How appropriate to follow Day of the Dead with Return of the Living Dead? For those who don’t know, there is a connection between these films. The original Night of the Living Dead was written by George A. Romero and John Russo. After the film’s success, Romero and Russo split up with different views on where the series should go. Once the film fell into the public domain both went their separate ways with the franchise. Romero went on to make the classic Dawn of the Dead and then Day of the Dead, while Russo delved into literature with his 1977 novel Return of the Living Dead. Years later, Return of the Living Dead was adapted for the screen by Dan O’Bannon, the same writer behind Alien and later Total Recall. Also taking the reigns as director, O’Bannon’s adaptation resulted in almost slapstick departure from Russo’s novel. Still, it resulted in a film that’s incredibly entertaining.
The film begins one night at a medical supply warehouse in Kentucky. Frank (James Karen) wants to impress Freddy (Thom Matthews), the new employee, by showing him something truly shocking. So he leads him into the basement and shows off a toxic drum containing the remains of an ill-fated experiment. The drum is accidentally opened releasing a toxic gas and a body that escapes in the warehouse. Fred contacts the warehouse owner Burt (Clu Gulager) and the three search for the body. The body then reveals itself in the warehouse as a zombie that cannot be killed (a funny sequence). Burt decides the only option is to burn the corpse, but when they do it releases toxic fumes through the smoke. The smoke makes its way into the rain and boom! Corpses at the nearby graveyard are reanimated.
The film also follows a group of Freddy’s mischievous punk friends. These punks most notably include scream queen Linnea Quigley as Trash and Miguel A. Nunez Jr. as Spider who would go on to star in the horror classic Juwanna Mann. The punks eventually team-up with the warehouse guys and fight an all out battle against hordes of the living dead. The tone is comedic but still disturbing in a film that captures the best of zombies and the best of the 80s.
What makes Russo/O’Bannon’s zombies interesting is their almost ridiculous invulnerability. Shooting them in the head does nothing. You can also chop them into small pieces and the pieces will still come after you. They cannot be killed and that’s damn scary. Additionally, they can talk, which leads to some comedic exchanges between zombies and humans. Overall, it’s a film that embraces its own ridiculousness. Return of the Living Dead may just be the best non-Romero zombie movie.
Oh, and here’s a clip of the scariest zombie I’ve ever seen.