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]
Screenplay byDan O'Bannon[2]
Story by
Produced by
  • Tom Fox
  • Graham Henderson
CinematographyJules Brenner
Edited byRobert Gordon[2]
Music by
  • Matt Clifford[2]
  • Francis Haines
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 comedy horror 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 unkillable, brain-hungry zombies onto an unsuspecting town over the Fourth of July weekend.[5]

The film, described as a "mordant punk comedy",[2] is known for introducing the popular concept of zombies eating specifically brains, as opposed to eating any form of human flesh, like previous zombie iterations. It is also known as the first film to ever show zombies running, as well as zombies being able to speak.[6] The film is also quite different from virtually all other cinematic depictions of the living dead, in that the zombies portrayed in the film cannot be killed by a standard "head shot".[7]

The film is also notable for its soundtrack, which features several 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, at the Uneeda medical supply warehouse, foreman Frank tries to impress new employee Freddy by showing him military drums that wound up in the basement of the building. Frank accidentally unleashes the toxic gas in one of the barrels, which seemingly melts the cadaver inside and reanimates another cadaver stored in a meat locker. Joined by their boss Burt, the three discover that every part of the zombie can survive independently. Burt has the zombie incinerated at a nearby mortuary by his friend Ernie, but this inadvertently causes the deadly gas to contaminate the air, creating a toxic rainfall that reanimates the corpses in a cemetery.

Meanwhile, Freddy's girlfriend Tina and his friends Spider, Trash, Chuck, Casey, Scuz, and Suicide arrive at the cemetery to meet Freddy at his job. While Trash starts stripping on a Gravestone, Tina goes to the warehouse first and wanders into the basement, where she encounters the reanimated but horribly disfigured cadaver from the barrel that was assumed to have dissolved. The rest of the group arrives shortly after and saves her in the nick of time, although Suicide is killed. After Casey realizes she saw Freddy entering the mortuary, the group attempts to reach him through the cemetery, where they are attacked by the re-emerging zombies. Trash is killed and Chuck and Casey flee back to the warehouse, but Spider, Tina, and Scuz reach the mortuary. The three discover Frank and Freddy growing ill from their exposure to the gas, with a medical test implying they are no longer alive. When Burt and Ernie learn of the dead rising from their graves, they barricade the mortuary thereafter. Scuz is killed while protecting the barricade and the zombies eat the paramedics and police who arrive on the scene.

With Frank and Freddy showing signs of becoming zombies themselves, Burt has them locked in the chapel, accompanied by Tina when she refuses to abandon Freddy. Freddy soon attempts to eat Tina, prompting Burt, Ernie, and Spider to rescue her by reopening the chapel. Frank manages to escape during the chaos and, still having control over his mind, commits suicide by immolating himself. Burt and Spider flee the mortuary in a police car, but the large number of zombies forces Burt to leave Ernie and Tina behind. Ernie and Tina hide in the mortuary's attic, while a blinded Freddy attempts to break in.

Burt and Spider manage to get back inside the warehouse where they find Casey and Chuck. After incapacitating the basement zombie, whom Spider names "Tarman", Burt attempts to contact the police but learns they are being massacred by the zombies. Burt then decides to call the number on the military drums, which reaches military officer Colonel Glover. Notified that the zombies have taken over the area, Glover has the town destroyed by nuclear artillery on the morning of July 4, effectively killing Burt and the other survivors.

In the wake of the nuclear strike on Louisville, Colonel Glover is heard telling his commanding officer that everything went as planned and that the results couldn't be more positive. Only a small area was destroyed, he says, and casualties are limited; plus, the toxic rain - which, again, is burning skin on contact - is putting out the fires. As he speaks, more zombies in Resurrection Cemetery are heard screaming in their graves, indicating that the invasion is about to begin again.


Additionally, Cathleen Cordell portrays Glover's wife, while Drew Deighan and James Dalesandro play the paramedics killed by zombies. The zombie actors include Allan Trautman as Tarman, Terrence Houlihan as the yellow cadaver in the warehouse, Jerome Coleman as a legless corpse, Cherry Davis as the voice of a female zombie missing half her body, and John Durbin and David Bond as corpses who intercept radio transmissions.



The film has its roots in a novel by John Russo also called Return of the Living Dead.[8] 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.[8] Russo and producer Tom Fox planned to bring Return of the Living Dead to the screen in 3D and directed by Tobe Hooper.[8]

On his directorial debut

I spent 37 years of my life not even being alive. Now I'm fulfilled.

Dan O'Bannon[6]

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,[8] becoming his 'first big film'.[6] He accepted on the condition he could rewrite the film radically so as to differentiate it from Romero's films;[8]The film was the first production design credit for William Stout, who would go on to do production design for the Conan the Barbarian franchise among other films.[6] The appearance of the zombies in the film was inspired by the mummies of Guanajuato, Mexico and the Bog People of Wales, as well as artwork from EC Comics.[6]

The story's featured "2-4-5 Trioxin" chemical developed by the "Darrow Chemical Company" for the military was a play on the real-life Dow Chemical Company and its involvement in the 1960s with the manufacture of Agent Orange, scientifically known by the name 2,4,5-T Dioxin and used in the US Military's Operation Ranch Hand and on Canada's CFB Gagetown Canadian Forces Base in rural New Brunswick during the Vietnam War as a powerful defoliant. Return of the Living Dead makes a lighter purpose up for the chemical's usage, with character Frank suggesting that it was being sprayed on cannabis crops in the 1960s.[9]


Although the movie is set in Louisville, Kentucky, it was filmed in Burbank, Sylmar, and Downtown Los Angeles in California.[6] The "Tarman" zombie is performed by actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman.[8]


The Return of the Living Dead was a critical and a moderate box office success, grossing US$14,237,000 domestically on an estimated budget of US$4,000,000.[6] It currently holds a 91% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with a rating average of 7.2/10 based on 43 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."[10] 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.[11]

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."[12] 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".[13]

Colin Greenland reviewed The Return of the Living Dead for White Dwarf, and stated that "The movie sprawls shapelessly but comfortably, with plenty of gruesome jokes."[14]


  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 video[edit]

The film was originally released on DVD in the U.K. by Tartan Home Video on March 19, 2001.[13] 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 U.S. 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 three 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.[15]

Scream Factory released a 30th anniversary Collector's Edition Blu-Ray on July 19, 2016.[16] It contains a new 2K scan of the interpositive, along with including the original mono audio. Though note while everything else was restored (the original "Tar-Man" voice and the other songs), the song "Dead Beat Dance" by The Damned could not be restored.[17] MGM also released another edition with hand-drawn cover art.


Return of the Living Dead invented the theme of zombies craving brains. In a critical scene in the movie, a captured zombie explains that the zombies seek brains to relieve the pain of living death. 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 emphasized that it was not his idea.[18]

  • The British punk/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 of punk bands Mister Monster and Blitzkid took his stage surname “J~Sin Trioxin” from the film.
  • The film has been spoofed in several episodes of the animated sitcom South Park, most notably "Pink Eye" that has recreations of key scenes and a similar central plot.[19] The film's zombie cries of "Brains...more brains" were parodied in the 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 10th episode of The Simpsons' 11th 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."[20]
  • 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 clip of the film was shown honoring James Karen.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "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. ^ "6 Horror Movies That Are Unexpectedly Perfect for 4th of July Viewing". July 2, 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Strauss, Bob (December 1984). "On-the-Set Report: Return of the Living Dead". Fangoria. No. 40. New York City: O'Quinn Studios. pp. 34–37, 64 – via Internet Archive.
  7. ^ Pacheco, Shawn (August 16, 2020). "It's Party Time! Celebrating 35 Years of 'The Return of the Living Dead'". HorrorGeekLife. Retrieved January 14, 2022.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ Posey, Aaron (October 14, 2017). "31 Days of Halloween: It's Party Time with 'Return of the Living Dead' (1985)". 1428elm. Retrieved August 19, 2021.
  10. ^ "The Return of the Living Dead (1985)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  11. ^ Awards for The Return of the Living Dead at IMDb
  12. ^ Ebert, Roger (August 19, 1985). "Return of the Living Dead". Retrieved October 14, 2016.
  13. ^ a b Holden, Stephen (August 16, 1985). "Screen: 'Return of the Living Dead'". Movie Review. The New York Times. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  14. ^ Greenland, Colin (March 1986). "2020 Vision". White Dwarf. Games Workshop (75): 7.
  15. ^ "The Return of the Living Dead (Steelbook Bluray) :: DVD & Blu-ray Disc Film Catalogue". Second Sight Films. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  16. ^ 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.
  17. ^ "The Return of the Living Dead: Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review | High Def Digest". Retrieved December 13, 2019.
  18. ^ Spitznagel, Eric (May 27, 2010). "George A. Romero: "Who Says Zombies Eat Brains?"". Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  19. ^ ""South Park" Pinkeye (TV Episode 1997) - IMDb" – via
  20. ^ "Little Big Mom: Written by Carolyn Omine, Directed by Mark Kirkland". Retrieved September 21, 2012.

External links[edit]