BRAINS!!! Well, Kind of

'The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead'

by W. Scott Poole

6 April 2011

Horror nerds tend to have mixed feelings about this cult hit. The authors of this new celebratory volume might generate a bit more sympathy.
cover art

The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead

Christian Sellers, Gary Smart

US: Jan 2011

My feelings about the 1985 flick The Return of the Living Dead have always been mixed.  Released in the same year as George Romero’s Day of the Dead, it overshadowed that vastly superior film. Moreover, its unfortunate that casual horror fans of a certain age are probably more familiar with The Return of the Living Dead than Romero’s canonical works and are constantly splicing the films together in their heads and in conversation. It’s annoying to horror nerds everywhere. Romero zombies don’t, and I repeat don’t, yell “BRAINS!!!” They just eat them.

Christian Sellers and Gary Smart’s new book The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead has made me change my attitude a bit, and even re-watch the original with some sympathy. Sellers and Smart show the film and the franchise that grew from it as what it was; a rock ‘n’ roll undead dance party that owed little to its darker zombie film cousins.

Romero’s work on Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead sometimes feels like medieval tableaux, dramas of morality and eschatological anxiety. By contrast, The Return of the Living Dead was more like an acid nightmare experienced as a ‘80s music video with gratuitous nudity and an ocean of gore.  This was a roller coaster ride into screaming insanity that deserves its cult status.

Perhaps at least part of the explanation for the greatness and the madness of the SFX is how incredibly decentralized the whole effort really was. The over-the-top effects we see on the screen were not, it turns out, the result of any great planning (sometimes it shows). A series of quotes from make-up man Kenny Meyers notes that little or no production meetings took place given the limited shoot schedule of the film. This freed up Meyers and the rest of the effects team to make the creatures of their dreams and, of course, their nightmares.

Smart and Sellers choose to tell the story of the making of the film through short introductions and snippets of interviews from almost the entire cast and production team. This is largely effective, especially as the authors delve into what appears to have been a high tension and fairly contentious pre-production and shoot. The late Dan O’Bannon, better known as the talented screenwriter behind Alien could be tough on his actors. Beverly Randolph, who played helpless good girl “Tina” in the film, notes that her fondest memory of the shoot is when one of her fellow actors threw a vase at O’Bannon’s head.

Many fans will be somewhat dissatisfied at this approach. The book could have used a few extended interviews with key players. Fanboys and girls of scream queen Linnea Quigley will be disappointed at the small number, and brief nature, of quotes we get from her.

A book like this has to be packed with photographs and here The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead does not disappoint. Unseen production stills, shots showing William Stout’s truly inspired conceptual art and images from the film’s publication campaign are on every single page. And of course we get to look and hear about the building of the famous “Tarman” zombie, probably the most iconic image of the film, brought to life by a shambling Allen Trautman.

It’s perhaps a gauge of how much conflict the shooting of this film generated that, more than 20 years later, actors, director and production staff are still taking shots at effects designer William Munn. Several pages of quotes light into Munn for how he handled the rising of “the dead”, especially the animatronic skeleton that first pops up out of the grave. This admittedly adolescent effect (today it looks like a bad Halloween decoration) gets too much page space. Indeed, it feels like gratuitous piling on when some of the cheesiness of the film is exactly what makes it a beloved cult fav today.

The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead focuses primarily on the 1985 cult hit in the first half of the book. The reminder, disappointingly, focuses on the franchise as a whole. Even devout horror fans will be somewhat surprised to learn that The Return of the Living Dead has had no less than four sequels. These forgettable affairs have mostly been straight to video/DVD, their only notable aspect the continual raising of the bar of gory effects.

There are some other small issues with the book that distract from the overall effect. Seller’s and Smart introduce the first set of interviews by describing how The Return of the Living Dead would take Romero’s vision in a different direction from his “slapstick, comical direction.” While certainly Romero employed some dark humor as his series progressed, it’s hard to describe his bleak work as “slapstick” or “comical” especially in comparison to the stark raving madness of The Return of the Living Dead.

Finally, the authors spend only a few sentences on Romero’s attitude toward the films and suggest that he was never especially clear about how he felt about them. In contrast, numerous interviews with Romero and Romero compatriots over the years suggest that he found the zombies of The Return of the Living Dead vastly inferior to his own vision and felt (rightly) that his fan base would be a bit confused about whether or not The Return of the Living Dead was the real sequel to Night of the Living Dead.

Flaws and omissions aside, this is a book well-worth picking up for lovers of this film. Horror fans in general, especially those who, like, me, have never given The Return of the Living Dead a fair shake, should take a look, as well. It will cut down on your nerd rage the next time zombies are mentioned and someone yells “BRAINS!!!”

The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead


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