Return of The Living Dead – An Introduction

Here is the transcript of the introduction to the Fright Club screening of Dan O’Bannon’s Return Of The Living Dead by Fright Club historian Darrell Buxton, editor of the forthcoming book Dead Or Alive – British Horror Movies 1980-1989.

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Hello and welcome once again to our regular Fright Club slot here at QUAD. Just time to fit one more horrific screening in before Derby Film Festival and Fantastiq take precedence in a week or so. And we’ve got a real feast of entertainment to whet your appetite for the main event, in the shape of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.

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My new book, Dead or Alive: British Horror Films 1980-1989 covers an era when the horror movie itself was largely considered to be dead or dying, something which applied in America and across the globe every bit as much as it did in the UK. The fifties, sixties and seventies were all classic times for the horror film, but both money and ideas seemed to be drying up by the 80s, and the increase in gory special effects and make-up were seen by many traditionalists and haters as simply being there to cover up the lack of inspiration. Fortunately, many fans now see the skill and artistry at work in the field of bloody effects work but at the time lots of horror buffs declared the gore film as the beginning of the end.

It’s perhaps hard to believe now, but RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was a film anticipated by most fans as a potential disaster back in the mid 80s. Do you remember when Tim Burton announced that Michael Keaton was to play BATMAN in 1989, or when the James Bond producers revealed that they’d cast Daniel Craig in the iconic superspy role? Both of these were among the most famous occasions in which an outcry from fans arose, with protests and arguments against what were seen as outrageous and damaging decisions. Of course nowadays we see how brave Tim Burton was to look for someone who could primarily portray Bruce Wayne and give life to a rather vulnerable Batman on a steep learning curve; and wouldn’t you just love to go and visit every single person who signed an anti-Daniel Craig online petition, look them in the eye, and ask them if they still thought they’d done the right thing?

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Horror’s equivalent of such misguided activity and opinion came about when RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD was announced. Of course, in America George A. Romero was considered the zombie master, and rightly so. His NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD changed the face of horror cinema, and although others were out there making zombie movies, no-one in the States dared to approach or copy the Romero template, though it was a different matter in Europe where the Spanish and Italians ripped George’s work off to spectacular effect! However, within the Romero camp itself, trouble stirred. Bill Hinzman, who played the first zombie spotted in the graveyard in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, broke away and directed his own pretty awful zombie flick FLESH EATER in the late eighties, scathingly described by one critic as “a waste of a good barn”; rather more troubling for Romero was the output of his co-writer on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, John Russo. Elbowed out of participation in DAWN OF THE DEAD, Russo went off and penned his own sequel to NIGHT  – published as a novel by Dale in 1977, Russo’s ‘Return of the Living Dead’ was a story set ten years later, where the dead begin to rise once more following a bus crash. Russo’s novel, written originally as a screenplay with movie ambitions in mind, was widely criticised for containing typos galore and even pages lifted from the author’s own 1974 novelisation of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Russo went on to write and direct for cinema himself, but films like MIDNIGHT and THE MAJORETTES grabbed very little attention even from cult movie buffs; meanwhile, Romero forged ahead with the marvellous DAWN OF THE DEAD, KNIGHTRIDERS, and CREEPSHOW, before announcing that he would make a third instalment in his ongoing zombie series, DAY OF THE DEAD.

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I hope you’re keeping up with this convoluted saga so far! Enter Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon had achieved huge acclaim and success as one of the writers of ALIEN, and went on to script DEAD AND BURIED, HEAVY METAL, BLUE THUNDER and LIFEFORCE, all big favourites with us. The director’s chair beckoned, and Dan had by this time been brought on board as a writer for a developing project from producer Tom Fox – RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, based on Russo’s novel, intended to be in 3D and directed by TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE, POLTERGEIST and SALEM’S LOT helmer Tobe Hooper. Hooper pulled out when Cannon Films offered him the chance to direct LIFEFORCE, coincidentally from O’Bannon’s script  – and Dan was handed RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD as his directorial debut!

By this time, horror fans worldwide were aghast at the suggestion that someone should be muscling in on George Romero’s territory, and were extremely vocal about it. Surely if this film went ahead, it would be a disaster, and with the behind the scenes problems  – Hooper walking out, O’Bannon untried as a director, the 3D idea mooted and then dropped, Russo’s source novel’s terrible reception  – prospects didn’t look good. Nobody wanted this movie.

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Luckily, O’Bannon was a keen horror and science fiction fan himself, and was fully aware of how this project was being prejudged. He took on the assignment on the promise that he could rewrite the script, junking almost all of Russo’s concepts and adding a layer of sly humour and fast moving fun. Best of all, he directly addresses the controversy over this film stealing from the Romero universe by actually having his characters discussing NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD very early on and claiming it was only made as part of an official military cover-up following a previous real life zombie outbreak! I think O’Bannon’s approach to the material soon won fans over  – the casting of good solid actors like James Karen, Don Calfa and Clu Gulager gives real weight to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, the zombies themselves are wonderful characters, notably Tarman and the green, long-haired, female half-corpse, the punk kids who hang out in the graveyard are appealing and lively (the attention grabbing role of ‘Trash’ turned Linnea Quigley into a horror superstar ‘Scream Queen’ overnight), and the film put forward the idea that all zombies really lust after is “brains! More brains!”, something which since seems to have entered the public consciousness. Look out too for the half-a-dog zombie and the butterfly zombies, such clever gags! I’ve not even mentioned the fantastic soundtrack, featuring The Damned, Roky Erickson, 45 Grave, and best of all The Cramps’ wild and witty ‘Surfin’ Dead’ – sample lyric “there’s nothin’ at the movie show when you’re dead”. How true that is.

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD achieved considerable success on release, actually eclipsing George Romero’s DAY OF THE DEAD in the eyes of most. It’s a great fun ride, and spawned a whopping four sequels, though unless you’re a real addict I’d only recommend that you bother with the excellent RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III, a sort of futuristic zombie love story with striking body-piercing imagery and some genuinely original touches to it.

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For tonight though, it’s all about the first of the series. If any of you should require medical attention during the screening this evening, I’m afraid that reports have come through that the paramedics on standby have all been eaten, so you’re on your own. Enjoy.

Next month we have a smorgasbord of Horror treats for you as the Fantastiq Film Weekend rolls into Derby as part of the Derby Film Festival. Taking place over the 8th – 10th May the weekend features special guests including Director Jake West (Doghouse, Video Nasties: Draconian Days) and Director Peter Sasdy (Hands Of The Ripper, Taste The Blood Of Dracula and The Stone Tape) alongside previews of Kill Granny Kill, Lost Soul, Electric Boogaloo, Spring, When Animals Dream and A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night. Plus the UK Premiere of Nightmare Code and the world premiere of Survival Instinct alongside classic 35mm screenings. Check the website for more details here

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