Return of the Living Dead
After the success of Night of the Living Dead, the partnership between George Romero and John Russo soon ended, with Romero continuing to write and direct his own set of sequels. John Russo continued to write, but mostly novels instead of scripts, except for the few exceptions were he ended up writing a script from a novel that he had written. That was the original plan for Russo’s novel Return of the Living Dead, but when they offered Dan O’Bannon the chance to direct, his only stipulation to take the job was that he was allowed to rewrite the script. The end result was something that didn’t even come close to how the original novel was written.
The movie opens with one of those messages telling you that the events that you are about to see are real, but with the ending they used there is no conceivable way that they could make that outrageous claim. A date pops up and informs us that it is July 3, 1984, and we get our first glimpse of two of the main characters, Frank and Freddy. Frank is trying to tutor Freddy for working in the exciting world of the medical supply industry. Frank starts showing him around and tells him about their cataloging system, along with some other interesting tidbits. Did you know all skeletons come from India? I didn’t, but this movie helped clear that up for me. In between watching Freddy and Frank work, we are introduced to a group of Freddy’s friends, waiting for him to finish work and show them where they can party.
The group is your typical 80’s punk rocker teenagers, chains, piercings, and black leather. They don’t want to just sit in the car and wait for Freddy, so they decide that it might be fun to hang out in the nearby Resurrection Cemetery. Besides Linnea Quigley’s famous graveyard dance and when the rain comes, the time spent in the graveyard is just filler.
As we go back to Frank and Freddy, Frank starts telling Freddy a story about the zombie outbreak in the 60’s in Pittsburgh, thus the idea for the movie Night of the Living Dead, and how the warehouse is storing the barrels of 245 Trioxin that brought the dead back to life. Frank, seemingly wanting to impress Freddy, takes him to the basement were the containers are still being held. One of them cracks, causing a chemical to leak throughout the building causing all the dead bodies in the warehouse to come back to life. They camera angles and use of POV perspective is very reminiscent of some of the breakthrough camera work from the movie Evil Dead.
Now Frank and Freddy have to make a big decision, they can either call the number on the side of the drum, contacting the army, or call the boss, Burt. They quickly call Burt to help them figure out how to kill the reanimated corpses. They find out that the movie lied to them and the bodies won’t die with a blow to the brain, or even decapitating the head. Now they seem to have an even bigger problem on their hands, how do you kill something that is already dead? With little time wasted Burt notices that his friend Ernie, the mortician, is still working. What better way to kill something then destroy every single fiber of their being with the intense fire of the crematorium.
Ernie agrees to do Burt this favor and they burn all the known evidence linking back to the opening of the barrel. Away goes everything but the ash, up the smoke stack and into the sky disappearing forever, except for when the smoke seemingly causes the clouds to open up and let the rain fall. It seems that the rain has two adverse affects; first it burns bare skin, and the second is it brings people back from the dead.
The rest of the movie the groups of people try to survive against the growing hoard of zombies amassing outside of both the medical supply store, and the mortuary. Then it ends with one of the biggest cop out endings that a movie of this caliber could do, but there are still some interesting scenes. I love the chilling monologue that the captured zombie gives when they ask her why they eat brains. There are plenty of great lines that make you laugh and just as many scenes that make you know that it is a true horror movie.
I remember seeing this movie when I was still pretty young and the first time that I saw the Tar Man scared the hell out of me, and that’s just one of the very memorable scenes in this movie. The characters all flow together and make the movie very believable, that coupled with the great story plot, a new take on zombies (running, talking and thinking), make this one of the best zombie movies on the market.
One of the big reasons why this movie works so well is that the problems gradually get worse, and almost always due to a decision that the main protagonists make trying to alleviate a prior problem. It feels almost comedic, like they have a fifty-fifty chance to choose right and they are always wrong. If you have never seen this movie, you need to; this one ranks right up there with the Romero sequels.
With such a great starting block for a new horror franchise, it looked like Return of the Living Dead was poised at making a run at a long sequel filled life. But what’s the best way to try and ruin the momentum that was already built? How about making the sequel a basic remake of the first movie, but instead of having the suspense that made the first one flow so smooth, replace it with off the mark, pointless humor that hinders more than helps the film. Also why not bring in new writer/director Ken Wiederhorn, who’s only written one other piece of work (Shockwaves). Even though it does boast some of the same actors in different roles, (the actors playing Frank and Freddy now come back as Ed and Joey) trying to get the same dynamic as the last film, never ends up paying off in the end.
The movie starts off with a voice over trying to explain the existence of the chemical 245 Trioxin. Then quickly shows a military vehicle driving in the rain, hitting a bump, and a barrel slips off the back and into a sewer ditch. Afterward we get to see the only character that is the brought over from the first movie and that is Colonel Glover played by Jonathan Terry, and he makes the only reference to tie the movies together “Not again”. These two little words make this movie very confusing, with the ending to the first movie, you would think that there would be some mention of what the backlash was to the military’s actions. So right of the bat, you have to just erase the first movie, it supposedly never happened.
Now we get to meet our cast of main characters, we are introduced to Jesse, a child who is being picked on by a couple of bullies, Billy and Johnny. They want him to be part of their club, so he has to go through the initiation, which just so happens to take place in the local graveyard. Jesse try’s to run away and ends up hiding in a sewer tunnel. That tunnel just so happens to house the lost barrel of Trioxin. The two bullies finally catch up to him, and they all are amazed by their discovery. Deciding that Jesse can’t be trusted to not tell someone about the barrel, they lock him in a mausoleum, where he is eventually saved by grave robbers Ed, Joey (Frank and Freddie from the last movie) and Joey’s girlfriend Brenda. The two actors were so spectacular in the last movie together it’s not a surprise that they tried to bring the duo back again, but they just don’t have the same chemistry as in the last movie.
While all this is going on, Billy and Johnny make a trip back to the barrel and open it releasing the chemical (and another Tar Man) into the air and throughout the graveyard. After Jesse escapes the graveyard, that is now starting to be overrun with zombies, he makes it back home to tell his sister, and cable installation guy that the dead have come back to life. Of course neither one believes him and he has to try and prove it. But they end up believing him after the zombies start to infect the town.
The rest is what you would assume it would be, the two groups cross paths a couple of times and depart, the military shows up to get in the way, and an eight year old boy has to save the town with one of the stupidest ways to kill the zombies. The only good reason to watch this movie is for Doc Mandel; his character is an alcoholic who is more worried about getting his next drink then the possible end of the world. He is also the only funny character in the movie; his comedic timing is spot one. I don’t want to ruin anything, but it’s nice to see Joey and Brenda together at the end of the movie, something that was left a mystery in the first movie.
The first movie was a very memorable film that mixed horror, comedy and even a small love story all together and brought in fresh ideas for a zombie movie. The second tired to copy that process, but failed on every level. Sure they changed a few things about the way the zombies act, they aren’t as articulate, or as fast, and the ending is much different, but the main plot is the exact same. The fact that all the adults in this movie seem to have no clue what’s going on or how to cope with it is another problem I had with it. And the one major question I had about the movie is the incomplete ending; they stop some of the dead, but not all the zombies where there, so what happened to all the others? Did the military stop them, or did they slowly take over the world? If you’ve seen the first installment in this franchise then there is no need to see the second.
It’s safe to say that the second movie is probably the reason that it took another five years for the third to come out, but would it hold the same fate, or would it resurrect the series. This movie would also bring in another new creative team, with director Brian Yuzna (Bride of Re-Animator) and writer John Penney. Would they bring in a fresh idea, or a third movie with the exact same plotline?
As the movie starts, we are once again greeted by the military (are they seriously going to make the same movie again), but this time instead of the military losing a barrel of the 245 Trioxin, they are trying to harness the power of bring the dead back to life. This mobile outfit is run by Colonel John Reynolds, who is starting to be pushed by Colonel Sinclair, looking to take over the unit. She has come in to see Colonel Reynolds latest test on how to kill a zombie after it has been reanimated, but she’s not the only one watching. Colonel Reynolds’ son, Kurt and his girlfriend Julie have snuck onto the base to witness the test.
The new weapon that the military has created shoots a freezing mechanism into the zombies head, rendering the brain, and therefore the body, frozen until they are reactivated. The test seems to work out fine, until the zombie doesn’t stay frozen, attacking the hazmat suit clad soldiers. Kurt and Julie sneak back off the base and back to his house, where they start to talk about what they had seen. Julie is more fascinated with how it would feel to be dead, and Kurt’s more upset about what the military had done to desecrate those corpses. Before they can get into a serious fight, Kurt’s father comes home, bringing along the news that they are moving again. Kurt, not taking the news too well, tells his dad that he and Julie are going to run off together.
Well, they don’t get too far when Kurt loses control of his motorcycle, killing Julie. Kurt desperate to find a way to bring her back, sneaking back onto the base and he uses the Trioxin on her, bringing her back to life. But it seems that being a zombie isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
The rest of the movie is more about how Julie is changing, trying to deal with the pain of being dead, and how Kurt struggles to deal with it. There are a few more zombies that are unleashed (this is the first Return of the Living Dead where if you are bit by a zombie, you become one), and the military has to come out and try to settle the up raising.
I know some of you might call me crazy, but I truly enjoy this movie. I know that it slows down after the gas station scene, and you can’t deny the romantic overtones of the entire movie, but it’s different, and not just to the series, its different then a lot of zombie movies. How many times can you see the same outbreak and a group of survivors, this movie brought a new perspective, and it’s certainly not the best zombie movie made, but it takes the mythos the first movie started and added to it, making the series feel a little bit more whole.
All in all, this movie would most likely be considered a failure. And with two back to back flops, the Return of the Living Dead franchise was put to rest. It would be 12 long years, and the interests of a younger generations in the first movie, until the series would see another release, and we were not only given the fourth sequel, but the fifth in back to back years.
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (was going to originally be released as Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis, but changed the name before being released) was finally released on April 18, 2006, after an initialized showing on the SciFi Channel in October of the previous year. Would this finally be the sequel to bring back fans to a once great series?
Necropolis starts us off with a little history lesson about the Hybra Tech, this corporation makes everything from the latest military weapons, to cherry pie, they are also leading the charge against the current and past zombie outbreaks. If this sounds a little like the plot line to the resident evil game, then you might know what is forthcoming. Next we are shown a vehicle driving in Ukraine, heading for the Chernobyl nuclear site. What are they looking for there; the last undestroyed barrels of the 245 Trioxin have been hidden there. We find out that Hybra Tech are the people behind buying up the last barrels, but aren’t told why. Well one of the barrels has been leaking and turns one of the Russians into the first zombie of the film, this is where we find out that this movie is taking a different path then the others, the zombie is killed with a simple head shot. This is the point in the movie when you know, that no good is going to come from this.
But I digress, after the opening scene we are in a normal enough looking home, where two brothers, Julian and Jake (better known as pyro), live with their uncle after their parents untimely death. The uncle works for Hybra Tech, but seems very distant to the boys, they seem to be more of a bother to him. We then are whisked away to the local high school were we might the rest of the gang, they are all pretty indistinguishable, and could be interchanged at will. After school Julian and hot headed friend Zeke are doing jumps on dirt bikes, Julian backs out of trying the jump after having wiped out a few days earlier, so Zeke “shows him how it’s done”, but doesn’t land it correctly and hits his head. They call for an ambulance, and he is supposable to be taken to the local hospital, but when the group of friends arrive, they are told that he died on his way there.
After finding out that, that’s not true and is instead being held at the local Hybra facility, they decide that they are going to go save him. If the movie wasn’t already ridiculous enough, the ease that a bunch of high school students break into this massive facility will make you laugh. The rest of the movie is pretty much a bunch of kids fighting an endless amount of zombies that are destroyed easier then paper in a fire place. There are a couple of “twists”, if that’s what you want to call them, but they don’t make your jaw drop when you find them out and could have just been cut from the movie entirely.
There are a couple of choice scenes that I want to mention; first there is a big fight scene with a couple of the kids and a horde of zombies in the building’s lobby. The kids run out of ammo and are reduced to hand to hand combat with the zombies, it gets so badly unrealistic that one of the kids snaps the neck of the zombie to kill it. The second is the great reason why Hybra wants a zombie army, to rule the world. That is the most simplistic and unoriginal answer they could have given, and with how easily the zombies go down, they wouldn’t be able to take over a preschool, let alone the world.
And one last reason that this movie isn’t up to the earlier entries standards is because it is missing two elements that have been seen in the other three. First is the one that isn’t necessarily needed, and that’s the underlining love story, in the other three movies it was one of the main driving point for at least a couple of the characters, it even helped decide some of their fates. But the second is far more unforgiving, they never included a Tar Man zombie, one of the most iconic images from the first movie, and they continued with the tradition in the last two, this movie completely ignores the once human beings that are sealed in a military grade container. Shame.
I remember buying this movie the day it came out, hoping that the series would go back to its source material and reinvent the franchise. The disappointment I felt that day can still be felt with every viewing of this movie. This movie isn’t just bad for being a Return of the Living Dead movie, but bad for being a zombie movie. Many fans of the original were very upset with the direction they took this movie in, mainly taking the almost unstoppable Trioxin zombie and turning them into one of the weakest version of zombies ever put on film. And I can’t blame them for being mad; in fact I would have to agree with them on this point. But there is still one more left, which could be the redeeming factor, right?
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave was released straight to video on March 20, 2007, less than one year after the last sequel. It takes place one year after the pervious film and brings back the surviving characters, Julian, Cody, Becky, and Uncle Charles. The same actors returned to portray their on scene companions, but are not the only returning members from the last movie; both the director and writes also return to finish their two part story. Would this movie have the same fate as its predecessor, or will it rise up and bring some glory back to the name Return of the Living Dead.
Before I go on I just want to clear up a few plot holes that makes it very hard to tell that this is a direct sequel to the last movie; first there is no mention of the super conglomerate Hybra Tech, secondly when Julian finds the barrel of Trioxin, they act like they have never seen it before, when they had witnessed what it could do in person, and lastly in the beginning when Uncle Charles is killed Julian seems like it bothers him a little too much, this is the man that tried to kill you less than a year ago. Now that, that’s out of the way we can move on.
As I just mentioned the movie opens up with Uncle Charles trying to sell off the last canisters of the Trioxin, when the two Russian men, who we much later find out are form Interpol, are trying to buy it ask where he stole them from, he replies that he was in the military and took some. This once again confuses me, but I took it as him lying, trying to cover his involvement with the Hybra group. Charles has to prove that the stuff works and is killed in the process.
Cut to Julian and a new group of kids, now in college. He receives word of his uncle’s death and goes to clean out his house. While he’s there he finds a secret room in the attic where the last barrels of the Trioxin were being stored. He brings the barrel into the chemistry lab, where his friend Cody is working, and they try to find out what the chemical actually is. One of the kids tries it and finds out its one heck of a powerful hallucinogenic drug. The all promise to leave it alone until they can find out more about it, but being college students always looking for extra money, they make pills out of it and sell them to the local drug dealer. Guess what happens next, that’s right the students who take the pills slowly become zombies, but because this movie takes place on Halloween, no one really seems to be able to tell the difference.
While all of this is happening the two Russians from Interpol are keeping tabs on Julian, hoping to find the lost barrels of Trioxin. But in the end the whole movie ends at a rave in an abandoned amphitheatre, where the zombies are running wild as the men from Interpol try to resolve the situation.
There really isn’t much to say about this movie, the main points are few and far between, and the rest is just a bunch of filler. The only thing this movie did that the others hadn’t was that it made the zombie virus spread though other means then just being bitten, it also shows a girl getting scratched and turning into a zombie.
After you watch the last two movies, you might be thinking that they seem very similar, not only with the actors, but also in the filming locations. And the reason why that would be is they shot both movies back to back in the same location to save money. They say to film that way it would only cost what it would cost to make one and half movies instead of two full movies (they should have just spent the money to make one good movie instead of two mediocre movies). I’m assuming that it’s the same with the actors and director as well.
Even with both movies being very similar they are written differently, with Necropolis being more on the action side, while Rave has a lot more comedy elements, making it more of a watchable movie. The two reasons to watch this movie is for the Russian Interpol agents and the return of the Tar Man, even if everything he does after he escapes the lab is ridicules.
So after five movies expanding over two decades with some being good and some not so good, and one that was terrible, just terrible. The franchise that John Russo started in a book, as his own sequel to Night of the Living Dead but turned into so much more, was put to rest. With there being no news about the possibility of a sixth film, or even a remake, it looks the last few barrels of 245 Trioxin have been handed over to the proper authorities.
If you are a big fan of the series and did want more info about the films, then you should definitely check out the documentary; More Brains!: A Return to the Living Dead. This is done with the same care and attention to detail, by the people who made His Name was Jason: 30 Years of Friday the 13th, and Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy.
But this still isn’t the end of Romero’s inspiring reach; America wasn’t the only country where Dawn of the Dead was a huge success. With a shorter copy of the film, by fellow director Dario Argento, the film saw huge success in Europe as well, and another set of sequels would begin, and it only needs one word to describe it, Zombi.
Nice article. I own the ‘More Brains’ DVD and the Complete History of Return of the Living Dead book (both are excellent products).
I refused to see ROTLD 4 and 5. To be honest, I really wasn’t a fan of 3 and that was probably the reason I just passed on the other two.
I just couldn’t get into 3, for me the entire formula was missing. There was no large scale zombie outbreak, there was no comedy (good or bad), the production was low budget, the story was ew and it wasn’t scary. Although I’m a fan of the Re-animator film, you just can’t shoehorn in a limited scope ROTLD film and expect it to fly. I recently watched Return of the Living Dead 3 again but wasn’t any more impressed with it today than on it’s initial VHS release. I actually prefer the 2nd film to this. The 2nd film was a copycat but at least it was a big, dumb popcorn movie.
How anyone even thought ROTLD 3 would be a success is beyond me. I guess they figured it cost so little to make (comparatively) that it would be profitable on a small scale. Perhaps in that way it succeeded slightly. But, only at the cost of the franchise (what ROTLD 2 hadn’t destroyed already).
3, 4 and 5 are such low caliber films, any follow up zombie film at this point would be negatively effected by the Return of the Living Dead moniker – not helped by it. The only way to come out with another film is with a total reboot. The value of the franchise name is debatable however. I wouldn’t pay for it. You would be better off calling your zombie film another name than to have it associated with those poor films.
As a film series ROTLD is now DOA.
I love The 1st One It Was The Best Return of the Living Dead.
2nd was good 3 Was Ok But The 4th & 5Th Was Not So Good
Love To See It. Remakes: Return of the Living Dead
I have two very good relevant script possibilities for a new rotld,it’s based like the first two 4&5 I don’t even consider rotld they’re so lame,they punch and die? Too dumb,my script ideas are fresh relative scary and humorous to the first two movies with a little explanation for the third.hopefully I can get it made true fans will love my ideas,im 31 and have been watching rotld since the 80s and still do!
@james c, in 1990 you where six… hardly relevant.
Id like to weigh in here. ROTLD 1 was the best. I really liked part 2 as it continued with the comedy aspect of it. Part 3 was horrible, and the rest are beyond horrible!!! As a kid from the 80’s (born in 76) i got to enjoy alot of the great horror films of that decade. I would be up for a remake only if they could have a few cameos from Clu Gallagher,James karen, and Thom Mathews! Also bring in the old make up artists as zombies look like sh*t today! Have the movie based in a small town,county,city, whatever, but we need to feel the fear of having nowhere to go, no one to help, just a small group of people that get picked off one by one till their is one or two left!!!
My most favorite film in the series by far was the first because it had it all. The comedy was good and really well placed but it also had just enough of the horror element. The second was good enough for those that liked the comedy element and it had just enough of the horror element. I really enjoyed the third installment due to the fact it was more horror than a comedy. It’s understandable, at least from the perspective of the fans of the first two films, why the third wouldn’t be that popular. However, no matter where we stand on these films; the majority of fans, myself included, couldn’t stand the 4th and 5th in the series. They had a lot of promise but failed to deliver. If there is to be a “good” 6th installment, the writer and director must be true fans of the first and the genre itself. Perhaps it could just be fan made since the technology exists to do so.
It would be awesome to remake the original with a bigger budget,it could be amazing! I think if you had the right people involved it could be the best zombie movie ever made. Keeping the comic book look of the movie by recreating the sets identical. Like Trash says of the medical supply building ” I like it, it’s a statement. ” what bothers me about the original is the awful acting by a few of the punks and some of the effects haven’t aged well,It could be done perfect now. I know some people hate remakes but why? The original will always be there for us to enjoy.
The tarman in part 5 hitchhiking holding a sign or whatever the hell he was doing was the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen. I hated parts 4 and 5 and strongly agree with a lot of you fans. I loved the original rotld.
Nice, detailed article but you need to proofread your writing before putting it out there for the public.