The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #52


Number of Views: Multiple
Release Date: August 16, 1985
Sub-Genre: Zombie/Black Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Budget: $4,000,000
Box Office: $14,237,880 (USA)
Running Time: 91 minutes
Director: Dan O’Bannon
Producer: Tom Fox, Graham Henderson
Screenplay: Dan O’Bannon
Story: Rudy Ricci, John Russo, Russell Streiner
Special Effects: Robert E. McCarthy
Cinematography: Jules Brenner
Score: Matt Clifford, Francis Haines
Editing: Robert Gordon
Distributor: Orion Pictures Corporation (USA), Vestron Video International (UK)
Stars: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, John Philbin, Jewel Shepard, Miguel Núñez, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Mark Venturini, Jonathan Terry and Allan Trautman as Tarman


Suggested Audio Braiiins

[1] SSQTonight (We’ll Make Love Until We Die)”

[2] 45 Grave “Partytime”

[3] Francis Haines “Trioxin Theme”


It was a cold dark night in 1985. Rabid fans were awaiting the third entry of chef George A. Romero’s next dish Day of The Dead with clammy hands and bated breath, having been provided precious little zombie goodness to sink their incisors into in the interim. Things were looking decidedly grim and the smell of decomposing flesh was nowhere to be found. Then something totally unexpected happened that had them turning in their graves in the very best way. The soil opened up and Dan O’Bannon’s facetious undead riot The Return of the Living Dead came kicking and groaning to the surface. Back then Simon Pegg was little more than a teenage zombie in training, Woody Harrelson was far too predisposed washing George Wendt’s empties to concern himself with imminent zombie apocalypses, and there wasn’t exactly a wealth of noteworthy zom-com hitting video store shelves.


It seems like an eternity now since we had to wait any length of time for a new zombie flick to claw aside the ground and pull itself from its earthy slumber. Nowadays you need only take a speed-dump and another low-rent wannabe will have lurched onto the marketplace. However, back in the day, zombies led a considerably less charmed existence. Filmmakers were largely dissuaded from entering the fray by tough stances from the censors and a totalitarian approach by Romero to retain the monopoly. That didn’t halt O’Bannon who spotted a unique opportunity to take the genre in an entirely different direction, whilst still remaining faithful to the source material from which it derived. He had originally toyed with the idea of linking this to the master’s Dead legacy but astutely decided to pay homage and craft his own chronicle instead. His zombies were far more fleet of foot than the shufflers of Romero’s works, able to co-operate, and lo-and-behold, even hold down a conversation.


Once The Return of the Living Dead clambered topside, outlooks soon started to change. By being shown more of the slapstick side of our ravenous cadavers, folk began to lighten up a little. After all, the undead are hardly known for their intimidating pace and their lack of intelligence makes them a minimal threat unless in large enough quantities. What realistic threat could they pose to all but the most arthritic or stoned anyhoots? Thankfully O’Bannon had a freshly assembled band of misfits chomping at the bit to consume judgement-impairing amounts of alcohol and engage in hi-jinx the likes of which could single-handedly raise said dead.

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These beatniks looked like they would actually have opening instructions on the back of their craniums to assist the walkers further. Add to the melting pot James Karen in a part written by O’Bannon for O’Bannon, Clu Gulager in a part originally intended for Leslie Nielsen, and a fresh-faced Thom Matthews and, in the words of our resident rockers 45 Grave, “It’s party time”.


These petulant punks provided a perfectly poised pick and mix and offered up a surprisingly congenial assortment of party animals intent on living fast with no mind paid to the prospect of dying young. Among these were B-Movie scream queen Linnea Quigley whose character, appropriately named Trash but originally called Legs, was in dire need of switching fabric softener. Within no time at all she had the itch; thus shedding her garments from pretty much the get-go. Trash then spent the remainder of her short stay in the buff aside from a pair of pink leg warmers. Her presence had been pivotal to getting this party in full swing and, once it was, there was absolutely no stopping it.

tar gif 2

Our large cosmopolitan huddle of delinquents, including Miguel Núñez who was homeless at the time he was cast, was swiftly pruned and the ensuing survivors found temporary sanctuary within…a morgue! Of all the locales to shelter from the hordes of reanimated dead it seems ironic that this was the safest haven available. Of course, it turned out to be far less than secure. Inside, bumbling Freddy (Matthews) had endured a torrid first shift and, along with the neurotic Frank (Karen), more composed Burt (Gulager) and delightfully deranged and, astonishingly, unintentionally named Ernie (Don Calfa), had unwittingly released a deadly toxin which was the reason for them being in this mess in the first place.


Worse still, there was a sliding curtain in the basement which concealed a threat not yet unleashed. I’m speaking, of course, of the irrepressible Tarman and this chap deserves a formal introduction. A hybrid of sorts, half zombie, half… erm… tar, this particularly malevolent strain caused merry hell for our remaining potpourri of deadbeats. Seemingly quite a social fellow, Tarman liked nothing more than to chew the fat…from your cranium! “Braiiins!” was his battle-cry and was one soon shared by his associates once word got out. After years of mincing around and dragging their heels; our fleshy foes had learned to vocalize their sole desire to feed. Indeed, they were famished, having not ben provided with a decent snack in years.


While the brains on offer here were possibly more gristle than matter, they were decidedly fresh and would taste delightful with a nice glass of Chianti. One of O’Bannon’s great accomplishments was fashioning a reasonably diverse pool of protagonists, none more likely to secure their mortality than the next. There were no clear survivors and, in truth, it was looking pretty grim for the lot of them as the zombies turned out not to be the most pressing concern.


There was bountiful splatter on the slab but O’Bannon cunningly side-stepped any controversy by ensuring that events remained tongue-in-cheek and, therefore, never appearing to exploit. The SFX was on-point too, Fantasy II Film Effects’ creations tipped their hat to Romero’s shufflers while supplying these stiffs with a personality all of their own. One in particular articulated her desire to feed on the dwindling assortment of mortals and kindly offered some insight. Meanwhile, Tarman was a masterstroke. Comical he may have been but he was also gargantuan and ghoulish, driven solely by his insatiable appetite for said “Braiiins!” Of course, it wasn’t long before he got his first light snack.


John Russo had already written a treatment intended to be a sequel to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, with Tobe Hooper originally intended to direct, but O’Bannon chose to take another route; focusing instead on creating a light-hearted take on the master’s established template, although legal wrangles and bad blood between Romero and Russo would ultimately delay filming for several months. On reflection, this was a shrewd decision as he left the zombie horror to Romero; crafting instead a film which could be remembered on its own merits. Its modest success afforded it the chance to spawn its own long-running franchise with a second-rate sequel which was a little too knowing and far too preposterous, before Brian Yuzna steered the cart back on the rails with his unique love story Return of The Living Dead III. Two more entries later followed suit, albeit on a much smaller scale and with far more humble aspirations.


What the original did best was carefully walking the fine line between horror and comedy. One minute you were giggling like a deviant and, the next, quivering like a timid kitten in a dog pound. It never once veered off course during its duration, supplying equal amounts of both. Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland have both played an integral part in rejuvenating the zombies’ bid for world supremacy and they’re both cracking movies, of that there is no question, but neither would have existed had it not been for O’Bannon’s wonderful slice of eighties zombie cinema. He was to become better known for his sci-fi screenplays and wrote characters for all the Alien films amidst a whole host of other triumphant space odysseys before his untimely death in 2009, having only ever taken to the director’s chair on one other occasion. It was The Return of the Living Dead however where he showed that he knew how to party with the best of them.


Dedicated to Daniel Thomas O’Bannon (1946-2009)

Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 9/10

Grue Factor: 4/5

For the Grue-Guzzlers & Pelt-Nuzzlers: Plenty of chowing down on display. Heads were split like ripe melons going out of season although the moment when the dead-from-the-waist-down fiend explained that she only desired to feed because “it takes the pain away” as her exposed spinal column flicked back and forth like an expectant mutt’s tail, you couldn’t help but feel a little sad for the festering flesh eaters. O’Bannon actually insisted on her sporting a pair of piercing blue eyes as he believed it showed she was once a beautiful woman. As for flesh of the naked form we had the pleasure of pre and post death Quigley wearing not a stitch and flaunting it around like the exhibitionist she was. It has to be said that she was a darn sight more appealing with a pulse however.

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A Visual Tribute to Linnea Quigley

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Read Return of The Living Dead II Appraisal

Read Return of The Living Dead III Appraisal

Read Day of The Dead (1985) Appraisal

Read Dance of The Dead Appraisal

Richard Charles Stevens

Keeper of The Crimson Quill

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