Return of the Living Dead and Me

“Well didn’t the movie lie?!”

Its now commonplace for films to fit into multiple genres; the dramedy, sci-fi/horror, action/biopic, the abstract foreign western, etc. Before this trend of mashing film genres became commonplace, one film stood head and easily-cracked skulls above the rest; The Return of the Living Dead.

Arguably, Return of the Living Dead is the first true horror/comedy as it managed to blend both genres in equal measure without doing a disservice to either. In the interest of journalistic integrity, I will admit that the original ROTLD is my favorite film of all time. When times got tough financially for me a few years ago and my extensive DVD and Blu-Ray collections were sold to help make rent, only 3 or 4 films remained in my home.

Two of them were copes of ROTLD. One, the most recent Blue Ray release that included extras from previous releases such an in-depth making of/retrospective that was filmed shortly before the tragic death of the film’s writer/director Dan O’Bannon – a name familiar to many due to his writing of a little-known film directed by an unknown who I’m not sure has made any more films: Alien.

It also included a fantastic poster. The other copy of the film I kept was a UK release that unlike all US releases until the fantastic Blue Ray I just mentioned, had serious alterations to the soundtrack due to rights issues. Not so with the UK release, it was the first copy I found with the soundtrack intact ever since a cheap VHS copy bought for me as a gift when I was ten was stolen from the comic book store I owned. If I had realized how rare that release was, I never would have brought it to the shop.

With that out of the way, lets get to the brains of the matter: the film itself and the almost accidental making of a genre-bending classic.

When John Russo, one of the producers on George Romero’s cult classic Night of the Living Dead, wanted to make his own zombie film, he and Romero agreed they would be unconnected, yet due to their friendship, Night gets several prominent mentions in the film. However, Russo wasn’t allowed to use a title similar to Night of the Living Dead or George’s sequel Dawn of the Dead, so he settled on using Living Dead and the title eventually evolved into The Return of the Living Dead. Which made it sound like a sequel to something, but it wasn’t. It was very much its own thing.

“Its not weasels in the bags.”

One of my favorite tid-bits of info about the film involves the scenes that were shot with the character Freddy. If you watch closely you see that his high school letterman jacket isn’t that at all, it has ‘FUCK YOU’ printed in big flowery letters on the back. Dan O’Bannon was so committed to certain jokes in the film that they had a separate jacket made so that any scenes where Freddy turns his back to the camera it says ‘TV VERSION’ so the film could be shown on regular network television. Back in the days when Elvira, Dr. Paul Bearer, and others were carrying on the tradition of late-night horror hosts showing bad horror movies.

The film itself went through more than a few changes during pre-production. That’s not an uncommon thing in Hollywood, but with time, distance, and your paycheck not riding on it, looking back and finding the process amusing is much easier.

For one thing, it was originally advertised as being shot and presented in 3-D, however this was (and still is) an expensive process, and during the film’s preproduction the 3-D craze had seemingly come to an abrupt halt. So those plans went in the bin, a fate that the cinematography department wasn’t exactly shedding tears over.

That same early advertisement for the film in the trades also announced the film was written by the writer of Alien, which was totally true. It also announced that the man who took the slasher film genre to astounding heights with one low-budget film set in rural Texas featuring what must surely have been, in some alternate universe, Ed Gein’s extended family. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’s Tobe Hooper was set to direct the film. Zombies! The Writer of Alien! In 3-D! Helmed by the man who made power tools, the deep south, and roadside chili stands scary! How could it go wrong?

“Come in dispatch. Send. More. Paramedics.”

Well… it did.

Tobe Hooper gave several reasons over the years as to why he abandoned the project. My personal theory was Steven Spielberg was starting to put out pre-production feelers for his take on the ultimate haunted house film, Poltergeist, and he wanted Tobe Hooper to direct. With the chance to make a 3-D zombie film that was suddenly not 3-D, with people and filming formats dropping out left and right, it must have looked to Hooper like ROTLD might not happen at all, so he abandoned ship to work with Spielberg on Poltergeist. Oddly enough that lead to its own drama ongoing to this day as to who actually directed most of Poltergeist, with some alleging that Spielberg, heh, ghost directed most of it. Still, Hooper must have directed at least 51% of the film as his name is in the director’s slot.

So now our zombies were without a wrangler, the VFX department was turning out some pretty bad zombie masks, a lot of the zombies in the crowd shots didn’t have make up – they had paper appliances… and its raining for most of the film. At the behest of John Russo and a few others on the crew, Dan O’Bannon stepped into the director’s chair in an attempt to salvage the film. Only a few scenes had been shot, so he started his job behind schedule, which always makes the studio moneymen deliriously happy.

He was, however, determined to make the film he wrote. A comedy about zombies with a strain of genuine horror running through it in the vein of the old EC Comics (Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, etc). He wanted some genuine laughs, and some genuine scares, something that had never really been deliberately attempted before.  He was fortunate that by all accounts the crew was behind him 100%. When Tobe Hooper abandoned the project, most of them started looking for other work thinking the film was dead, but like a dose of 245-Trioxin, O’Bannon brought strange new life to the project.

For one, the characters. In most films of that period Punks, Goths, general social misfits (my people) were the bad guys or were played for laughs as drugged out of their skull idiots. Instead of going that route, most of the lead characters are social outcasts who find themselves in over their heads and team up with the ‘squares’, the standard heroes in this sort of film to try to survive. What they don’t know of course is that the goth kids are actually the victims and it’s the normal 9-5 types that most Americans aspire to be that caused the whole mess in the first place (Frank breached the tank, Burt attempted to cover it up by having Ernie cremate all the reanimated tissue they could find, not telling the paramedics exactly what chemical causes Frank and Freddy’s illness or its location, etc..).

Normally a gang of Goths and Punks in a film of the time would be the antagonists, attempting to tear down social order, here they are presented as a bunch of friends with similar interests (who are friends with Tina, the clearly normal one who is dating Freddy but you never get the impression that she is only tolerated because of this fact, everyone treats her like part of the group). I don’t think Dan O’Bannon set out to make a film with the specific social commentary that kids who listen to loud, awesome music (one of the best film soundtracks ever, and a major influence on my taste in music growing and to this day) hang out in abandoned grave yards, dress according to their own tastes and do not adhere to social norms are really the heroes.

I think it was more a statement that people are people, no matter what clothes they wear or music they like. When the dead start rising to feast on the living, the only distinction that matters is between the living and the dead.  That punk you would have shaken your head at in disgust as he walked down the street sporting a chain decorated leather jacket and liberty spikes listening to music you couldn’t decipher the lyrics to might end up being the only thing between you and a horde of brain-hungry, re-animated, Vietnam-era military/industrial complex fuck-ups.

What’s the weirdest thing you ever saw in here?

It turns out that behind the scenes that message, which seems almost like a throwaway social statement, was truer than anyone outside the production suspected. The older, more seasoned actors such as Clu Gulager (Burt), Don Calfa (Ernie) got on famously with the young cast playing the punks. Most of which were cast because they fit that mold already. Dan O’Bannon was working under a looming deadline and had the duties of director dropped in his lap one morning by the sudden departure of Tobe Hooper. While Dan had a bit of a temper, understandably as he went from screenwriter to directing his first major motion picture in a single day, the cast and crew were behind him 100% by all accounts. The only real conflicts were between Dan and the Producers representing the studio, which is pretty typical if you have ever worked on a film for a studio.

They want it, and want it now. The director wants to get it right. The actors want to give the best performance they can and are sadly stuck in the middle of this conflict. Dan gave the actors a lot of freedom to create their own characters, There was a script of course, Dan wrote it, but he wasn’t above letting the actors improv a take or two if they thought something might work better for their character or the movie as a whole.

As a result, the characters in ROTLD seem like fleshed out individuals dealing with an insane situation. Like we are seeing the end of an average day for them collecting their friend from his new job to go get dunk somewhere, only to be thrust into an incomprehensible situation were they clearly see the dead rising from their graves and chasing them down for their tasty, pain-reducing skullmeats.

All these disparate, and desperate, elements came together to create not just another zombie film but a movie that has imprinted itself on pop culture in permanent ways. Zombies craving brains, now a staple of the genre can be traced directing to Dan O’Bannon and John Russo wanting (and legally needing to) separate their film from Night of the Living Dead and any sequels the late, great George A Romero would go on the create (such as the criminally underrated Land of the Dead and Tom Savini’s first time in the directors chair the 1990 remake of Night of the Living Dead, though he did have Romero over his shoulder the entire time, offering friendly advice). Return of the Living Dead is an institution. Most people, even hard-core fans, don’t pay much attention to the sequels. None of which came close to capturing any of the magic of the first – the law of diminishing returns hard at work. For one, it seems that each film that came after forgot the rules established for the zombies in ROTLD which made them so much scarier than the average zombie. They could run, they could think, communicate with each other to coordinate attacks on the living, and nothing short of total dismemberment or immolation could destroy them. There were no bites to worry about, unless it was to the skull, and those killed by the dead would not rise again unless exposed to 245-Trioxin (hence why Skuz dies in the mortuary but never reanimates while Trash, who was killed outside while the Trioxin polluted rain continued, did reanimate).

One aspect of the film that makes it stand out above others in the genre is its emotional core. Frank and Freddy unleashed the Trioxin (and the Tarman) and over the course of the film we see these two very sympathetic characters slowly becoming shells of their former selves as the chemical first kills, then reanimates them. Its in those scenes you find the heart of the film and a statement on human nature. Freddy becomes ravenous, almost feral in his pursuit of his girlfriend, and anyone else, for their brains. While in the confusion, Frank escapes to the crematorium and operates the retort as he had seen Ernie do earlier. While Freddy seemingly loses all of his humanity to the condition he is afflicted with, Frank manages to maintain some semblance of his humanity. Placing his wedding ring on the retorts activation switch before climbing in and immolating himself rather than become another brain-craving corpse. That scene, played brilliantly with the Roky Erikson song “Burn in the Flames,” still gives me chills.

Originally Frank was to have escaped the mortuary and joined the horde outside, but the actor asked O’Bannon if he could do something else as he had no desire to stand in the rain for the next two weeks. So they came up with that scene, where Frank uses what little humanity and willpower he has to spare his friends and loved ones the horror of what he has become.

What’s wrong with you, man? Show some fuckin’ respect for the dead, will ya?

There is little I can say about this film that hasn’t been said before, so I will close out this article with something a bit personal; my very first experience with it.

It was 1987, Halloween, and my mother and I were going through my haul of candy organizing and sampling the goods. On the TV, the local cable access station, was horror host “Dr. Paul Bearer and His Frightfully Horrible Old Movies” as the show was called. I watched his program religiously; hell my mother even took me to a K-Mart once to get his autograph. One of my most prized positions to this day. At any rate, he had convinced the station to let him show Return of the Living Dead at midnight as the final film of the evening. It was heavily edited of course, but Dr. Bearer being a good host would describe in rough detail to the audience what they had to cut to show it on network TV. I was enthralled by the film. Its soundtrack grabbed me and forced all new kinds of music into my brain, which still happily reside there today. It also played a part, eventually, in my affinity for the opposite sex as I found Trash (Linea Quigly) to be the most attractive woman I had ever seen. My dating history backs up that influence in spades. 

But it wasn’t just the amazing soundtrack, or Trash, or Dr. Paul Bearers terrible puns, it was all of it. That film grabbed me and to this day has yet to let go. I rarely shed a tear for the deaths of celebrities I haven’t known personally or at least worked with, but when Dan O’Bannon passed away, I did indeed shed a tear. I sat down with my UK copy of ROTLD (the only edition at the time that didn’t have the music altered) and the Director’s cut of Aliens (I realize O’Bannon only consulted on that one, he wrote the first, but I figured as drunk as I was going to get, the original Alien might put me to sleep) and I sat there with my girlfriend at the time getting drunk as hell and explaining every little detail of the film to her. From how the Tarman was created, to the eye chart in the office that reads ‘BURT IS A SLAVE DRIVER AND A CHEAP SONOFABITCH’ (which is much easier to read on Blu Ray now).

I wasn’t just tipping a glass or thirty to the man and his passing, I was drinking as much in mourning as I was celebrating. I’ve worked in film, television, radio, and live music in some capacity since I was 15, and in all that time, no film I have ever seen, no matter how good, has dethroned Return of the Living Dead as my all-time favorite film. Apocalypse Now is a close second, but it’ll never top the king. The film that proved it was possible to make a straight horror film that could also make people laugh, and even occasionally pull on the heart strings. It’s a hell of an accomplishment for a first-time director who got handed the job when the guy who made The Texas Chainsaw Massacre decided he would rather make a haunted house movie with Steven Spielberg.

“I don’t know, its weird. These people say they’ve been waiting for this to happen and they have some kind of contingency in place to deal with it.” … “What kind of ‘contingency’?”

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