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The Return of the Living Dead

Freddy: “How do you kill something that’s already dead?”
Frank: “It’s not a bad question, Burt!”

This is probably one of the greatest cult horror films of the 1980s. Certainly one of my favorites, at least. I feel like it isn’t talked about nearly as much as it should be, so I’d like to rectify that.

Originally conceived as a sequel to George A. Romero’s classic Night of the Living Dead (which had already spawned spinoff zombie films from Romero), the Return of the Living Dead project was evidently passed around for awhile. It eventually landed in the hands of Dan O’Bannon, probably most well-known for being the writer of Alien (1979). According to O’Bannon, he didn’t want to tread on Romero’s legacy by making a movie in the same style as his. So he opted to take a different approach with the movie, making it darker, edgier, bloodier, more irreverent.

It’s also rather meta for its time. For instance, people in this movie know what Night of the Living Dead is and openly discuss zombie tropes when the zombies start popping up.

The Skinny: Some tanks containing 245-Trioxin, a secret experimental chemical that brings the dead back to life, end up in the Uneeda Medical Supply building after “a typical Army fuck up.” So as not to burden the business, it is sat on and ignored for years. On July 3 of 1984, a couple of goofball Uneeda employees named Frank and Freddy unwittingly rupture one of the tanks. And so begins a very unconventional outbreak of zombies.

The Return of the Living Dead broke a lot of new ground with the zombie genre. As Frank, Freddy and their beleaguered boss Burt quickly discover, the known means of killing zombies — removing the head or destroying the brain — do not work on this movie’s undead. Nor does complete dismemberment. So they enlist the help of Ernie, the mortician next door, to incinerate the pieces they chopped up. That’s when the acid rain starts, and suddenly it’s not just the local ‘80s punk clique who are partying in the nearby cemetery. Soon the living dead are overrunning the town and no one's brains are safe.

This is the first movie where the zombies can run as opposed to just slowly stagger around. They also aren’t totally mindless, being able to talk and think, even manipulate in some cases. I believe it’s the first zombie movie to introduce the brain-eating concept, as well. For a long time there, craving brains was practically seen as a ubiquitous aspect of zombies.

The movie is extremely gory and cynical, but it is also delightfully over the top. The black comedy elements mitigate the creeping apocalyptic mood, and it helps that it has a lot of good actors who do a fantastic job of playing into the eccentricities of their characters. It's one of those rare movies where the humor and horror never really undercut each other.

The whole thing escalates very nicely from a nightmarish but contained situation to something way more chaotic and inescapable. Things are always moving, the characters worn thin in their attempts to stay ahead of the undead, whether it's one zombie or dozens. I know it's my go-to example when speaking of parodies or subversive films, but TRotLD is a bit like Scream (1996). It's a film that manages to capture the original feel and fear sensation of the movies it's emulating, even as it displays its cheeky genre-bending elements with pride. It's scary, dark, subversive and all the fun you'd ever desire with a movie like this.

Brains and Pieces:

* Killer soundtrack: "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" by SSQ; "Partytime" by 45 Grave; "Surfin' Dead" by The Cramps. And the "Trioxin Theme" by Francis Haines is a brilliant track.

* A few cast-members appeared in more than one '80s horror movie. Thom Matthews who played Freddy was the main character of Friday the 13th Part 6; Spider's actor Miguel Núñez was in Part 5. James Karen who played Frank was also in Poltergeist, ironically playing a very similar character. And this was one of the movies that made Linnea Quigley (Trash) an '80s b-movie icon.

* Speaking of which, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Trash's impromptu striptease and dance in the graveyard. If all the brain-eating zombies don't make an impression, that scene probably will.

* Many zombie movies have endings that are hopeless or depressing. This probably has one of the most hopeless endings, but plays it in such a way that never fails to get a macabre chuckle out of me.

* This movie also inspired a pretty good segment of The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror.

* This may be one of, if not the only horror movie that takes place on or around July 4th. I don't think Independence Day counts, since it's more of a campy, sci-fi action movie with horror elements as opposed to actual horror.


Freddy: “Stupid asshole!”
Frank: “Watch your tongue, boy, if you like this job!”
Freddy: “LIKE THIS JOB?”

Burt: “I thought you said if we destroyed the brain, it’d die?”
Frank: “It worked in the movie!”
Burt: “Well, it ain’t working now, Frank!”
Freddy: “You mean the movie lied???”

Trash: “Do you ever wonder about all the different ways of dying? You know, violently? And wonder, like, what would be the most horrible way to die?”
Spider: “I try not to think about dying too much.”

Tar-Man: “Brains!”

Paramedic 1: “No blood pressure.”
Paramedic 2: “No pulse.”
Freddy: “What do you mean ‘no blood pressure, no pulse?’”

Zombie: “Dispatch… Send. More. Paramedics.”

Ernie: “Burt, I, uh, think things are getting out of hand.”
Tina: “Mister, there’s a hundred of those things out there.”
Burt and Ernie: “A hundred?”

Confederate Zombie: “Send more cops.”

Ernie: “Why do you eat people?”
Dismembered Lady Zombie: “Not people. Brains!”

Hope everyone had a happy Fourth of July. Four out of five live brains.


  1. Saw this as a kid. Like a typical teenage boy, the part I remember most was the graveyard scene...

  2. Outstanding review and very astute analysis! Excellent! - Logan's Dad

  3. Oh gawd! It's been years! We saw this one HBO or Cinemax, and yes the strip tease scene is well remembered but so are many other scenes like that torso's spinal column flailing around like a tail!

    The ending makes sense but is a bit depressing, but the mood is as you say, a mix of humor and cynicism, so it works. This series is a mixed bag to be sure, but this is one of the better ones.

  4. I agree, Morella. It's full of great moments and dialogue; I'm especially fond of the beginning when Frank and Freddy are freaking out. Probably my all-time favorite zombie movie.


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