopter overhead. At the warehouse, Casey and Chuck greet Burt and Spider and report that zombies have broken into the office. Unfortunately the telephone is in the same office. Burt suggests the one in the basement but the teens stop him and warn him about the canister zombie who's still down there trying to break out (with no luck because the door is boarded up). Burt says they have to try for the basement anyway. They unboard the door. Burt commands Spider to unlock and open the door. The zombie is released and slowly heads towards Burt, and Burt knocks its head off with a baseball bat. It sobs and staggers around without its head, unable to locate them and this allows them to get to the phone and Burt proceeds to call the police and ask to speak to the person in charge of the blockade. As they are connected, the zombies rush the blockade and we see the commander taken down by a now zombified Trash.
Disheartened by the noises from the phone, Burt calls the number on the side of the barrel. He is connected to Colonel Horace Glover who gets some information from Burt about location, time of occurrence, number of zombies, etc. Burt is then transferred again and explains to the teens that apparently the army has been expecting something like this to happen for a long time and have a plan in place to deal with it. Back at the mortuary, Ernie and Tina have escaped to the attic area of the embalming room as Freddy breaks out of the chapel screaming for Tina's brain.
Colonel Glover is connected to an artillery post and provides coordinates and clearance to launch a small yield nuclear attack in form of nuclear artillery at the location of the cemetery. All of these scenes culminate with the sound of the nuclear shell being fired: Burt still on hold, Freddy breaking into the attic with Ernie pointing his gun at Tina's head; planning on killing her and himself to avoid being eaten, the zombies standing and staring at the sky, a long whistle of a shell falling, and finally a shot of a small nuclear explosion. The film ends with Colonel Glover stating to his superior officers that the strike seems to have been successful and that reports are coming in of the only side effects being a little acid rain. Glover assures his superiors that this won't affect the President's trip to Louisville tomorrow morning at all. The last scene is the darkened cemetery from earlier in the film and the skeletal zombie rising from its grave, presumably intended to be a different cemetery and implying that the acid rain from the nuclear explosion only continued, if not exceeded, the horrific cycle.
During the end credits, some of the noteworthy moments of the movie is played over such as antics of Frank and Freddy, and the encounter with the zombie in the basement.
Clu Gulager as Burt Wilson
James Karen as Frank
Don Calfa as Ernst "Ernie" Kaltenbrunner
Thom Mathews as Freddy
Miguel A. Núñez Jr. as Spider
Beverly Randolph as Tina
Jewel Shepard as Casey
John Philbin as Chuck
Brian Peck as Scuz
Linnea Quigley as Trash
Mark Venturini as Suicide
Jonathan Terry as Colonel Horace Glover
The film has its roots in a novel by John Russo also called Return of the Living Dead. When Russo and George A. Romero parted ways after their 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Russo retained the rights to any titles featuring Living Dead while Romero was free to create his own series of sequels, beginning with Dawn of the Dead. Russo and producer Tom Fox planned to bring Return of the Living Dead to the screen in 3D and directed by Tobe Hooper. Dan O'Bannon was brought in to give the script a polish and after Hooper backed out to make Lifeforce (also from a script by Dan O'Bannon), O'Bannon was offered the director's seat. He accepted on the condition he could rewrite the film radically so as to differentiate it from Romero's films. Russo retains a story writer credit on the film for developing the project, but the final film bears little to no resemblance to his original novel. He later wrote a novelization of the film which was fairly faithful to the shooting script, though without the character names as in the final film and the addition of a KGB sublot as an explanation for the plot. (Russo would, eventually, make his own 'canon' series with a 1999 revised edition of Night of the Living Dead, subtitled the 30th Anniversary Edition, and its sequel, Children of the Living Dead.)
O'Bannon's script also differed from the Romero series in that it is markedly more comedy based than Romero's films, employing "splatstick" style morbid humor and eccentric dialogue. The films also boasted significant nudity, in marked contrast to Romero's work. Russo and O'Bannon were only directly involved with the first film in the series, the rest of the films, to varying degrees, stick to their outline and "rules" established in the first film.
Although the movie is set in Louisville, Kentucky, it was filmed in California. The Louisville police uniforms and patrol cars were all period correct which means the studio had to obtain permission from the Louisville city government to use the Louisville police department emblem. Neither the Louisville police nor the city of Louisville received any acknowledgement in the end credits.
The Tarman is performed by puppeteer Allan Trautman, who is best known for his work with Jim Henson and The Muppets.
The Return of the Living Dead was a critical and a moderate box office success. It currently holds an 88% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, and grossed $14,237,000 domestically on an estimated budget of $4,000,000. It was also nominated for four Saturn Awards, including Best Horror Film, Best Actor for James Karen, Best Director and Best Make-up, by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.
1."Surfin' Dead" by The Cramps
2."Partytime (Zombie Version)" by 45 Grave
3."Nothing for You" by T.S.O.L.
4."Eyes Without a Face" by The Flesh Eaters
5."Burn the Flames" by Roky Erickson
6."Dead Beat Dance" by The Damned
7."Take a Walk" by Tall Boys
8."Love Under Will" by Jet Black Berries
9."Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" by SSQ
10."Trash's Theme" by SSQ
The film was originally released on DVD in the UK by Tartan Home Video in 2001. This is the only time it has been issued in its original form. A year later and MGM released a Special Edition DVD in the US with a new cut of the movie (with music and dialogue alterations) with a commentary by O'Bannon and a documentary on the making of the film. The cover of the DVD case for the 2002 release glows in the dark. On September 11, 2007, a Collector's Edition of the film was released with additional extra features involving the cast. The different home video releases have featured different soundtracks, often changing the songs used. Also, the basement zombie's voice was re-recorded. Originally, the zombie's voice had a more high, raspier voice. The current voice has more bass in it and it is deeper.
In pop culture
The film was spoofed in an episode of South Park called "Pink Eye" where Kenny catches the pink eye and everyone becomes brain-eating zombies and its up to Stan, Kyle, Cartman and Chef to save the day.
Most of the merchandise based on the movie focuses primarily on the zombie, Tarman.
An action figure based on Tarman is due for release in 2010 by Amok Time Toys.
Fright-Rags released in March 2010 an limited edition of Tarman t-shirts and posters with an autograph from William Stout.
A book titled The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead is due out in August/September 2010. The book will cover ALL five ROTLD movies, focusing more on part 1. It will feature interviews from over 70 members of the cast and crew and will also feature over 150 never-before-published filmakers photos and film stills, posters.
Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)
Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005)
4.^ IMDb - "South Park" - Pink Eye (1997)
5.^ Tomb of Bloke - "ROTLD Tarman Action Figure"
6.^ Send More Cops - "Toys: Tarman, Bub, & Dr. Tongue action figures from Amoktime"
7.^ Limited Edition Tarman T-Shirt & Poster from Fright-Rags
8.^ News on 'Return of the Living Dead' Book Project in Jeopardy
9.^ Return of the Living Dead: 'The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead'
10.^ The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead (2010)