August 16, 1985
THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is a movie that I already reviewed thoroughly for Halloween 2015, but it’s such a classic I felt it would be wrong to exclude from this retrospective. So feel free to click on that link for a straightforward piece about some of the reasons I love the movie, but this one will zero in on a few aspects I feel are interesting in context with other movies we’ve discussed from the Summer of 1985 movie season.
As a horror-comedy that’s more of a real horror movie than a parody, RETURN arguably has a kinship with FRIGHT NIGHT. But obviously its closest comparison is its brother from another producer, George Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD. Earlier in the summer I wrote about some of the ways DAY fit the specific moment of 1985. RETURN does it in a totally different way. Romero’s takes a grey, grim approach to railing against the Reagan era, while RETURN writer-director Dan O’Bannon does the EC Comics and punk rock version. Like so many of the movies we’ve been looking at, it’s a very soundtrack-oriented movie, embracing music of the time. But it’s not Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper or even Oingo Boingo – it’s punk rock bands like T.S.O.L., The Cramps, The Damned and The Flesh Eaters.
O’Bannon was in his late thirties, and was not the liberty spike type. He had his punk characters playing their preferred style of music from their boombox, and on the end credits. But when producers felt O’Bannon’s structure of comedic first half and serious horror second half wasn’t working, they postponed the movie from a planned Halloween, 1984 release and re-edited it, with one of the major differences being to add non-diegetic songs such as “Partytime” by 45 Grave.
Perhaps the most prominent song placement is the one during Trash (Linnea Quigley)’s famous naked grave dance. In the documentary MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD, Quigley says the scene was actually filmed to “Nasty Girl” by Vanity 6. I don’t think the song heard in the movie, “Tonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)” by SSQ really seems like something the characters would listen to. But my sense is that there was sort of a non-denominational openness that cool people had to any sort of art that seemed happy to exist outside the borders of the mainstream, including the sort of redneck rock songs on the soundtrack, the intentionally trashy b-movies of the era, and whatever SSQ was. The band’s previous movie contributions were to HARDBODIES and CAVEGIRL, by the way.
But the next year they put their singer out front, became “Stacey Q” and made the huge pop hit “Two of Hearts”! I never knew this until now. That song would’ve been funny for Trash to dance to.
SSQ also did this pretty cool instrumental piece “Trash’s Theme”:
That one’s included on the soundtrack album, but they really oughta have the opening credits “Trioxin Theme” by Francis Haines (SPLIT SECOND). I never noticed that the piece of music I most associate with the movie was not by the actual score composer, Matt Clifford (a touring keyboardist for the Rolling Stones with no other feature scoring credits).
RETURN seems to appreciate punk culture for its fashion and brashness – other than that, its inclusion is mostly tongue in cheek, and it mocks the heroes’ idea of rebellion, or at best looks at it like, “ah, isn’t that cute?” When Suicide (Mark Venturini, BEST SELLER) complains about people not understanding this “way of life,” he might as well be a dad complaining about kids these days. “I fuckin bust my ass for you guys, and what do I get?”
I have come to love Trash, who talks lustily about dying like some stupider older sister of Lydia Deetz. I think it’s fair to say she’s mainly remembered for her (anatomically incorrect) nudity, one aspect of the movie that’s much more in keeping with the Roger Corman and Troma productions of the era than Romero’s movies, which weren’t interested in such things. But may I say that Trash is adorable with her clothes on? I guess I’m a sucker for the bright red wig, facepaint, skull-crotch shorts and legwarmers as pants. Not to mention Casey (Jewel Shepard)’s blue duck’s tail hairdo and Betty Rubble dress. (I wonder if they’d get along with the red and blue haired ladies from YEAR OF THE DRAGON?)
Unlike Trash, Casey is not really sexualized, which is interesting considering O’Bannon met Shepard through her day (or I guess probly night) job as a stripper.
Unlike DAY, I don’t notice RETURN taking on extra resonance after living in a pandemic. Taking place over one night, it doesn’t really have any lockdown parallels. One thing it does have over DAY is its vivid portrayal of the zombie plague as a sickness. The nasty coughing and retching that Freddy and Frank do after breathing the gas, the chills and the shakes – these get pretty upsetting at times. Fingers crossed none of us ever get to compare that to the feeling of Covid.
I also don’t think the politics apply differently during the Trump era than they did before – they’re pretty much timeless. But like DAY it expresses a very cynical view of the U.S. military, its effectiveness and morality. Romero gets the point across with a sustained, uncomfortable gauntlet of human conflict, while O’Bannon uses pointed satire and a tarman-black punchline of an ending.
Much of this comes through the character of Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry, HALLOWEEN III), who has manned Station 3 in San Diego for 14 years, part of the network of military brass standing by for word on the missing vats of Trioxin-infused corpses he refers to as the “lost consignment of Easter eggs.” He lives in a mansion with a huge dining room wrapped in some kind of colonialist mural. But he has a bad attitude. When his wife asks how his day was he grunts, “The usual. Crap.” Even though we learn he had lamb chops for lunch. Quite the lifestyle.
We also have Burt (Clu Gulager, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 2: FREDDY’S REVENGE), owner of Uneeda Medical Supply Company, but seemingly pretty blue collar, and below him his employee Frank (James Karen, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER). They’re of a generation and a type familiar to those of us of a certain age, used to wearing dress shirts every day, but working up a sweat, joking around with each other, calling each other “buddy boy,” hitting each other lovingly on the shoulder.
Though they’re not part of the military-industrial complex – Frank may have too much faith in the workmanship of the Army Corps of Engineers, but he considers the “easter eggs” a “typical Army fuckup” – they are part of the problem. The instinct of both boss and employee when the shit goes down is to cover it up. Frank won’t let trainee Freddy (Thom Mathews, DANGEROUSLY CLOSE) call the police, because “Do you know what the cops would do to this company?” I love the way Freddy shrieks “Who cares about the company!?” He’s right, it’s an insane notion, but it’s a common one.
Not that calling the police would’ve helped much, of course. I love the two cop extras having a conversation in the background when we later see the dispatcher. They don’t seem particularly interested in saving the day, even if they could be expected to know how.
Throughout the movie the protagonists are stuck in the vicinity of the Resurrection Cemetery and Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse of Louisville, Kentucky, trying to destroy the zombies that attack them (nothing seems to work) and hoping to either escape or get help from someone. When Burt finally gives in and calls the number on the vat that he was supposed to call 14 years ago, he’s put through to Colonel Glover, who very professionally asks some questions, jots down notes, and then uses his special private batphone to call in Q-2 status, initiating the protocols the government has put into place to respond to just this emergency.
And their plan, of course, is to drop a nuke on them. (Same plan for if there’s ever an aliens vs. predator requiem.) Afterwards, the Colonel happily reports less than 4,000 dead (that seems to me like alot of people for 20 square blocks!). He thinks everything is great, but of course he doesn’t realize that the zombie ashes have now gotten into the rain and the plague will only spread further. It’s interesting that DAY is the bleak, upsetting one and this is the fun one, but DAY ends on a hopeful note, and this is the opposite. I guess rock ‘n roll makes a big difference.
A nice touch I’d like to mention is that part of the sequence of enacting the protocols involves calling a guy to type in the code numbers to fire the missile. He’s a young guy sitting in a truck reading a comic book, and when his phone rings he seems jovial and happy to have someone to talk to. Then he gets serious. I like that O’Bannon takes the time to show us this regular, well-meaning-seeming person who doesn’t hesitate to be a willing, unquestioning cog in this monstrous, failed plan of nuking civilians in Louisville. Yep, it checks out. We’re fucked.
But at least we have two great 1985 zombie movies to watch! I tell you, we as a society have gotten a hell of alot more mileage out of this ’85 zombie pairing than we did VOLCANO vs. DANTE’S PEAK. It’s amazing to me that it came about because of disagreements between George Romero and his NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD partners John Russo, Rudy Ricci and Russell Streiner, who have a story credit on RETURN.
According to Russo on the extras for Shout Factory!’s RETURN blu-ray, he came up with most of the ideas for his version, but assigned Ricci (a zombie in NIGHT, biker in DAWN OF THE DEAD and writer of Romero’s THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA) to write the first draft as early as 1972. Russo found Ricci’s approach too “flippant” and rewrote it himself, as did Streiner (NIGHT producer who also played Johnny) at some point.
Russo says that he traded scripts with Romero (who started writing DAWN in ’74) and always felt they should be doing the sequel together, but they had different ideas in mind. Romero and producer Richard Rubinstein made DAWN while Russo only managed to publish RETURN as a novel.
That’s when Tom Fox, a Chicago stockbroker who wanted to get into the movie business, bought Russo’s script… but only because he saw value in the title. He hired the great Tobe Hooper to direct, and Hooper chose Dan O’Bannon to write a new script. By the time it was finally going to happen Hooper was off filming another Summer of 1985 release, LIFEFORCE. Fox asked O’Bannon to direct, and he rewrote it to be more his sense of humor.
I wish I could somehow know what Hooper’s version would’ve been like! He went right from LIFEFORCE into TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2. Though I’d say that’s his funniest movie, it’s approximately 150 times more brutal than RETURN, and I can’t imagine him using a tone like this. But this was clearly for the best. Hooper’s biggest influence on the finished product that I was able to verify (courtesy of Cinefantastique – not the one I’ve been quoting in all these reviews, but the next issue, available on Internet Archive) is suggesting Karen for the part of Frank, having worked with him on POLTERGEIST. Honestly a crucial contribution.
Romero actually protested the use of the name, but the MPAA decided he got to keep THE DEAD and the other guys got LIVING DEAD. Had it gone the other way, RETURN’s financers probly would’ve backed out. Luckily, we got to experience the OCTOPUSSY vs. NEVER SAY NEVER AGAIN of horror. O’Bannon rewrote some of the script (including the references to NIGHT) hoping to make Romero less angry. The result is a miracle: two zombie movies released at about the same time that are totally different from each other, but both hold up as stone cold classics 35 years later. How the fuck did that happen? These movies are about how terrible the world can be, but their existence proves that it can also be pretty great.
SUMMER OF 1985 NOTES:
(This part didn’t feel right in the body of the review, but I wanted to include it in keeping with the rest of the series.)
After the first delay, RETURN was planned for a Halloween ’85 release, but positive test screenings convinced them to push it up to the summer, head-to-head with DAY (the seven years later sequel to what Russo thought would be the competition). RETURN turned out to be the more successful business venture, topping its budget on the opening weekend and adding another $10 million after that. It’s noteworthy that a gooey punk rock zombie comedy opened better than the new Michael Cimino gangster movie and Sting horror-fantasy that came out the same day.
And it got pretty good reviews. Roger Ebert wrote that it was “not a great creative breakthrough, but it is a satisfactory ghoul movie, moving with precision from the funny opening scenes through the obligatory middle passages of pseudo-science, and on to the barf-bag climax.” Gene Siskel liked it enough to bring it up in his review of THE BRIDE, saying to watch RETURN instead. He wasn’t wrong.
Summer of 1985 connections:
A company called Applied Entertainment was hired to build the sets and mechanical effects. Founded by former Disneyland Imagineers, the company had created the animatronic King Kong at Universal Studios, spiders for the Jacksons Victory Tour, and characters for various Chuck E. Cheese type restaurants. This would’ve been their entry into movies, but they went bankrupt after only building the cemetery gate and some tombstones. Still needing someone to make the split dog and the half corpse, O’Bannon went to 20-year-old Rick Baker assistant Tony Gardner, who he’d been introduced to after seeing fake teeth he made for his friend who played Scuz.
Anyway, the Summer of ’85 connection is that he knocked those suckers out while also working for Greg Cannom on COCOON.
Also O’Bannon was one of the credited writers on LIFEFORCE.
John Russo says in his interview on the blu-ray that he wrote the novelization of the movie supposedly based on his book, but I can’t find any other evidence of such a thing existing.
It introduced “fast zombies,” although they didn’t become popular until years later. It created the popular notion of zombies wanting to eat brains. It has spawned four sequels – two “real” ones and two 2005 DTV ones filmed in Romania and Ukraine.
John A. Russo later directed HEARTSTOPPER, MIDNIGHT 2 and SANTA CLAWS, as well as the new scenes added to the universally despised 30th anniversary special edition of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. To this day he is trying to make something called ESCAPE OF THE LIVING DEAD.
A year after RETURN, Thom Matthews (Freddy) played Tommy Jarvis in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI: JASON LIVES. And he was in KICKBOXER 4: THE AGGRESSOR.
John Philbin (Chuck) was in TOMBSTONE, and he’s still acting, and apparently he’s a good surfer – he’s in POINT BREAK and was the surf instructor for BLUE CRUSH.
Jewel Shepard (Casey) had already been in several movies (mostly with the word “Girl” in the character name) before getting this job through stripping. She had many more T&A oriented roles (PARTY CAMP, HOLLYWOOD HOT TUBS 1&2, CAGED HEAT II: STRIPPED OF FREEDOM) which inspired her to write the interview book Invasion of the B-Girls and the autobiography If I’m So Famous, How Come Nobody’s Ever Heard of Me?, and those led to writing for Premiere and other magazines. Her amusing IMDb biography (which slips out of third person at least once) claims she once got a fan letter from the Unabomber. She also showed up in THE COOLER (“Hooker”) and best picture winner THE ARTIST (“Flapper Starlet” [uncredited]).
Miguel A. Nunez Jr., who didn’t tell anyone he lived in a homeless shelter at the time of filming, is also remembered as Demon in the same year’s FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING, has bit parts in ACTION JACKSON, LETHAL WEAPON 3, and plays the part of Dee Jay in STREET FIGHTER. And he was the star of JUWANNA MAN. He’s still working.
Brian Peck (Scuz) appeared in two LIVING DEAD sequels and wrote and directed THE WILLIES (1990). In 2004 he was convicted of sexually abusing an unnamed 15-year-old Nickelodeon actor he was coaching, but he continues to appear at horror conventions and even narrates the documentary MORE BRAINS! A RETURN TO THE LIVING DEAD. (I should note that he served his time, but it surprised me to see him so prominent in the doc and then Google his name and see all this child molesting stuff pop up.)
Linnea Quigley was already established in movies including GRADUATION DAY, SAVAGE STREETS and SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT, but RETURN helped propel her to an ‘80s horror and b-movie icon, appearing in CREEPOZOIDS, SORORITY BABES IN THE SLIMEBALL BOWL-O-RAMA, HOLLYWOOD CHAINSAW HOOKERS, NIGHT OF THE DEMONS and ASSAULT OF THE PARTY NERDS. She was so well known to Fangoria readers as a so-called Scream Queen that in 1990 she released LINNEA QUIGLEY’S HORROR WORKOUT. She’s still working too, with 13 movies on IMDb listed as completed, post-production, filming, pre-production or announced.
Mark Venturini (Suicide) had also been in FRIDAY THE 13TH: A NEW BEGINNING and was in Cirio H. Santiago’s NAM ANGELS and various TV shows before his untimely death from leukemia in 1996.
Allan Trautman (Tarman) became a Muppet performer.
Producer Tom Fox’s only other movies besides some of the RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD sequels were BLUE MONKEY (1987), DARK TOWER (1989) and MADHOUSE (2004).
Somehow, O’Bannon only directed one more time – THE RESURRECTED (1991). But he had writing credits on INVADERS FROM MARS (1986), TOTAL RECALL (1990), SCREAMERS (1995), HEMOGLOBIN (1997). And of course he has tons of “based on characters created by” credits on ALIEN-related movies and video games, plus a “screen story” on ALIEN VS. PREDATOR since it used ideas from early ALIEN drafts.