John Russo who helped write the screenplay Night of the Living Dead went on to write his own sequel to the 1968 film, called Return of the Living Dead. Since both Russo and Romero owned the rights to Night each of them retained privileges to its title. Romero kept Dead and Russo was able to keep Living Dead. John Russo wrote his screenplay the same year Romero released Dawn of the Dead (1978). An independent producer, Tom Fox, purchased his script and gave it to Dan O’Bannon. Return of the Living Dead was released into theaters one month after Day of the Dead and received an instant fan base and reputation as a punk inspired horror/comedy.
Originally Tom Fox wanted Tobe Hooper to direct the film and supposedly it was to be in 3-D, but Hooper was tied up working on his film Lifeforce and could not take the job. Dan O’Bannon was connected to Lifefoce as the writer and had been interested in directing so Fox gave the script over to him. O’Bannon began his film career working along side John Carpenter in his first film Dark Star (1974) and went on to win acclaim for his screenplay for Alien (1979). O’Bannon didn’t want to make a sequel to Night of the Living Dead which is all that Russo’s original script was. He felt it was too serious and re-wrote the screenplay with more humor. The executive producers tried to contact George Romero to offer him a chance to produce the film but were never successful in reaching him. Return of the Living Dead parodies Romero’s vision and makes fun of his conventions such as destroy the brain and kill the ghoul, to the slow moving and mentally inferior walking dead. The film is full of references to Romero’s trilogy while still being a complete film on its own.
“The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.” – A phony disclaimer at the beginning of Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead
O’Bannon’s film as Reynold Humphries wrote, “cleverly alternates monumentally sick humor and superbly creepy and atmospheric sequences in a cemetery. The film is less a spoof of Night than a successful working through of a number of elements from the Romero film (134).” Frank (James Karen) tells Freddy (Thom Mathews) in the opening of the film, ”Did you ever see that movie Night of the Living Dead? It was all based on a true story.” Frank proceeds to tell him that Romero was forced to hide the truth about the army’s experiments, and that the real story was covered up. The Daryl chemical company created a gas called 245 Tri-Oxin to spray on marijuana fields, but instead of destroying pot it reanimated corpses. Freddy is scared by the story but remains skeptical. Then Frank asks him if he wants to see them. Apparently the army took the reanimated corpses and shoved them into canisters to keep the epidemic from spreading and the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse has stored a few of the canisters. Through, “a typical army fuckup,” they were sent a few zombies. Frank and Freddy head down to the basement and check out the drums. Frank opens the cover to one of the canisters and protected by a plate of glass they look at a deteriorated corpse. “Do these things leak?” Freddy asks. “Leak! These things were made by the army core of engineers,” Frank replies as he hits the tank. The side of the canister tears open and gas escapes into the air. Frank and Freddy take a deep breath and start coughing as they fall to the floor. The credit sequence begins with Frank and Freddy convulsing on the floor as the gas seeps into every crack of the building, including the cadaver locker.
When Frank and Freddy wake up they are covered in sweat and look extremely pale. They climb the stairs and realize the cadaver has come back to life. Frank decides to call the boss, “Burt… It’s me, Frank, we have a bit of a problem.” Clu Gulager plays Burt Wilson the owner of Uneeda and has perfect comedic timing. His brilliant solution is to destroy the zombie and get rid of the evidence so his business won’t suffer from the bad publicity. “How do you kill something that’s already dead?” Freddy asks. Burt relates to Night of the Living Dead and figures if they destroy the brain they can kill the zombie. When Freddy unlocks the door to the cadavers we see our first glimpse at this evolved zombie. This zombie screams and more importantly runs after Burt. They pull the zombie down to the ground and Burt drives a pickaxe into the cadaver’s head. Frank screams out, “The brain! The brain!” Burt shouts back, “I hit the fucking brain!” “Well it worked in the movie,” Frank says. Freddy in total shock yells out, “didn’t the movie lie?” Burt grabs a hacksaw and saws off the cadaver’s head, but even then the zombie runs around without his head trying to kill them. Here we realize that these zombies are immortal and cannot be stopped. Night’s zombies were easy to escape or destroy; you just ran away from them or hit their head with whatever weapon was handy. Even when Burt enlists the help of his mortician friend Ernie and burns the cut up cadaver in his crematorium, the undead threat continues. The smoke from the reanimated corpse is so thick it causes a storm and when it rains down the chemical seeps into a nearby cemetery bringing all of those corpses back to life. As Freddy’s friends - a gang of me-generation punk stereotypes - figure out, the rain is like acid rain, so full of 245 Tri-Oxen that it burns the skin. The zombies that dig themselves out of their graves come back with one motive, to eat as many brains as possible. These corpses aren’t the all-consuming zombie culture we are accustomed to; they only eat brains. They represent punk culture’s ‘damning of the man,’ saying that the government is trying to conform all of us by limiting information from the masses. These undead lobotomize everyone they come across, leaving their victims to become slaves to their own ignorance.
“They turn out to be able to talk, a new element that the film exploits for ghoulish humor but also to disturbing effect (pg.134 The American Horror Film).”
While O’Bannon’s zombies retain speech and mobility, their every action is in accordance to their need to dull the pain of being dead. After the death of one of the punks, Burt and Ernie are able to pull in one of the zombies and tie her down. This zombie is only the top half of a woman’s skeleton, her spinal column wags like a tale as she answers Ernie’s questions. She tells them that her appetite is not for people, but for brains because they help to relieve “the pain of being dead.” Knowing that these corpses feel pain goes against everything logical: the dead are not supposed to feel anything. This destroys our view of a peaceful afterlife, showing instead that at the moment you die you feel the ache of your muscles and flesh stiffening and the pain of deteriorating. In Return there is no God or afterlife; there is only flesh and suffering.
It is only fitting that the people trapped in this situation are punk stereotypes and business owners more concerned with public view than the safety of their fellow man. Freddy’s friends include his girlfriend Tina, (Beverly Randolph) a good-girl that doesn’t seem to fit in the group, Casey (jewel Shepard), Chuck (John Philbin), Spider (Miguel A. Nunez Jr.), Trash (Linnea Quigley), and Suicide (Mark Venturini). All of them drive to pick up Freddy from his first day of work at Uneeda, but have a few hours to kill before he gets off. They all decide to hang out in a graveyard to pass the time. In the same fashion as the original Night this John Hughes mix of anarchists shows total disrespect towards the dead. They party with “The Cramps” playing loudly on a boom box and discus partying and suicide. Trash describes the worst way imaginable to die. “Do you ever fantasize… about being killed? I think the worst way would be to have a group of dirty old men grabbing me and ripping my clothes off…” Trash undresses and dances naked on top of a tomb. In this scene Linnea Quigley single-handedly became known as the ‘B’ movie scream queen. This group’s nihilism eventually causes their death. By making a mockery of the dead, they have sealed their fate to a death filled with irony.
Return of the Living Dead is a good zombie film not because it makes fun of Romero’s conventions, or spoofs the genre successfully, but because it is also filled with social satire like Night, Dawn, and Day. The gore effects look believable and the zombies have a wonderful aesthetic to them because they have just crawled through mud and are drenched by the rain. From sawing a corpses head off to bits of brain matter lying all around this is a genuine zombie film, not just a typical horror comedy. The true intellect of this film, aside from a group of people running around desiring ‘more brains,’ is presented in the finale of the film. Burt finally calls the army’s number listed on the side of the canister and gets transferred to Col. Horance Glover (Jonathan Terry) who assures Burt that they have a plan on dealing with the crisis. Col. Glover has been searching for twenty years for his lost “batch of Easter eggs.” As he says to his higher ranks, “unfortunately one of the eggs hatched.” He gives the coordinates to a private in a missile silo who punches them into a computer. A nuclear warhead is loaded and shot toward the area. The army’s brilliant way of dealing with the zombie crisis is, of course, nuclear warfare. In a decade of cold war, where nuclear threat ruled our government, it seems only right that the Army would desecrate an entire neighborhood of a town to extinguish any threat. In a conversation between the private and the corporal we hear that the Army is relieved to know that only a few thousand have died as a result and left hundreds with burns. The private tells Glover that it has started to rain so the fires will put themselves out. It sounds like they are congratulating each other for a job well done. The Army may have destroyed twenty city blocks, but have saved the rest of Louisville, Kentucky and America with their ‘fail-safe plan.’