December 21, 2015 The Return of the Living Dead Rising From The Grave 30 Years Later
Night of the Living Dead made Horror history in 1968 by reinventing the Zombie sub-genre and introducing a level of terror and special effects that had yet to be seen. Writer and Director George A. Romero went on to make sequels that not only dealt with the undead, but socio-economic issues as well. While Romero was focused on more serious tones, Night of the Living Dead co-writer, John A. Russo, wanted to take the series in a different, more comedic, direction. Based on Russo’s 1978 novel, his follow up film, The Return of the Living Dead, sparked a legal battle over the movie’s title and advertising. The court ultimately ruled that Russo could keep the rights to future films that feature “Living Dead” in the name. Russo and Romero remained good friends throughout the proceedings and both men were able to create their films.
In 1985, Horror fans were treated to Romero’s third Dead film, Day of the Dead, as well as Russo’s The Return of the Living Dead. Following an alternate storyline after the events that took place in Night of the Living Dead, these Zombies were vastly different than the slow, simple-minded creatures usually shown. They were able to run, talk, feel, think, and always craved “More BRAINS!” In an unforgettable scene, the mortician, Ernie is questioning a naked female Zombie (often referred to as Half Corpse within the franchise) about what they want and why they kill. Although she is severed at the waist, spine in view, she explains that her kind feels pain, but when brains are consumed, “It makes the pain, go away!” In another often quoted and classic scene, a Zombie climbs into an ambulance and instructs the radio operator to “Send… more… paramedics” after consuming the first crew.
Casting Director Stanzi Stokes was tasked with finding fresh faces for the teenage cast, with the requirement that several be “authentic Punk-rockers.” However, none of the actors selected had Punk looks, so the makeup crew had to transform their styles before shooting. One of the more wholesome characters, Tina, was played by unknown actress, Beverly Randolph. However, soft-spoken Randolph proved herself by carrying the more emotional scenes and performing many of her own stunts, even to the point of exhaustion. Although filming was grueling at times, she looks back on the experience fondly, saying, “It had such a great look, the music and wardrobe, special effects. Special effects make up were so great, how could the film not have staying power?” She also says of her co-workers, “The camaraderie of the cast was a wonderful thing! We are a family to this day.”
Actress Jewel Shepard met Director Dan O’Bannon while dancing at a strip club he frequented. Although he wrote the part of Trash with her in mind, Shepard declined due to not wanting more nude scenes. Instead, she was cast as the punkish and feisty Casey, which proved to be a perfect fit. Trash, originally named Legs, went to another actress who was let go due to pregnancy. Not only would it be a liability during the action scenes, but the part required a lot of nudity. Finally, the role went to the now iconic scream queen, Linnea Quigley. Despite having numerous roles in B-Horror movies, Quigley will always be known for her memorable striptease scene. Her first performance was initially rejected by Co-Producer Graham Henderson due to Linnea’s pubic hair. After having it removed, she did another take, but the genitalia still bothered Henderson. Makeup artist Bill Munns created a mold that covered all of these areas which made her anatomical parts below the waist resemble that of a Barbie Doll. Although the whole experience was a bit mortifying, she loved the role, saying, “I think it was just written so well, the characters were so good, and Dan O’Bannon paid attention to detail. Also, the moon and stars were aligned at the right time. There is no way to force a movie to be good; it just kind of goes together. It was just a great ensemble of people, a great director, great art direction, great wardrobe, and everything. Everyone cared.”
The character of Freddy, Tina’s boyfriend and bumbling warehouse worker, was played by actor Thom Mathews. Although Mathews lacked film experience, he was wisely paired with seasoned actor, James Karen, who played fellow warehouse worker, Frank. Although the two came from vastly different backgrounds, they got along well. Karen mentioned Mathews in a recent interview with CrypticRock.com, saying, “Thom Mathews, who played my sidekick… never did a movie before and he just turned out to be a wonderful guy.” Two more seasoned actors were cast alongside the young crew, including Clu Gulager and Don Calfa. Gulager played the warehouse manager, Burt, while Calfa played the mortician, Ernie. Although many believe that their names were a funny play on the famous puppets, O’Bannon claimed that the names were not chosen for that reason.
Although unknown before The Return of the Living Dead, actors Miguel A. Núñez Jr. and John Philbin have gone on to have very successful film careers. Núñez, who actually lived in a homeless shelter when he was cast, played the comedic and street-wise Spider. John Philbin, who had a role in Children of the Corn the previous year, played Chuck, who stood out for being well-dressed while toting a huge boom box. Unfortunately, the years were not kind to all of the actors. Brian Peck played Scuz, the tough mohawked Punk. Although Peck launched a successful career after this role, he has found himself in legal trouble after allegations of sexual abuse of a child surfaced. Mark Venturini was cast as Suicide, the quasi leader of the small group of misfits, perhaps most remembered for a groping scene involving Trash. Unfortunately, Venturini sadly passed away from leukemia in 1996 at the age of 35.
Director Tobe Hooper, notorious for Horror classics The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and Poltergeist (1982), was initially brought on board, but had to back out due to a prior commitment. He was replaced by Writer Dan O’Bannon, best known for writing the screenplay for Alien (1979). Although he was inexperienced at the director’s helm, James Karen remarks, “Everybody was awfully right for their parts and it was a very creative time. It was Dan O’Bannon’s first picture; he never had directed before and he just let us go.” Things on the set were far from perfect at times, however, mostly due to outbursts regarding O’Bannon’s difficult personality and unconventional style.
In a time where Horror movies are known for over the top and gory practical effects, The Return of the Living Dead was no exception. Working on a small budget, the crew managed to create a few iconic Zombies. Production Designer William Stout created Tarman, one of the most recognizable Zombies in movie history. Stout claims that The Return of the Living Dead was the most difficult challenge of his career and even quit filmmaking for nine months following the movie’s completion. Other than dealing with an ambitious script effects-wise, fellow makeup artist Bill Munns was fired from the set after his work failed to impress. Some of his effects were featured in the finished movie, which still makes Stout “cringe.” Makeup Effects Creator Rick Baker suggested that a young Tony Gardner come aboard the project, seeing that he had serious potential. Despite the pressure, Gardner designed, executed, and puppeteered Half Corpse. It is no surprise that he launched an incredibly successful career in effects following the movie.
The soundtrack was influential in making the film feel eerie, edgy, and claustrophobic. Featuring Punk/Rock acts such as The Cramps, 45 Grave, The Flesheaters, SSQ, The Damned, Tall Boys, Roky Erickson, and more, The Return of the Living Dead introduced a generation to music that was not mainstream. The film’s definitive track is “Surfin’ Dead” by The Cramps with lyrics, “The surfin’ dead, oooh make it tight / The livin’ dead now baby lose their heads / Now baby, doin’ the dead.” The soundtrack is still loved by fans today.
While the odds seemed stacked against the film at times, the end result was a box office and critical success, launching it to cult status. While thinking back on this, James Karen says, “Nobody thought it was going to be a great cult classic. I saw the script and I never thought it was going to become that, although I should have known because there was so much joy working.” The witty and spirited Jewel Shepard says that the film achieved this status, “Because it combines Shakespearean tragedy along with commentary of the primal emotions that define humanity and the experience of interaction with death encourage… And also because it’s full of Zombies and tits.” Regardless of the reason, the film’s cast and crew obviously struck gold.
There have been four sequels to date: Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988), Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993), Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005), and Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005). Although the subsequent films were not financial successes like the first, they still have found a fan following. Considering the impact the film has had on Pop culture and movie history, it is safe to assume that fans will remain enamored for generations to come.