The Return of the Living Dead

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The Return of the Living Dead
The Return of the Living Dead (film).jpg
Theatrical release poster by Carl Ramsey
Directed byDan O'Bannon[1]
Produced by
  • Tom Fox
  • Graham Henderson
Screenplay byDan O'Bannon[2]
Story by
Music by
  • Matt Clifford[2]
  • Francis Haines
CinematographyJules Brenner
Edited byRobert Gordon[2]
Distributed byOrion Pictures[2]
Release date
  • August 16, 1985 (1985-08-16)
Running time
91 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
BudgetUS$4 million
Box officeUS$14.2 million[3]

The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 American zombie film written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, and starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Thom Matthews and Don Calfa.[2][4] The film tells the story of how a warehouse owner; accompanied by his two employees, mortician friend, and a group of teenage punks, deal with the accidental release of a horde of brain-hungry zombies onto an unsuspecting town.

The film, described as a "mordant punk comedy",[2] is known for introducing the popular concept of zombies eating brains, as opposed to eating human flesh, like previous zombie iterations. It is also known as being the first film to ever show zombies being able to run, as well as zombies being able to speak. The film is also quite unique from virtually all other cinematic depictions of the living dead; in that the zombies portrayed within the film, cannot be killed by a standard "head shot", or by any other means apart from utter destruction by incineration (which has serious consequences), or by being totally dissolved in caustic acid.

The film is also notable for its soundtrack, which features several legendary Los Angeles based deathrock and punk rock bands of the era. The film was a critical success and performed moderately well at the box office. Its enduring popularity has spawned four sequels and turned it into a cult classic.


On July 3, 1984 at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, warehouse foreman Frank walks Freddy, the company's new stock clerk, around showing him various medical instrumentations and preserved specimens that the company sells. The pair bid farewell to company owner, Burt, before continuing on with Freddy's training. Freddy is also shown the cold storage room, which contains the human cadavers that the company also sells for medical and military purposes.

Meanwhile, Freddy's fellow punk rocker friends walk aimless around downtown Louisville, along with his girlfriend Tina. The group consisting of; Spider, Trash, Scuz, Casey and Chuck, learn about Freddy's new job from Tina. Casey suggests that they pick him up after he finishes his shift, since he always knows where there's a place to party. Back at the medical supply warehouse, Freddy asks Frank out of all the oddities he's encountered in his career at the company, which was the weirdest. Frank begins by asking Freddy if he has ever seen the film Night of the Living Dead, and informs Freddy that the film was based on a true case. Freddy scoffs at the notion, but Frank swears on God, and delivers a detailed story wherein he recounts that in 1967 a chemical that was being produced for the military, named 2-4-5 Trioxin, spilled at the VA Hospital in Pittsburgh. The chemical leaked down into the hospital's morgue, and had the wholly unintended properties of reanimating the dead. The incident was contained and covered up, with the director of the subsequent film (George A. Romero), threatened by the United States Government with severe reprisals, to "change all the facts around". Through a clerical error in the Army's transportation department, the drums containing the original zombies were sent to Uneeda instead of the manufacturer of the gas for disposal, the Darrow Chemical Company. Fearing for the safety of the business, Burt kept their receipt from the government and placed the drums in the basement, where they've been sitting for the last 15 years. An excited Freddy follows Frank to the basement to see the drums for himself. Frank accidentally, and ironically, unleashes one drum's toxic gas by smacking the side of it trying to show its well made construction, which compromises the integrity of the tank. The gas sends the two to the floor convulsing, and renders them unconscious, before making its way through the buildings duct work and covering all the specimens, and the only cadaver in cold storage.

Tina along with Freddy's friends pull up outside, having been picked up by another unhinged friend of his with a car, named Suicide. Having a couple of hours to kill before Freddy gets off, with nowhere to go and no gas money to cruise, the gang decide to hang out in the cemetery which separates the warehouse from it's business neighbor, a mortuary. Frank and Freddy awaken in the basement, nauseous and disoriented, to find that the viewing port of the drum is shattered and the body inside the drum is gone, to which Frank presumes melted when it came in contact with the air. They make their way upstairs, agreeing to not tell Burt about the incident, when they curiously follow strange sounds coming from the shelves. They discover a bifurcated veterinary specimen of a dog panting and whimpering on the ground, that Frank beats with a crutch, to no avail. They are both alerted to crazed screaming and pounding coming from inside the cold room, and realizing what has happened, they lock the cadaver inside. They retreat to the office where Freddy suggests calling the emergency number stenciled on the tanks, which Frank roundly disagrees with, knowing the United States Army will get involved. He instead calls Burt, to help them deal with the situation.

In the cemetery, Tina, along with Freddy's friends are hanging out and listening to punk music. After explaining to Spider the worst possible way she could be killed, which is also her deepest fantasy, Trash proceeds to do a fully nude strip dance atop an above ground crypt to everyone's delight, apart from Tina's. Back at Uneeda, Burt arrives and berates Frank for going near the tanks, and tries to figure out a plan. After recalling that Romero's zombies died in his film by having their brains destroyed, they resolve to kill the reanimated creatures and cadaver accordingly, and tell no one about the incident. Burt positions himself as bait and has Freddy release the reanimated cadaver from the cold storage room. They are immediately taken off their bearings when the corpse sprints out of the freezer at full speed, screaming "Brains!", instead of lumbering and groaning. After both a pick axe to the zombie's brain, as well as decapitation, fail to kill either the body or the head, Frank angrily declares "It worked in the movie!", to which Freddy points out "But didn't the movie lie?". Burt decides that the only option is to dismember the corpse and take it along with the other reanimated evidence to the nearby mortuary, which is owned by his friend Ernie, to be incinerated in the crematorium.

Later Tina leaves the gang in the cemetery and enters the warehouse to pick up Freddy. Although no one is present, she continues to look for him anyway, venturing into the basement where the corpse from the drum (dubbed "Tarman") is attracted to her presence and comes out of hiding. She locks herself inside a metal closet after a botched attempt to run, resulting from her falling through a rickety step. The Tarman attaches a winched chain to the door handles and begins to pull the doors off.

At the mortuary Burt convinces Ernie to burn the remains, after showing him a fully animated severed arm, which attacks Ernie. No one realises that the chemically filled smoke coming from the burning remains causes the gas to contaminate the air, which starts a heavy acid rainfall, that begins to soak down into the soil of the cemetery. The acid rain forces Freddy's friends out of the cemetery before Trash can get her clothes, and they seek refuge in Suicide's car, which both refuses to start and springs a leak in its ragtop. They run to the warehouse, believing that to be where Freddy is with Tina. Once inside, the group hears the basement commotion and waste no time to rescue Tina, but Suicide is killed by Tarman in the process. The group, at Spider’s insistence, barricade the door to the basement and frantically try to figure out what to do. Casey recalls that she thought she saw Freddy going into the mortuary on the other side of the cemetery earlier with some other men, and they run back out into the rain through the cemetery to find him. However, they are split up when the zombies begin rising from their graves. Trash lags behind on her own and gets surrounded and attacked by zombies, dying the way she described earlier as the worst way to die. Tina, Spider, and Scuz make their way to the mortuary, while Chuck and Casey head back to the warehouse.

At the mortuary, Burt and all involved think that the worst is behind them, and breathe a sigh of relief. However, Frank and Freddy have grown increasingly ill from their exposure to the gas, and after finally telling Burt about being exposed to it earlier, Ernie calls the paramedics. After their arrival, the paramedics conduct preliminary vitals on the two men, and after checking their instruments and doing cross examinations, they tell the men that they're puzzled with their findings; they're conscious, yet their vital signs imply that they're dead. They are alerted to Tina, Spider, and Scuz wildly banging on the front door. Ernie goes to check it out, while the paramedics excuse themselves to retrieve their stretchers so that they can take Freddy and Frank to the hospital. Both of the paramedics are ambushed and their brains devoured by zombies when they get to their van, and when Ernie and Burt find out about the graveyard zombies, they frantically barricade the mortuary after an aborted attempt to escape using Ernie's car.

Scuz is killed protecting the barricade, with Ernie spearing the halfed-zombie assailant for interrogation. Back in the embalming room, with the "Torso Zombie" lashed to the morgue slab, Ernie questions her regarding the motivations of the zombies. She explains to him that they don't eat people, but brains, and do so to stave off the pain of being dead, as they can feel themselves rot. The zombies continue to eat the brains of the paramedics and police who arrive in the area, being baited by the zombies themselves, requesting back up reinforcements over the vehicle radios. Ernie examines a progressively worsening Freddy, and confirms the paramedics findings, in that Freddy is undergoing Rigor Mortis, which unravels Tina. With Frank and Freddy showing signs of becoming zombies themselves, Burt has them locked in the chapel, with Tina choosing to stay with Freddy. Back in the cemetery, Trash rises as a zombie, from the chemically laden mud, attacking a hobo who was walking with a shopping cart full of garbage, seemingly not concerned about the occurring. Meanwhile, a large scale back-up call in response to the missing ambulances and police cruisers, is attacked and devoured. This is witnessed by a police helicopter, which finally makes the chaos known to the police at large, who mount a massive blockade at the perimeter of the district to contain the violence.

Freddy succumbs as a zombie and tries to eat Tina's brains, but is blinded with acid thrown by Ernie. Frank escapes quietly from the chapel, and makes his way to the crematorium, where he incinerates himself before his transformation into a zombie is complete. Ernie breaks his ankle in the melee of barricading Freddy in the chapel, and the remaining four decide that they must attempt to escape the mortuary. Ernie and Tina stay put while Burt and Spider bash their way through a horde of zombies to a police car outside, but the growing number leaves them unable to come back for them. They attempt to leave the business district to get help, but encounter a veritable wall of zombies, and are forced to retreat to the warehouse. Burt takes out some zombies with the police cruiser, which makes the car explode due to a gasoline leak after he and Spider get out, which also blows both Burt and Frank's respective cars, rendering them utterly stranded at the warehouse.

Burt and Spider reunite with Casey and Chuck and go to the basement's phone after Burt knocks off Tarman's head with a baseball bat. Burt calls the police, who put him through to the blockade. As Burt pleads for rescue, Trash leads a semi-organized horde, which takes the blockade head on. With the police massacred by the zombies, as well as the barricade failing, Burt decides that there is no other choice but to call the emergency phone number stenciled on the tank. The call goes to Colonel Glover, an army officer who has been quietly searching for the missing barrels. When Glover learns that the "eggs have hatched", and upon hearing that the gas has resurrected an entire cemetery of the dead, he activates a containment protocol with a nuclear artillery shell to destroy the area, declining to mention this to Burt.

Just as a blinded Freddy breaks into an attic where Ernie and Tina are hiding, as Ernie is preparing to mercy-kill Tina before himself, the shell destroys 20 square blocks of Louisville which ultimately kills both the survivors and zombies. With footage shown of the destroyed area, Glover describes the outcome to his superior officer, that the blast resulted in less than 4,000 dead and dismisses reports of acid rain, which soon restarts the zombie rising all over again.




The film has its roots in a novel by John Russo also called Return of the Living Dead.[5] 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.[5] Russo and producer Tom Fox planned to bring Return of the Living Dead to the screen in 3D and directed by Tobe Hooper.[5]

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.[5] He accepted on the condition he could rewrite the film radically so as to differentiate it from Romero's films.[5] This was done out of professional respect, being that O'Bannon didn't want to tread too heavily on Romero's established territory, as Russo's original draft was a very serious sequel to Night of the Living Dead. He instead opted to include an undertone of black comedy and morbid humor, as opposed to a straight horror film. He further added the backstory that Frank tells Freddy to honor and reference the source material, but at the same time, to set it apart on its own.

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. 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 only scene actually filmed in Louisville was the shot of the front gate of Louisville's Eastern Cemetery. Filming began on July 9, 1984, and finished several months later in October.[6]

Director Dan O'Bannon, delivers a voice cameo in the film as the helicopter policeman's voice, as well as production designer William Stout doing a small uncredited role as a street bum who the punks walk past early in the film.

The "Tarman" zombie is performed by actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman,[5] 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.

Linnea Quigley, who plays Trash in the film, had to be fitted for a cup-like vaginal prosthesis to be worn during the vast majority of her scenes, which director Dan O'Bannon described as "A Barbie doll crotch, with no detail". Quigley herself had no problem with the full frontal nudity, but the producers insisted upon it when they happened to visit the set the night her strip dance was filmed in the cemetery, while she was completely nude, apart from her leg-warmers.

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. The character of Ernie is a thinly veiled reference to infamous Nazi SS officer, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, as Ernie has a photo of Eva Braun on the wall of his embalming room, can speak German, and carries a Walther P38 pistol.

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 incinerate 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, grossing $14,237,000 domestically on an estimated budget of $4,000,000.[7] It currently holds a 91% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with a rating average of 7.2/10 based on 35 reviews. Its consensus reads: "A punk take on the zombie genre, Return of the Living Dead injects a healthy dose of '80s silliness to the flesh consuming."[8] 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.[9]

Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing that the film is "kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it's done with style. It is."[10] Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film a "mordant punk comedy", stating that it "is by no means the ultimate horror movie it aspires to be".[11]


  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.[11] Up until 2012, this was the only time it had been issued in its original form. In early 2002, a fan led online campaign was started which attracted the attention of the director and many of the cast and crew. Several of them commented online that the popular and robust efforts of campaign organizer, Michael Allred, were the direct result of not only the DVD release but that MGM created new supplements due to overwhelming fan support. 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 that can still be heard in theatrical trailers and releases that contain the original audio.

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 in the 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.[12]

Scream Factory released a 30th anniversary Collector's Edition Blu-Ray on July 19, 2016.[13] MGM also released another edition with hand-drawn cover art.


Return of the Living Dead invented the popularized notion in the public conscious of zombies eating specifically brains (as opposed to simply flesh) and that zombies groan "Braaiinnsss!" as they walk. It is also the first film to ever show zombies being able to run, as well as being able to speak, and being in possession of more than base animal instincts. 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.[14]

  • The disbanded British horrorpunk/thrash quartet, Send More Paramedics, took their name from the film. They appeared on stage as zombies, apart from their drummer who wore a black luchador mask, and nearly all of their lyrics centered on zombie films.
  • Jason Heveran (aka J~Sin Trioxin) 6/11/79-12/14/18, of horrorpunk band Mister Monster, as well as a touring member of Blitzkid, took his stage surname from the film.
  • 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.[15] 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 fifth episode of The Simpsons' fourth season ("Treehouse of Horror III"), Bart & Lisa unwittingly unleash a horde of zombies upon Springfield. They break down the door searching for brains, but looking into Homer's ear, they rudely reject him after tapping his head & listening to the hollow echo inside. Zombie Principal Skinner summons Martin Prince to his office & reminds him to bring that "big, juicy chess club brain" of his.
  • 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."[16]
  • In 2011, More Brains! A Return of the Living Dead Documentary was released on DVD.
  • At the 91st Academy Awards, during the In Memoriam portion, a lighthearted clip of Frank was shown honoring James Karen.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h "The Return of the Living Dead (18)". British Board of Film Classification. September 3, 1985. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Holden, Stephen (August 16, 1985). "Screen: 'Return of the Living Dead'". Movie Review. The New York Times. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  3. ^ The Return of the Living Dead at Box Office Mojo
  4. ^ Macek III, J. C. (June 14, 2012). "The Zombification Family Tree: Legacy of the Living Dead". PopMatters. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Kane, Joe (2010). Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever. Citadel Press. pp. 147–150. ISBN 978-0806533315.
  6. ^ "The Return of the Living Dead". AFI Catalog of Feature Films. American Film Institute. Archived from the original on February 1, 2019.
  7. ^ "The Return of the Living Dead (1985)". Retrieved September 21, 2012.
  8. ^ "The Return of the Living Dead (1985)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  9. ^ Awards for The Return of the Living Dead on IMDb
  10. ^ Ebert, Roger (August 19, 1985). "Return of the Living Dead". Retrieved October 14, 2016.
  11. ^ a b Holden, Stephen (August 16, 1985). "Screen: 'Return of the Living Dead'". Movie Review. The New York Times. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  12. ^ "The Return of the Living Dead (Steelbook Bluray) :: DVD & Blu-ray Disc Film Catalogue". Second Sight Films. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  13. ^ Roth, Dany (April 5, 2016). "More brains! Return of the Living Dead is finally getting the special edition it deserves". Syfy. Retrieved October 23, 2017.
  14. ^ Spitznagel, Eric. "George A. Romero: "Who Says Zombies Eat Brains?"". Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  15. ^ IMDb – "South Park" – Pink Eye (1997)
  16. ^ "Little Big Mom: Written by Carolyn Omine, Directed by Mark Kirkland". Retrieved September 21, 2012.

External links[edit]