Return of the Living Dead (ROTLD) was initially envisioned as a straight-up sequel to Romero’s seminal Night of the Living Dead, with the story even penned by John Russo, who co-wrote the screenplay to the first modern zombie movie. That story was too similar to the original concept however, with the events unfolding in a rural farmhouse, so by the time that the title reached production stage, it had changed into a different beast entirely. Tobe Hooper was originally signed on to direct and even considered filming in 3D, but the director of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre eventually jumped ship due to constant delays and ironically ended up directing Lifeforce, which was written by Dan O’Bannon. The tone of ROTLD was shifted and O’Bannon, who had been bought on board to replace Hooper and had scripted Alien and written Dark Star with John Carpenter whilst still in University, created something that had been pretty much unheard of since the genre-twisting black and white meetings of Abbott & Costello and the roster of Universal monsters.
With the 1985 comedy-horror classic being released on Blu-Ray for the first time this June, we’ve decided to take a good look back at one of the most trend-setting horror movies of all time and pick the literal meat off of the bones to see why this was such a tasty treat. After all, it takes braaaaaaaains to create a genre feature that is still so beloved almost thirty years after its original release.
With that said here is the This Is Horror list of top firsts for ROTLD.
1. Horror Comedy
Back in 1985, the idea of horror comedy seemed to be lost on Hollywood. Genre mash-ups were, and to a certain extent still are, a hard sell. Marketing companies find it hard when a movie fails to fall into a specific, one-size-fits-all mould. However, ROTLD was one of the first to break this mould.
Sure, Hollywood had experimented with the Abbott & Costello movies, and a few years earlier An American Werewolf in London utilised dark, gallows humour, mixing it with the bloody scares and zombie Nazis of John Landis’ creative classic. But Dan O’Bannon took the inspiration of the source material and added pure hilarity. To this day, the ingredients are mixed to varying levels of success and although the film has lost a little of its satirical content due to age, ROTLD was one of the torch bearers for films to come, such as Shaun of the Dead. It was definitely the first zombie film to make zombies the central plot point and comic relief at the same time.
2. First Talking Zombies
It seems strange to look at the zombies from ROTLD and realise that the undead ‘stars’ actually know how to talk. Apart from guttural moans and grunts, zombies have hardly ever had an actual voice. Sure, Bub has a line in Day of the Dead, but that film was only released weeks before ROTLD. From Tarman, who utters the immortally quotable “Braaaaains” – and you only need to look at the zombie cinema sub-genre to realise that that single word pretty much drove the zeitgeist consensus regarding what zombies want to eat – to the walking dead near the end of the film who decide to order delivery food by advising to “Send more cops” or “Send more paramedics.”
However, the simple idea of a walking corpse is mind-numbingly absurd as it is, so why not allow them to talk as well? O’Bannon obviously appreciated it.
3. Fast Moving Zombies
Something that a lot of people forget is that ROTLD has fast moving zombies. Long before the debate about how quickly the undead should be able to get around forced its way into the internet forums of horror movie sites around the world, O’Bannon’s corpses ran. Before the infected of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (not zombies, but included here for completists) and the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead, the ghouls that arose from their graves in the 1985 comedy horror were able to sprint. Even back then, George Romero went on record to debunk the idea that this was possible. Yes, good old George felt it necessary to decry the idea that zombies could run – zombies. Because after all, they exist right?
4. Self Referential Horror
Long before the deconstructing scripts for Scream and The Cabin in the Woods, ROTLD was at the forefront of the idea that self-referential horror could be filmed without breaking down the fourth wall or destroying the very genre that it was trying to successfully cannibalise.
Witness the moment when the very events of Night of the Living Dead are discussed by Frank and Freddy and referenced as an actual movie that exists in their world as well as our own. Frank advises that the events of that movie are a version of what really happened in real life, some sealed drums in the basement containing the remains of those zombies. Also, there is a scene where a cadaver manages to break out of a freezer and attack some of the characters. After managing to wrestle him to the ground, they discuss the best way to kill their undead attacker, stating that the film (again referencing Night of the Living Dead) advises to destroy the brain. Ironically, this doesn’t work as these zombies aren’t Hollywood fodder and refuse to die so easily. Even when the zombie is cut up into smaller pieces, the limbs still thrash about in their black bin-liners. As Freddy then declares, “You mean the movie lied?”
5. Eating of Brains
The zombies in Romero’s original brace of movies were not too particular about the intricacies of their meals, happy to gorge themselves on human flesh. The zombies in ROTLD however, were more fussy eaters, specifying that they particularly wanted to eat the grey matter encased in our skulls. As Tarman so eloquently put it in point number one, brains were the choice de jour, but far from being mindless addicts for their chosen dish, there was a clever twist in the script that explained their dining selection. Which brings us nicely onto the next point…
6. Considering the Zombie Point of View
When the main characters manage to capture and tether the half body of an emaciated female zombie to a gurney and try to interrogate it, they discover a grisly truth. The only reason that the zombies want to eat brains is because it numbs the pain of being dead, as they can literally feel themselves rotting. The idea of eating the minds of the living as a painkiller is an interesting one and is a reflection on how some cultures feel that the consumption of rare or exotic substances can improve health or sexual libido – take the examples of aphrodisiacs used in the Far East, from elephant tusks and lion blood (guess we know where Charlie Sheen got his idea from), to ram penis and pig genitals to name but a few.
On top of this, we get to watch the painfully slow deaths of Frank and Freddy before they reanimate. Knowing what he is destined to become, Frank sacrifices himself in the morgue cremator. For a horror comedy, watching two main characters go through this process is quite heart wrenching.
As introduced above, ROTLD featured the first recognisable zombie character in Tarman. Brought to life by Allan Trautman, the zombie is initially entombed in one of the military drums in the basement that is accidentally opened by Frank and Freddy. When Freddy’s friends come to find him, they encounter Tarman, hungry for brains.
There are fad zombies in other movies that you may remember – take the Hari Krishna zombie in the original Dawn of the Dead, or any myriad of the undead from more recent entries into the sub-genre and it may be considered that Bub, from Romero’s Day of the Dead, is a more recognisable character, but Tarman’s legacy continues to this day, having appeared in the first sequel and having an action figure released.
8. Working Town Setting
In another side stepping tangent from the previous zombie movies made both in America and Italy, ROTLD is the first film to unleash the zombie apocalypse on an unsuspecting and still very much alive town. Maybe taking a cue from John Landis’ video for Michael Jackson’s Thriller, we get to see the zombies running at police cordons down tree-lined streets. Romero’s films had confined the action predominantly to a farmhouse and shopping mall as well as an underground silo in Day of the Dead, also released in 1985. Some Italian zombie films may hint at this – the epically downbeat ending to Lucio Fulci’s Zombie which has the zombies shuffling across the Brooklyn Bridge towards New York, for example – but they never actually get themselves dirty with the idea of a well populated area coming under attack.
With ROTLD, you really believe that the town that ends up being nuked is actually a living, breathing area. This is a whole lot scarier than an isolated farmhouse. The very idea that society has crumbled and is being decimated by the living dead, albeit with their lolling tongues firmly implanted within their rotting cheeks, is probably the scariest thing of all.
9. First Punk Horror Movie
The term splatterpunk is thrown around with seemingly reckless abandon these days, but when ROTLD was released in 1985, it was recognised as being the first punk horror movie. Some of the actors really got into their roles, with Brian Peck (who played Scuz) even getting a Mohawk without being asked. It had been intended for the actors to wear skullcaps with wigs on top, but this kind of dedication to the cause is commendable from the young actors. Considering it is the first punk horror film, it’s a shame to remember that it came almost a whole decade too late, punk having all but died out, murdered by New Wave, by the time the film was released.
10. Famous Soundtrack
Another real first for ROTLD was the fact that the soundtrack was promoted almost as much as the movie. Instead of just providing a score for the celluloid events on screen, the producers secured a veritable who’s who of punk bands of the time. The soundtrack included songs by groups such as The Cramps and The Damned, and it works incredibly well.
11. First Mainstream Frontal Nudity
That is at least without genitalia or pubic hair.
When Linnea Quigley’s character Trash strips off in the cemetery to perform a dance, she leaves them off, running around for the remainder of the movie in the buff, even when she is turned into a zombie by the undead crawling from their graves. Ironically, she predicts her demise earlier in the film, stating “Do you ever wonder about all the different ways of dying? You know, violently? And wonder, like, what would be the most horrible way to die? Well for me, the worst way would be for a bunch of old men to get around me, and start biting and eating me alive.”
Makes you think that she should have bought a lottery ticket that night too.
As well as picking up the new releases on DVD or Blu-Ray, we at This Is Horror can heartily recommend The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead by Christian Sellers and Gary Smart as essential reading. It is a fantastically in-depth book that encompasses all five movies in the series and has exclusive interviews with nearly every major player in the franchise. The only notable exception is Dan O’Bannon himself, who sadly passed away from Crohn’s Disease in 2009.
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