The film came about out of a dispute between John Russo and George A. Romero over how to handle sequels to their 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. Thus, each man was able to do what he pleased with the series, while still having one another's work distinct and be considered canon. Following this decision, Russo wrote a horror novel, Return of the Living Dead, which he planned on adapting into a film script. Although the film rights were initially sold in 1979, they were passed along by several different studios and directors before finally being obtained by Tobe Hooper, for whom Dan O'Bannon was hired to write a script. Hooper dropped out of the project instead to focus on the production of another feature.
Following Hooper's departure from the project, Dan O'Bannon was hired to direct the film based on his original Hooper script (with Russo adapting it into an accompanying novel), also titled The Return of the Living Dead. This project alleviated confusion amongst fans of Romero's work by including a scene in which a character acknowledges the George Romero films and explains that while they are based on true events, the events of the Return series are the "true story." In addition to this separation of the storylines, the films in the Return series are markedly more comedy based 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.
Although 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.
Medical supply warehouse foreman Frank (James Karen) informs his new protégé, Freddy (Thom Matthews) that Night of the Living Dead was based on true events that occurred when a gas (2-4-5 Trioxin) was released into the morgue in the basement of a Pittsburgh VA hospital causing the bodies to jerk around as if they were alive. The military was able to get a handle on the situation and clean up the spill and the infected corpses. The story was leaked and the military said the movie, NotLD could be made but they had to change the story around and say it was fictional. Through a clerical error, a few barrels, containing the Trioxin infected bodies, were shipped to the warehouse and have remained there for years. A skeptical Freddy doesn't buy it, so Frank takes him to the basement and shows him the barrels. Inside the barrel they see the now-mummified remains of the body and Freddy is scared about the barrel's durability. Frank "reassures" him of the solid military construction of the barrels by slapping it on the side, causing a leak of the gas, poisoning and knocking out the two as we see the glass on the lid break open and the body start to liquefy.
While this is happening, Freddy's girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph), and her friends are going to pick up Freddy from the warehouse. They arrive early and in an effort to pass the time, decide to hang out in the cemetery that is next door. Time passes and Freddy and Frank awaken and see that the body in the cannister is gone; they assume it dissolved upon contact with air. They head upstairs to try and sort things out only to hear a strange noise coming from one of the shelves. Upon investing, they find out that the split-dog anatomy display has returned to life, the dog whimpering in pain and panting. Freddy and Frank proceed to freak out and attempt to silence the dog by bashing it with a walking crutch (causing the dog to make a yelping noise). The other things in the warehouse, such as the dead butterfly display, have returned to life, culminating in the screams of the now reanimated cadaver in the freeze. After several minutes of panic, the two decide to call their boss, Bert (Clu Gulager). The three devise a plan to try and stop the zombie based on the method that worked in NothLD: bash it in the head. Upon opening the freezer, the cadaver runs for Bert and after wrestling it to the ground, Bert staples it to the floor with a pick axe to the head. Despite this, the body continues to thrash around, even when they cut off its head with a bone saw so they decide to take it over to the mortuary next door and see Bert's old friend Ernie Kaltenbrunner (Don Calfa) and have it cremated.
Meanwhile, back in the cemetery, night has fallen and the gang of kids are listening to music and talking amongst themselves. Tina is worried about Freddy as he should have been off work by now. She leaves the group to go investigate. Meanwhile, the discussion turns to death and imagining the worst possible way to die. Trash (Linnea Quigley), the pink haired female of the group, imagines the worst way for her to die is to be surrounded by a bunch of old men and they start biting her all over her body. As she says this, she is ripping off her own clothes and begins to dance in only gray leg warmers atop a grave.
Back at the warehouse, we see Tina trying to find Freddy. She makes her way downstairs and is greeted by the dripping body from the cannister, the Tarman (Allan Trautman), who asks for one thing, "Brains!" She escapes to a metal locker, barring the door from within but the Tarman hooks up a winching chain to the door and proceeds to use the winch to pull the door off.
At the mortuary, Bert, Freddie and Frank convince Ernie to cremate the sawed up remains of the still twitching freezer cadaver but the furnace releases the gas from the zombie into the clouds, causing it to rain. The rain, contaminated with the Trioxin, forces the gang of punkers out of the cemetery to their car. They mention how the rain burns their skin. The car's convertible roof starts to leak, so they run to take refuge inside the warehouse. Upon entering, they hear Tina's screams from the basement and rush to help. Seeing the door slowly being pulled off the locker, but not being able to see who is doing it, they push back a curtain blocking their view of the basement floor only to reveal the Tarman yelling "More brains!" and biting the top off of Suicide's (Mark Venturini) skull. Tina escapes the locker and runs to join her friends as they escape the basement. Fleeing the Tarman and the warehouse, they make a run for the mortuary, having seen some men enter it earlier. During this time, the rain has been seeping into the ground and as a result, into the coffins of the corpses, causing them to reanimate. As the group takes refuge at the entrance to a mausoleum, they can hear the muffled screams and pounding of the dead under the earth. As they listen, they spot the skeletal remains of a corpse, rising from the ground, its eyes opening and jaw dropping. The group then proceeds to run in panic and splits up, Tina, Spider (Miguel A. Núñez Jr.) and Scuz (Brian Peck) heading for the mortuary, Chuck (John Philbin) and Casey (Jewel Shepard) heading back to the warehouse, and Trash remaining behind in the graveyard. She falls into a puddle of muddy water, panicked and crying, only to be surrounded by a group of zombies, who proceed to eat her.
During this time at the mortuary, Frank and Freddy are starting to feel very sick and are looking deathly ill. Ernie calls the paramedics. Tina , Spider and Scuz show up claiming that there are bodies getting up out of the ground in the cemetery. The paramedics arrive at the rear entrance and find that by all medical reasoning, Frank and Freddy are dead and shouldn't be moving around. The paramedics want to get them to the hospital for further testing and go to get the stretcher and report in to the dispatch. They are subsequently attacked by the zombies from the graveyard who proceed to request that the dispatch "send more paramedics." The mortuary is then attacked by the zombies at the front of the building and the remaining people start to board up the place. After all is said and done, they hear the second ambulance arriving and are witness to its instant mobbing and attack by the zombies. One of the boarded windows in the storage room is broken open and needs to be reinforced; during this, Scuz is killed but Ernie manages to snag half of the zombie that did it and subdues her. They take her back to the embalming room and tie her down and ask her questions. She is able to respond as a normal person would, despite not having a lower half and suffering from decades of rot and decay. Asked why they attack and feed on people, she corrects Ernie and says "not people, BRAINS!" When asked why brains, she tells them it is the only thing that stops the pain of death "I can feel my body rot!", leading Ernie to the conclusion: "Apparently it hurts to be dead."
Chaos ensues. Police have been sent to investigate the two ambulances not reporting in and are attacked. The zombies radio to "send more cops." Frank and Freddy are slowly becoming zombies and are moved to the chapel area to be sealed in. Tina stays with Freddy who dies, reanimates and then tries to attack her. She screams for help and the others come to her. Freddy has acid splashed in his eyes and they manage to lock him into the chapel. Frank, meanwhile, before becoming a shambling zombie, makes his way to the cremation furnace and incinerates himself. It is decided that the only way they are going to be able to get help is to try to escape in the police car. Burt and Spider make a run to the car and are able to get in and move it to the door of the mortuary, however they quickly become surrounded by zombies and must leave without the others. They are able to make their way to the warehouse where they can try to phone the police to warn them of the situation. The police have set up a blockade around the area of the cemetery and send in several squad cars which are directed into the scene by a zombie wearing policeman’s rain gear. The cars are attacked and it is witnessed by the helicopter overhead. At the warehouse, Casey and Chuck greet Burt and Spider and report that they trapped a zombie in the office. Unfortunately the telephone is in the same office. Bert suggests the one in the basement but the teens tell him about Tarman. Bert says they have to try for the basement and they knock the Tarman's head off with a bat as they open the door. This allows them to get to the phone and Bert proceeds to call the police and ask to speak to the person in charge of the blockade. As they are connected, the zombies rush the blockade and we see the commander taken down by a now zombified Trash.
Disheartened by the noises from the phone, Bert calls the number on the side of the barrel. He is connected to Colonel Horace Glover (Jonathan Terry) who gets some information from Bert about location, time of occurrence, number of zombies, etc. Bert is then transferred again and explains to the teens that apparently the army has been expecting something like this to happen for a long time and have a plan in place to deal with it. Back at the mortuary, Ernie and Tina have escaped to the attic area of the embalming room as Freddy breaks out of the chapel screaming for Tina's brain. He attempts to break in, talking the whole time to Tina about being able to smell her brain and how badly he is damaging himself to get to her.
The Colonel is connected to an artillery post and provides coordinates and clearance to launch a small yield nuclear attack in form of nuclear artillery at the location of the cemetery. All of these scenes culminate with the sound of the nuclear shell being fired: Bert still on hold, Freddy breaking into the attic with Ernie pointing his gun at Tina's head; planning on killing her and himself to avoid being eaten, the zombies standing and starring at the sky, a long whistle of a shell falling, and finally a shot of a small nuclear explosion. The film ends with the general stating to his superior officers that the strike seems to have been successful and that reports are coming in of the only side effects been a little acid rain. The general assures his superiors that this won't affect the president’s trip to Louisville tomorrow morning at all. We are then taken to a scene of a darkened cemetery and a skeletal zombie rising from its grave.
|Clu Gulager||Burt Wilson|
|Don Calfa||Ernie Kaltenbrunner|
|Miguel A. Núñez Jr.||Spider|
|Jonathan Terry||Colonel Glover|
The zombies in this movie differ from those in Night of the Living Dead. Return's interpretation of zombies have influenced cultural interpretations of zombies, particularly with regard to their hunger for brains and their constant vocalization of this hunger.
- They are fast and can run.
- They are as strong and intelligent as they were in their previous life, and they can also speak sometimes.
- They can form words despite their physical degradation.
- Instead of hunting humans for their flesh, they hunt for the humans' brains, stating that only their consumption eases the pain of being dead.
- It appears that injuries to their brains do not have any effect and the only way to fully destroy them is to cremate their bodies, although the ensuing smoke spreads the contagious gas.
All zombies in this movie were created due to exposure to the 2-4-5 Trioxin chemical in either gas or liquid form. The bite of a zombie does not spread the contagion unlike most of the other movies in the series.
- "Surfin' Dead" - The Cramps
- "Party Time" - 45 Grave
- "Nothing For You" - T.S.O.L.
- "Eyes Without A Face" - The Flesh Eaters
- "Burn The Flames" - Roky Erickson
- "Dead Beat Dance" - The Damned
- "Take A Walk" - Tall Boys
- "Love Under Will" - Jet Black Berries
- "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" - SSQ
- "Trash's Theme" - SSQ
The film was originally released on DVD in 2002 with a commentary by O'Bannon and a documentary on the making of the film. On September 11, 2007, a Collector's Edition of the film was released with additional extra features involving the cast. In 2012 the Blu-ray steelbook edition was released which includes the original audio and the remixed soundtrack audio. The different home video releases have featured different soundtracks, often changing the songs used.
Note that these sequels are considered lower quality than the original.
- Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988 by Ken Wiederhorn)
- Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993 by Brian Yuzna)
- Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005 by Ellory Elkayem)
- Return of the Living Dead: Rave from the Grave (2005 by Ellory Elkayem)