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
Hemdale Film Corporation
A Greenberg Brothers Partnership
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

The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 American comedy 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 spawned four sequels.


At a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, a foreman named Frank tries to impress the company's newest employee, Freddy, by showing him military drums that accidentally wound up in the basement of the building. The drum contains 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. When they wake up, Frank and Freddy discover that the body inside the tank has disappeared, believing it to have probably melted. The gas reanimates a corpse inside a meat locker, forcing Frank and Freddy to call upon their boss and warehouse owner Burt Wilson to help them deal with the situation. When the three fail to kill the walking cadaver by damaging its brain and decapitating it, Burt decides to bring the zombie to the nearby mortuary to have its dismembered parts burned in a gambit to destroy it once and for all.

Meanwhile, Freddy's friends learn of his new job from Tina, his girlfriend. The group, consisting of Spider, Trash, Scuz, Casey, and Chuck decide to pick Freddy up after he finishes his shift. Arriving two hours before Freddy leaves his job, the group, along with Suicide, their driver, go inside the nearby graveyard to wait for him to finish. Tina leaves the cemetery and enters the warehouse when the hours pass to find her boyfriend, not knowing he left for the mortuary. Her search brings her to the basement, where he is still nowhere to be found. Just as she is about to leave, she is suddenly ambushed by the zombie from the tank, "Tarman," who was initially thought to have dissolved. After a failed attempt to run away, she manages to lock herself inside a closet to prevent it from getting to her, but the desperate zombie finds a chain and winch and tries to pull the door off.

At the mortuary, Burt has Ernie, the mortician, burn the zombie in his retort until nothing remains. Unknown to them, this causes the deadly gas to contaminate the air and bring forth a toxic rainfall. The acid rain forces Freddy's friends to return to Suicide's convertible, but when the car fails to start and the roof begins to leak, they take refuge in the warehouse. Inside, Spider hears Tina's crying and they rush down to the basement. When Suicide steps forward to save Tina, Tarman promptly grabs him by the head and bites into his skull. The others are forced to abandon Suicide once Tarman notices them too, and Spider barricades the door to stop him from coming up. Because Casey witnessed Freddy entering the mortuary, the group makes a run through the cemetery to find Freddy. Inside the graveyard, they witness the dead rising from their graves. The shock of this sight results in the group getting split up. Only Tina, Spider, and Scuz make it to the mortuary, while Trash is killed by zombies, incidentally fulfilling what she said would be the worst way for her to die. Chuck and Casey are forced to flee back to the warehouse, luckily for them - Tarman remains trapped.

Frank and Freddy have grown increasingly ill from their exposure to the gas and a medical test from paramedics implies that they are no longer alive. When Burt and Ernie learn of the dead rising from their graves, they quickly barricade the mortuary after Ernie is attacked and chased back to his building when he tries to use an ambulance to escape. Scuz is killed while protecting the barricade and the zombies eat the paramedics and police who arrive at the mortuary (one of the zombies shows uncharacteristic intelligence by using the ambulance radio to ask dispatch to "Send more paramedics!"). With Frank and Freddy showing signs of becoming zombies themselves, Burt has them locked in the chapel. Tina, however, refuses to abandon Freddy and allows herself to be locked in with him. Meanwhile, Trash, having been exposed to the toxic chemicals in the rain and soil, rises intact from the mud as a zombie and begins to feed. Later she seems to form the zombies from the cemetery into a semi-organized horde that attacks the reinforcements head on.

Freddy soon becomes a full-fledged zombie and attempts to eat Tina, but is stopped by Burt, Ernie, and Spider. In the ensuing struggle, Ernie is injured but manages to blind Freddy with acid and lock him back up. Frank manages to escape during the chaos, and, still having control over his mind, commits suicide by self-immolation in the retort. While Freddy breaks through the door holding him, Burt sees a police car outside with the motor still running. Along with Spider, he manages to get inside the car, but the large number of zombies forces him to abandon Ernie and Tina, despite Spider's pleas to go back for them. Ernie brings Tina and himself up to his attic, while the blinded Freddy attempts to break in.

Burt crashes the police car outside of the warehouse, and an explosion caused by a gasoline leak destroys the remaining cars outside. Burt and Spider manage to get back inside the warehouse where they find Casey and Chuck. After disabling Tarman by decapitating him, the survivors enter the basement, where the building's phone is located. With the police being massacred by the zombies, Burt decides to call the number on the military drums. The call goes to Colonel Glover, an Army officer looking for the barrels. When Glover learns that "the Easter eggs have hatched," 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. The film ends with footage of the disaster area, along with a voiceover from Glover describing 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 a 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. In a critical scene in the movie, a zombie who has killed one of the characters is tied to a table (she exists only as a half-torso) and explains that the dead seek brains because eating brains "makes the pain go away--the pain of being dead". 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]