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How The Return Of The Living Dead thumbs its nose at traditional zombie lore

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Warm Bodies has us thinking about horror-comedies.

The Return Of The Living Dead (1985) 
John Russo co-wrote the original Night Of The Living Dead movie with George Romero, and retained the rights to the “living dead” title, which he used in his 1977 novel Return Of The Living Dead (set a decade after the zombie plague of the original film), intending to create his own franchise. Russo got his wish, though not exactly in the way he intended. The Return Of The Living Dead project fell into the hands of Dan O’Bannon, a sci-fi/horror writer whose twisted sense of humor—first widely seen in his collaboration with John Carpenter on the wacky outer-space creature-feature Dark Star—had already made him a favorite among genre fans. O’Bannon’s The Return Of The Living Dead did spawn a string of sequels, and did hold on to Russo’s idea of a story existing in the same universe as the original Night; but the characters in O’Bannon’s movie dismiss Romero’s film as a fictionalized cover-up of a government conspiracy. And that’s not the only way The Return Of The Living Dead thumbs its nose at zombie lore.


O’Bannon’s goons are faster, smarter, uglier, and chattier. (In fact, it was Return that introduced the idea of the undead moaning for “braaaaaains.”)

The Return Of The Living Dead isn’t a spoof, exactly. It has an actual horror-movie plot, involving a couple of goofy medical supply warehouse employees who accidentally restart the zombie apocalypse—and about the group of partying punk-rockers who get caught in the fray. Though it takes until about halfway through its 90-minute running time before the film really starts getting crazy, it does becomes a total gorefest by the end, with some remarkable zombie effects. But because O’Bannon took the time to rehearse for a couple of weeks with his cast of newcomers and veterans, the movie is equally entertaining when the characters are just hanging out, speculating on why all anatomy class skeletons come from India. (“International treaty?”) For all the wild ideas O’Bannon comes up with—including having poor Linnea Quigley do a striptease before the crisis begins, then spend the rest of the movie stark naked—The Return Of The Living Dead works because it has memorable dialogue delivered by capable actors. Or as John Kenneth Muir, author of Horror Films Of The 1980s, puts it: “It’s funny to the viewer, not funny to the people it’s happening to.”

Availability: The Return Of The Living Dead is available on DVD and Blu-ray from MGM.

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