The series came about as a dispute between John A. Russo and George A. Romero over how to handle sequels to their 1968 film, Night of the Living Dead. The two reached a settlement wherein Romero's sequels would be referred to as the Dead movies, and Russo's sequels would bear the suffix Living Dead. Thus, each man was able to do what he pleased with the series, while still having one another's work distinct and be considered canon. Following this decision, Russo wrote a horror novel, Return of the Living Dead (novel), which he planned on adapting into a film script. Although the film rights were initially sold in 1979, they were passed along by several different studios and directors before finally being obtained by Tobe Hooper, for whom Russo wrote a script. Hooper dropped out of the project, though, and the script never came to fruition.
Following Hooper's departure from the project, Russo, along with his new partner, Dan O'Bannon, wrote a new script (with Russo adapting it into an accompanying novel), also titled The Return of the Living Dead. This project alleviated confusion by including a scene in which a character acknowledges the George Romero films and explains that while they are based on true events, the events of the Return series are the "true story". In addition to this separation of the storylines, the films in the Return series are markedly more comedic than Romero's films, with slapstick humor.
Although Russo and O'Bannon were only directly involved with the first film in the series, the rest of the films, to varying degrees, stick to their outline and "rules" established in the first film.
The fourth and fifth films in the series were filmed simultaneously near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant station in Ukraine. Despite being intended for a theatrical release, edited versions of both films made their debut on the SciFi Channel on October 15, 2005 and were later released on DVD.
A documentary about The Return of the Living Dead, The Return of the Living Dead Part II and The Return of the Living Dead 3 titled More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead Retrospective was released on October 18, 2011.List indicator(s)A dark grey cell indicates that the character was not in the film or that the character's presence in the film has yet to be announced.
A Y indicates a role as a younger version of the character.
An O indicates a role as an older version of the character.
A U indicates an uncredited role.
A C indicates a cameo role.
A V indicates a voice-only role.
An A indicates an appearance through archival footage or stills.
Medical supply warehouse foreman Frank (James Karen) informs his new protege, Freddy (Thom Mathews) that Night of the Living Dead was a true story, based on events that occurred when a gas (2-4-5 Trioxin) was released into the morgue in the basement of a VA hospital. The warehouse was the inadvertent recipient of several canisters, one of them containing a corpse – nicknamed "Tarman" (Allan Trautman) due to his rotten appearance soaked in thick black tar – sealed inside. Due to the canister's less than stellar durability, a light tap causes it to burst open, releasing Trioxin. The gas leaks out of control, which poisons Frank and Freddy and releases "Tarman" from his imprisonment within the tank but the zombie is not actually seen until late in the movie. Frank and Freddy awaken to discover that various body parts (and bodies) in the warehouse are now alive, as well as the cadaver locked in the freezer and even a split dissected dog. Unaware that they are slowly turning into zombies due to the effects of the gas, Frank and Freddy enlist the help of the warehouse owner, Burt (Clu Gulager), and his mortician friend, Ernie (Don Calfa), to cremate the cadaver's body parts. They had tried to chop it up to kill it. Unfortunately, the resulting smoke carries the evaporated trioxin with it, which then mixes with an overhead raincloud. It rains on a nearby cemetery, resulting in the reanimation of the buried corpses.
The zombies differ in this movie, in that they are as fast, strong and intelligent as they were in their previous lives, and can form words even when they are merely very degraded bodies. Instead of hunting humans for their flesh, they hunt for the humans' brains, stating that brains can ease the pain of their decomposition. It appears that injuries to their brains do not have any effect, and the only way to fully destroy them is to cremate their bodies, although the ensuing smoke also spreads the contagious gas. It also seems that their bites are not contagious, as Suicide, who was killed by Tarman never reanimated, while Trash, killed by several zombies in the graveyard later did reanimate (probably due to the contaminated rain falling on her corpse).
The second film was written and directed by Ken Wiederhorn. The plot follows seven people as they attempt to escape their town after a mass of undead are awoken due to a barrel full of Trioxin gas that was left over from the first film. In this film it is revealed that powerful electric discharges are the only secure way of destroying the zombies without the risk of reanimating more corpses (it seems the electric energy completely annihilates the reanimative effect of the trioxin).
The film was released on January 15, 1988, and made $9m at the box office in the USA.
The third film was produced and directed by Brian Yuzna, noted for making the Re-Animator series. This film switches gears from the first two films' comedy/horror formula, instead being a romantic drama/teen romance/horror film. The story involves Curt, whose father, a Colonel in the US Army, is overseeing experiments being performed with Trioxin. After Curt's girlfriend, Julie, is killed in a motorcycle accident, he exposes her corpse to the gas, bringing her back to life as a zombie. Throughout the film, Julie, now one of the living dead, grows hungrier and hungrier for human brains. She discovers, though, that by causing herself pain via a series of more and more extreme body piercings with springs, nails, glass, basically whatever sharp objects she can find, that she can stave off, although only temporarily, the ghastly hunger growing within her. The two begin a trek to escape the US Army that ends in the city sewers when Curt, after witnessing Julie kill and eat Riverman, a friendly homeless man who gives them shelter, steps aside to let his father finally put Julie down. The film ends with Curt rescuing Julie from a fate worse than living death as a biomechanical killer for the military. In the end, after himself being bitten by a zombie, Curt and Julie step into an incinerator and embrace in a final kiss as the flames engulf them.
This film is currently available in its uncut form on the UK Region 2 DVD.
The film received a limited theatrical release on October 29, 1993, where it was a financial failure, making back only $54,000 of its $2,000,000 budget at the boxoffice in the USA.
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, the fourth film in the series, was filmed in Romania and Ukraine. The film stars Peter Coyote and Aimee Lynn Chadwick. The plot revolves around a group of teenagers attempting to rescue their friend from an evil corporation. In doing so, they wind up releasing a horde of blood-thirsty zombies. An edited version of the film aired on the SciFi Channel on October 15, 2005. The R-rated version of the film was released on DVD on April 18, 2006. The film was originally advertised as Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis but once it was finally released, the number 4 was removed from the title. Both Necropolis (4) and Rave (5) are criticized for straying from the series' rules.
Most notable of these changes is that Trioxin (spelled Tryoxin in these particular films) zombies are no longer the indestructible juggernauts of the first movie, but instead much weaker than even "Romero zombies." Several times throughout the movie they are seen to be dispatched with no more than a few body shots, sometimes as few as two hits will end their undead life. Prior to this film nothing short of incineration or electrocution with extreme high voltage would terminate a Tryoxin zombie.
However, this may be a different form of Trioxin; here, it is referred to as "Tryoxin-5,", in lieu of "2-4-5 Trioxin" which may explain why the zombies are weaker.
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave was filmed immediately after Necropolis using the same locations of Romania and Ukraine. Cory Hardrict, John Keefe, Peter Coyote and Aimee Lynn Chadwick returned from the previous installment. The film takes place one year after Necropolis and the returning teenage characters, from the previous film, are now college freshmen. They discover that Tryoxin-5 can be used as a recreational drug named 'Z', but the drug will eventually turn the user into a zombie. The speed of "zombification" depends on the dose of Tryoxin consumed. An edited version of the film aired along with Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis on the SciFi Channel on October 15, 2005. As was the case with Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis switching to Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave was advertised as Return of the Living Dead 5: Rave to the Grave before removing the number 5 from the title. The R-rated version of the film was released on DVD on March 20, 2007 by Lionsgate.
The film also features a humorous cameo appearance by Tarman from the original movie and its first sequel. However, as opposed to being a major threat like he initially was, the character is mostly used for comedy. Though when he first appears in the film, he tries to attack the protagonists but later gives up and desperately tries to hitchhike a ride to the party but to no avail. After scaring away a woman who almost gave him a ride, he has no choice but to walk to the party, yelling his trademark "Brains!" as he goes.
A documentary titled More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead, was released in 2011. The film is an account of the tongue-in-cheek, stylish and apocalyptic zombie movie, and features contributions from all the main cast as well as clips, photographs, storyboards, conceptual art, publicity materials, archival documents and behind-the-scenes footage.
The documentary includes interviews with over thirty cast and crew from the first three Return of the Living Dead films, including Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph, Jewel Shepard, John Philbin, Brian Peck, Linnea Quigley, Miguel A. Nunez, Jr., James Karen, Clu Gulager, Don Calfa, Allan Trautman, Stacey Q, William Stout, Suzanne Snyder, Michael Kenworthy, J. Trevor Edmond, Brian Yuzna and more.
The documentary is directed by Bill Philputt, written by the authors of The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead, Christian Sellers and Gary Smart, produced by Thommy Hutson and executive produced by Beverly Randolph and Michael Perez for Michael Perez Entertainment and was released on October 18, 2011. The documentary is included on the UK special edition DVD and Blu-ray Disc of Return of the Living Dead, which was released on 4 June 2012.