Return of the Living Dead might be one of the most important “zombie” films of all time. The 1985 comedy-horror film is responsible for much of what modern culture currently associates with “zombies”. That’s a title and level of influence the film shares with its progenitor Night of the Living Dead. That previous film inspired the initial notion of zombies within the cultural zeitgeist.
Not surprisingly, both films share a producer.
John Russo was the producer on George Romero’s breakout film and managed to pilfer the film’s title following his departure from future projects. Russo would spend the rest of his career capitalizing on the film. He released an infamous revised cut of Night of the Living Dead with newly shot scenes and a new soundtrack just to make the film easier to redistribute. He would also produce a poorly received direct-to-video sequel called Children of the Dead.
Russo sold the name and title of Return of the Living Dead to Orion and created the rough draft of a script that was essentially a direct sequel to Romero’s original film. Credit where it’s due, the film’s story has a novel premise. From the outset of the film, we find out that the events of Night of the Living Dead were based on real events. The movie actually hilariously starts with a “Based on Real Events” title card to play up the premise. As such, the film is more than just an in-name sequel to its named predecessor. Return of the Living Dead turns the premise of Night of the Living Dead on its head.
That was certainly the desire of its first time director Dan O’Bannon. Dan was famous for his work as a screenwriter and special effects consultant on major films like Star Wars, Alien, Dark Star and Lifeforce. When he was approached by John Russo to direct the film, he set out to rewrite the original serious pitch for a dark sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Instead of a bleak horror film, he transformed the premise into an over-the-top horror-comedy.
In that, the film is an excellent example of both genres. The zombies in Return of the Living Dead are a great deal more durable and enthusiastic about their desire to consume flesh than in most films. When the characters try to “destroy the brain” of the first zombies they find, they quickly realize they can’t be easily destroyed. Their bodies aren’t destroyed easily by simple gunshots and the zombies can talk and attack even when their bodies are destroyed. The threat they impose is actually quite formidable. Even burning the bodies to completely destroy them backfires as a plan.
At the same time, the film’s premise doesn’t shy away from the silly nature of the premise. The zombies talk and complain about their insatiable taste for human brains. They designs are goofy and unrealistic. Outside of the film’s very dark ending, Return of the Living Dead could be considered a fairly light hearted film at times.
This extends into the film’s punk rock aesthetic. Several of the film’s supporting characters are punk rockers who we are hanging out in a grave yard prior to the zombie outbreak. They’re indulgent, sexual and looking for a thrill. This ends up being mirrored thematically by the reveal that the zombies only want to eat brains because feasting on them is a relief from the horror and pain of living death.
This ends up being mirrored again in the film’s aforementioned ending. If there’s a morale to this story, it might be that escapism and quick solutions to problems have consequences. If you’re too careless, you can quickly make a problem worse.
I wouldn’t say Return of the Living Dead is an overly moralistic film though. If anything the film is just capturing some of the 1980’s fear and anxiety over nuclear proliferation and rampant diseases like HIV. When it’s not indulging in itself, it’s a legitimately stressful and scary horror film that finds unique ways to ratchet up the horror and tension. It’s not surprising that all of the characters in this film are just trying to escape the fear and pain of the moment…
Still, the film’s reputation precedes it and it’s generally not regarded as one of the more stressful horror films in it’s genre. It has its moments of darkness and extreme violence but it’s primarily a silly horror movie. It’s certainly earned it’s place as one of the greatest horror comedies of all time!