Good God, there are a lot of zombies out there. Movies, television, video games, comic books: all of them lousy with zombies. You can't throw a rock without hitting an image of someone who's rotting and looking for human flesh.
I'm a big fan of the zombie genre, but even for me it's getting to be a bit much. With that in mind, sometimes it's a good idea to remember the movies that paved the way for the current craze. While everyone knows about Romero's contribution with Night of the Living Dead and its myriad of sequels, Dan O'Bannon wrote and directed a different flavor of zombie movie that has just as many contributions to the genre.
When two medical supply workers Frank and Freddy accidentally open a canister left there by the army, they unknowingly unleash a gas that turns the dead into the zombies who hunt and eat the brains of any human unlucky enough to cross their path. As Frank and Freddy turn into zombies themselves, the medical supply company owner, Burt, must try to survive the zombie infestation along with Ernie, the local mortician, and a group of teenage punks who were unfortunate enough to be in the cemetery as the dead began coming to life.
John A Russo, who created Night of the Living Dead along with George Romero, wanted to continue the series in a different direction than Romero. Therefore, the two agreed that Russo would get the rights to the phrase Return of the... while Romero would continue with Dawn, Day, etc. Unfortunately, this agreement did not sit well with their respective companies, leading to a legal battle that would continue even as production on Return was set to begin. Ironically, Russo and Romero remained on good terms throughout this fight, often talking on the phone to commiserate about how the situation had devolved.
Eventually, Russo's side won the legal fight, and they were free to continue with production unhindered. Russo had put together a script and Tom Fox bought his way into a producer role. As good as Fox was at raising money, however, he knew very little about film. At one point he tried to buy out Russo so that he could utilize the Return title on a screenplay that, per those interviewed for the documentary, was not very good. His attempt was unsuccessful, and Dan O'Bannon, at the time best-known for writing Alien, was brought in to create the script that would become the version we know today.
The next decision was to choose a director. At one point Russo himself was considered, and later Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, was signed on for the job. Hooper had to back out due to scheduling, however, and eventually Dan O'Bannon was chosen to direct his own script, even though at the time he had very little directing experience.
As O'Bannon started casting, several stories from the process don't depict him in the best light. Beverly Randolph was cast as Tina, and notes an off-putting encounter with O'Bannon when he had her visit his house for a reading session. When she arrived, she found a gun on the table and what she described as "somewhat pornographic" material on the television. She soon made a quick excuse to leave. Later, the role of Casey was given to Jewel Shepard, a dancer at a strip club that O'Bannon frequented. Rumors spread at the time that Shepard slept with O'Bannon to get the part, but several interviewees in the documentary refuted that rumor as false. It's a shame that the rumor exists at all, as Shepard clearly does a fine job in her role.
Several members of 80s horror royalty would find break out roles in this movie. Scream queen Linnea Quigley got the role of Trash after the original choice got pregnant and had to bow out. Thom Matthews, future Jason Voorhees slayer Tommy Jarvis, won the role of Freddy in one of his very first roles. And Miguel Nunez, who would also later visit the Friday the 13th franchise, was literally homeless when he was cast as Spider.
Perhaps the two most punk-looking members of the group, Scuz and Suicide, were cast with actors very unlike their characters. Brian Peck had normally been cast as nerdy or preppy characters. In fact, his agent refused to submit his name so he was forced to get an audition on his own. Likewise, Mark Venturini was known as being a very friendly person who was easy to get along with, as opposed to the surly asshole he portrayed on screen.
James Karen was cast as Frank very early in the process, signing on when Tobe Hooper was still attached to direct. Don Calfa, cast as mortician Ernie Kaltenbrunner, was never told that his German character was named after an infamous officer from the Nazi party. Clu Gulager was cast as Burt very late in the process, only joining very shortly before production was set to begin.
Before production started, O'Bannon had the cast run through two weeks of rehearsals, which was nearly unheard of for a film production. But O'Bannon took the cast through each scene and gave very specific instructions about how the scenes would play out, allowing them to work out the kinks before filming. Most of the cast found this very useful, except for Gulager who joined too late to take part in the rehearsals. This may have contributed to the on-set tension that Gulager had from time to time, as his performance would at times clash with other actors who were expecting the scenes to flow differently.
Production began on July 9th, 1984, and the process was not without its difficulties. William Munns, the original make-up artist, was fired after several of his attempts at prosthetic pieces, including the original yellow cadaver and the skeleton that would rise from the grave, were seen as sub-par by O'Bannon. Tony Gardner would do much of the future make-up effects, including the half-corpse that the group captures to find out more about the zombies.
In Munn's defense, O'Bannon was not described as the easiest director to work for. In the scene where Tina falls through the broken step while fleeing the "Tarman" zombie, O'Bannon did not tell her that the step was going to break, so she would up rather battered and bruised. O'Bannon also demanded countless takes in a setting where actors were working in a steady stream of rain. Plus, at times actors would make things more difficult for one another. In the scene where Ernie slaps Spider, the script calls for just one slap, but it was easy to tell that Cafla was pulling back in the scene. So Gulager pulled him aside and told him to give Nunez a second slap without warning him beforehand, and to make the second slap a real one. Cafla listened, and although Nunez stayed in character for the duration of the scene, he went after Cafla after rolling stopped.
On August 18th, 1984, filming wrapped. The movie was originally scheduled for a late summer release in 1984, but was continually pushed back. Orion, the distributor, didn't seem to have much faith in the movie, worrying that there was an over-saturation of horror movies on the market. Some were also not happy with the actual product, with one person saying that the movie was "one step above pornography."
Finally, on August 16th, 1985, the movie opened to audiences. It managed to earn over $14 million on a $4 million budget, and earned generally positive reviews. As of today, it has spawned five sequels to diminishing returns, including 2 direct to DVD offerings.
"You think this is a fuckin' costume? This is a way of life."
A resounding theme in Return of the Living Dead is punk rock. Punk music is the core of the soundtrack and punk aesthetic abounds in the costume choices. But more than that, the film itself is a work of punk.
Punk music's origins go back to the early 1970s, with bands like The Stooges setting the stage for the genre. Perhaps the first true punk band was The New York Dolls, a band that reveled in ragged costumes and intentionally did things to provoke and disgust their audience. The punk scene would grow in both the U.S. and the U.K. underground until 1976, when The Ramones and The Sex Pistols would carry punk into the mainstream.
One of the core ideals of punk is a distrust and cynicism towards authority, which is a primary theme in Return of the Living Dead. Anyone with a modicum of power in the movie is seen as either incompetent, corrupt, or both. Burt, the owner of the medical supply company, primarily looks out for his own interests when the gas is released, hoping to get rid of the evidence of any wrong-doing by cremating the remains of one of the first zombies, and therefore releasing the gas into the clouds and exacerbating the situation.
Several times people suggest calling the cops, but no one ever seems keen on that idea. In fact, Scuz's reaction when told to call them is that "Cops are just going to kick our ass!" The distrust for authority affects many decisions of the teens in this movie.
And, as it turns out, their distrust in authority is not misplaced. Throughout the movie, the army proves to be both the pinnacle of authority as well as incompetence and corruption. After all, it was a "typical army fuck-up" that first caused the situation and left the canisters in the wrong place. The Corps of Army Engineers made the faulty canisters, and when the officer in charge of finding the canisters finally gets a call at is comically large mansion, he executes their contingency plan: drop a nuclear bomb on the town. This horrific contingency plan doesn't even succeed, as it simply released more gas into the atmosphere and spreads the epidemic. Such a cynical outlook is typical of the punk music that inspired Return of the Living Dead.
"You mean the movie LIED?!":
Arguments abound regarding what makes for a true "zombie," so I don't think I have much to add to that conversation. One aspect of Return that I found interesting, however, was how it built a zombie mythology as meta-commentary on Night of the Living Dead.
While characters in most movies aren't aware of the concept of zombies, those in Return pull from what they remember about Night of the Living Dead, which per the movie is actually based on real events. O'Bannon plays with the audience, however, as the rules established in Night of the Living Dead aren't accurate in Return's universe.
Destroying a zombie's brain, for example, will not kill it, as Burt, Frank, and Freddy find out when they attempt to kill the yellow cadaver, only to be incredulous when piercing it's skull with a pick ax doesn't event slow it down.
Also, while Night's zombies eat any kind of living flesh, Return's zombies need brains. And it's not a food source, per se, but rather a way for them to ease the pain of death. While zombies in Night of the Living Dead represent the mindless consumer mob, those in Return represent the wailing, agonized drug addict.
Finally, an aspect that I found particularly interesting was that zombie bites do not make new zombies in the Return universe. There is not one instance of a zombie victim returning from the dead due to their bites. Trash returns from the dead, but only after the infected rain pours down on to her corpse in the cemetery.
By acknowledging the existence of Night of the Living Dead, O'Bannon exaggerates the differences found in Return of the Living Dead. But he does so in such a way that doesn't seem forced. Rather, he builds off of that acknowledgement to create his own rules and make the movie more his own.
- The animated butterflies were just butterflies with a fan pointed at them.
- Tina's outfit is actually something that actor Miguel Nunez had literally been wearing the week before.
- Two famous duos' names were used in this movie: Bert and Ernie, and Tom and Jerry
- Freddy's foaming at the mouth was just accomplished with Alka-Seltzer
- For Trash's dance sequence, Graham did not want to see pubic hair or her pubic region, so a prosthetic was made to cover her groin.
- Tarman was played by Allan Trautman, a puppeteer and actor who was covered by prosthetic pieces and animatronics
Much of the cast and crew attribute Return of the Living Dead's success to its balance of horror and comedy. Audiences are able to laugh just as hard as they scream during the film. But I think that balance works because under the spiked hair, gore, and abundant breast shots, there is a smart story.
O'Bannon paid attention to details, creating a zombie mythology that stayed true to it's logic while also conveying some dark, even cynical viewpoints while keeping the narration light-hearted enough as not to lose the audience.
O'Bannon may have been an acerbic lech, but he was also a brilliant storyteller. Although he died in 2009, he's contributed a movie that will likely remain in the pop-culture lexicon as long as people still talk about zombies. And zombies, as we all know, will never die.
Bartlet, Megan. "No Future: The Conception and Evolution of Punk Music in the United States and
Great Britain from 1965 to the Present." http://academic.mu.edu/meissnerd/punk.html
Philputt, Bill. More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead. October 18, 2011. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OHJx1xkCBio
Youngs, Ian. "A Brief History of Punk." BBC News Online. December 22, 2002. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/2601493.stm