The Return of the Living Dead

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This article is about the film. For the novel, see Return of the Living Dead (novel).
The Return of the Living Dead
The Return of the Living Dead (film).jpg
Theatrical poster
Directed by Dan O'Bannon
Produced by Tom Fox
Graham Henderson
Screenplay by Dan O'Bannon
Story by Rudy Ricci
John A. Russo
Russell Streiner
Music by Matt Clifford
Francis Haines
Cinematography Jules Brenner
Edited by Robert Gordon
Distributed by Orion Pictures
Release dates
  • August 16, 1985 (1985-08-16)
Running time
91 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $4 million
Box office $14,237,880 (USA)

The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 American black comedy/zombie horror film written and directed by Dan O'Bannon and starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Don Calfa.[1][2]

The film tells the story of how three men accompanied by a group of teenage punks deal with the accidental release of a horde of brain hungry zombies onto an unsuspecting town. The film is known for introducing the popular concept of zombies eating brains, as opposed to just eating human flesh, like previous zombie iterations, as well as its soundtrack, which features several noted deathrock and punk rock bands of the era. The film was a critical success and performed moderately well at the box office. It later spawned four sequels.


At a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, foreman Frank tries to impress the company's newest employee, Freddy, by showing him military drums that contain the remains of an army experiment gone wrong that inspired the film Night of the Living Dead. Frank accidentally unleashes the toxic gas inside the barrel, knocking them unconscious, and reanimating a corpse inside a meat locker, forcing the pair to call their boss Burt to help them deal with the situation. The three are able to dismember the cadaver and Burt decides to bring the remains to the nearby mortuary so it can be burned by his friend, Ernie. Elsewhere, Freddy's girlfriend, Tina, and his group of friends wait for him to finish work by messing around in a nearby graveyard.

Despite his initial shock, Ernie burns the zombie remains, unknowingly releasing the toxic gas into the air. Tina goes into the warehouse to meet Freddy but instead gets trapped in the basement by Tarman, a zombie that escaped from the barrel. The gas causes a sudden acid rainfall, causing the rest of Freddy's friends to flee the graveyard, only to find that their car won't start, forcing them into the warehouse. Inside, they hear Tina's screams from the basement, and though they are able to rescue her, Suicide is killed by Tarman. The group decides to head for the mortuary by crossing through the graveyard, where they witness hundreds of zombies rising from their graves, causing the group to split up. Tina, Spider, and Scuz make it to the mortuary, Chuck and Casey return to the warehouse, and Trash is surrounded and killed.

Frank and Freddy grow increasingly ill from their exposure to the gas, so Burt and Ernie call two paramedics, who run tests on them showing they have no vital signs. When the paramedics return to the ambulance, they are devoured by zombies, while Burt and Ernie learn of the hundreds more outside from Tina, Spider, and Scuz. The group decides to fortify and barricade the mortuary, resulting in Scuz's death, while backup paramedics and police arriving outside are continually ambushed by the dead. With Frank and Freddy showing signs of becoming zombies themselves, they are both locked in the chapel, along with Tina, who refuses to abandon Freddy. Trash revives as a zombie and joins the horde as they move through town feeding on the citizens.

Freddy turns into a zombie and tries to attack Tina but is blinded with acid by Ernie, who injures his ankle in the process; Frank uses the distraction to escape and immolates himself in the mortuary furnace. Burt and Spider make a break for a police car outside, but are forced to abandon Ernie and Tina when they are overwhelmed by zombies. Ernie takes himself and Tina up into the attic, while an enraged Freddy attempts to hunt them down. Burt crashes the police car outside of the warehouse, and an explosion destroys the remaining cars outside. Burt and Spider join Chuck and Casey, decapitate Tarman, and enter the basement to use the phone. After hearing the police being massacred over the phone, Burt decides to call the number on the military drums, and is put through to Colonel Glover. When Glover is informed of the situation, he activates a containment protocol that destroys 20 square blocks of Louisville with a nuclear artillery shell, effectively wiping out both the zombies and the survivors. Glover describes the outcome as optimal ("less than 4000 dead"), while dismissing the new reports of skin irritation by saying "the rain should wash everything away" in time for the President's impending visit to the area.



The film has its roots in a novel by John Russo also called Return of the Living Dead. When Russo and George A. Romero parted ways after their 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Russo retained the rights to any titles featuring Living Dead while Romero was free to create his own series of sequels, beginning with Dawn of the Dead. Russo and producer Tom Fox planned to bring Return of the Living Dead to the screen in 3D and directed by Tobe Hooper. Dan O'Bannon was brought in to give the script a polish and after Hooper backed out to make Lifeforce (also from a script by Dan O'Bannon), O'Bannon was offered the director's seat. He accepted on the condition he could rewrite the film radically so as to differentiate it from Romero's films. Russo retains a story writer credit on the film for developing the project, but the final film bears little to no resemblance to his original novel. He later wrote a novelization of the film which was fairly faithful to the shooting script, though without the character names as in the final film and the addition of a KGB subplot as an explanation for the plot. (Russo would, eventually, make his own 'canon' series with a 1998 revised edition of Night of the Living Dead, subtitled the 30th Anniversary Edition, and its sequel, Children of the Living Dead.)

O'Bannon's script also differed from the Romero series in that it was markedly more comical than Romero's films, employing "splatstick" style morbid humor and eccentric dialogue. The films also boasted significant nudity, in marked contrast to Romero's work. Russo and O'Bannon were only directly involved with the first film in the series. The rest of the films, to varying degrees, stick to their outline and "rules" established in the first film.

Although the movie is set in Louisville, Kentucky, it was filmed in California. The Louisville police uniforms and patrol cars were all period correct.[citation needed]

The "Tarman" zombie is performed by actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman, who is best known for his work with Jim Henson and The Muppets.

The "Half-Corpse" zombie character was an animatronic puppet created by Tony Gardner and puppeteered by Gardner, actor Brian Peck ("Scuz"), and Production Designer William Stout. This character launched Tony Gardner's career as an independent makeup effects artist.

The characters of Burt Wilson and Ernie Kaltenbrunner are, contrary to popular belief, not named after the characters from Sesame Street; Dan O'Bannon had no idea he was using the names of those characters.

Originally, Frank was supposed to be completely transformed into a zombie and join the zombie mob, but James Karen did not wish to film any scenes in the cold rain of Los Angeles, so he instead suggested that Frank immolate himself before said transformation could be completed. O'Bannon agreed to the suggestion.


The Return of the Living Dead was a critical and a moderate box office success. It currently holds an 90% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes,[3] and grossed $14,237,000 domestically on an estimated budget of $4,000,000.[4] It was also nominated for four Saturn Awards, including Best Horror Film, Best Actor for James Karen, Best Director and Best Make-up, by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.[5]


  1. "Surfin' Dead" by The Cramps
  2. "Partytime (Zombie Version)" by 45 Grave
  3. "Nothin' for You" by T.S.O.L.
  4. "Eyes Without a Face" by The Flesh Eaters
  5. "Burn the Flames" by Roky Erickson
  6. "Dead Beat Dance" by The Damned
  7. "Take a Walk" by Tall Boys
  8. "Love Under Will" by Jet Black Berries
  9. "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" by SSQ
  10. "Trash's Theme" by SSQ
  11. "Young, Fast Iranians" by Straw Dogs : 1991 Hemdale version and subsequent DVD and Blu-ray Releases, though not on official soundtrack album.
  12. "Partytime (Single Version)" by 45 Grave: Version actually used in the film, though not on official soundtrack album.
  13. "Panzer Rollen in Afrika vor" by Norbert Schultze: Song playing on Ernie's walkman, though not on official soundtrack album.

Home media[edit]

The film was originally released on DVD in the UK by Tartan Home Video on March 19, 2001. Up until 2012, this was the only time it had been issued in its original form. On August 27, 2002, MGM released a Special Edition DVD in the US with a new cut of the movie (with music alterations due to copyright issues) with a commentary by O'Bannon and a documentary on the making of the film. The cover of the DVD case for the 2002 release glows in the dark. On September 11, 2007, a Collector's Edition of the film was released with additional extra features involving the cast. The different home video releases have featured different soundtracks, often changing the songs used. Also, the basement zombie's ("Tar-Man") voice was altered. Originally, the zombie had a higher, raspier voice.

A 25th anniversary edition was released on September 14, 2010, exclusively for Blu-ray Disc. The Blu-ray Disc version is a 2-disc combo pack with both a Blu-ray Disc and DVD. This release is very similar to the MGM/Fox print from 3 years earlier.

On June 4, 2012, Second Sight Films out of U.K. released DVD and Blu-ray Disc versions of the film where the original audio and soundtrack in its original form can be selected, the first time since 2001 a release has had this option. The release had its first insight into the movie with the inclusion on a booklet (claimed to be based on Ernie's notes from the events of the film) which was edited from Gary Smart and Christian Seller's publication The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead.[6]

Legacy and pop culture[edit]

Return of the Living Dead popularized the notion in the public conscious of zombies eating specifically brains (as opposed to simply flesh) and that zombies groan "Braaiinnsss!" as they walk. One of the characters from the movie theorizes that the zombies feel intense pain as their bodies decay and that brains block the pain. It is a popular misconception that George Romero invented this specific trait as part of his Night of the Living Dead series, though he has emphasised that it was not his idea.[7]

  • Clu Gulager's character, Burt Wilson, sports a "Members Only" jacket while fighting off zombies. This brand was popular during the 1980s.
  • The film was spoofed in an episode of South Park called "Pink Eye" where Kenny catches the eponymous infection and everyone becomes brain-eating zombies.[8] The film's zombie cries of "Brains...more brains" were parodied in the South Park episode "Night of the Living Homeless" where the town is overrun by homeless people who repeatedly ask for "change".
  • In the tenth episode of The Simpsons' eleventh season ("Little Big Mom"), Bart and Homer believe they have leprosy and begin to act like zombies. When trying to ask Ned Flanders for help, they reach through the mail slot on his front door, saying, in a zombie-like voice, "Brains. Brains." Then Homer cheerfully says, "Use your brains to help us." Then, using the zombie-like voice again, he says, "Your delicious brains."[9]
  • In 2011, More Brains! A Return of the Living Dead Documentary was released on DVD.


A book titled The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead was released October 2010.[10][11] The book covered all five movies in the series.[12] It featured interviews from over 70 members of the cast and crew, as well as 150 never-before-published filmmakers photos, film stills and posters.[13]


External links[edit]