The film is known for introducing the popular concept of zombies eating brains, as opposed to just eating human flesh, like previous zombie iterations, as well as its soundtrack, which features several noted deathrock and punk rock bands of the era. The film was a critical success and performed moderately well at the box office. Its enduring popularity has spawned four sequels and turned it into a cult classic.
On July 3, 1984. At a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, a foreman named Frank tries to impress the company's newest employee Freddy by showing him military drums that accidentally wound up in the basement of the building; the drum contains the remains of a military experiment gone wrong. Frank accidentally unleashes the toxic gas, which renders the two unconscious. When waking up, Frank and Freddy find that the gas reanimated a cadaver inside a meat locker, and contact their boss and warehouse owner Burt Wilson to help them deal with the situation. When decapitation cannot kill the cadaver, Burt decides to bring the corpse to the nearby mortuary to have its dismembered parts burned in an attempt to destroy it once and for all.
Meanwhile, Freddy's friends learn of his new job from his girlfriend Tina. The group, consisting of Spider, Trash, Scuz, Suicide, Casey, and Chuck, decide to pick Freddy up after he finishes his shift and wait inside the local cemetery. Tina leaves the graveyard and enters the warehouse to look for Freddy. Her search leads her to the basement, where she unwittingly draws attention from the half-melted corpse from the drum barrel (dubbed "Tarman") who was initially thought to have dissolved. She locks herself inside a metal closet after a failed attempt to run, but the zombie finds a chained hook and tries to pull the door off.
At the mortuary, Burt gets the mortician Ernie to burn the remains, not realizing that it causes the gas to contaminate the air and bringing a toxic rainfall to resurrect the dead in the graveyard. The acid rain forces Freddy's friends to refuge inside the warehouse. Once inside, the group hears the basement commotion and immediately rush down to rescue Tina, but Suicide is bitten by Tarman in the process. This forces the group, including Tina, to abandon Suicide and barricade the door to stop Tarman from coming up. Outside, the group runs through the cemetery to look for Freddy, but are split up when the zombies begin rising from their graves. While the group is running Trash gets surrounded by and eaten by zombies, ironically dying the way she described earlier as the worst way to die. Tina, Spider, and Scuz go to the mortuary, Chuck and Casey head back to the warehouse where Tarman remains trapped downstairs.
Frank and Freddy have grown increasingly ill from their exposure to the gas and a medical test from paramedics implies that they are no longer alive. When Burt and Ernie find out about the graveyard zombies, they quickly barricade the mortuary after a failed attempt to escape using the ambulance. Scuz is killed while protecting the barricade and the zombies continue to eat the paramedics and police who arrive in the area. With Frank and Freddy showing signs of becoming zombies themselves, Burt has them locked in the chapel and Tina stays with Freddy. Meanwhile, Trash rises as a zombie and starts a semi-organized horde that attacks the reinforcements head-on.
Freddy succumbs as zombie and tries to eat Tina, but is blinded with acid thrown by Ernie. Frank also escapes and cremates himself inside the retort. Burt and Spider use a police car outside to escape, but the growing horde of zombies leaves them unable to come back for Ernie and Tina. They retreat to the warehouse and the car explodes due to a gasoline leak. Burt and Spider reunite with Casey and Chuck, and go to the basement's phone after Burt knocks off Tarman's head with a baseball bat. With the police massacred by the zombies, Burt decides to call the military drum's number. The call goes to Colonel Glover, a military officer looking for the barrels. When Glover learns that the gas has been released, he activates a containment protocol with a nuclear artillery shell to destroy the area. Just as a blinded Freddy breaks into an attic where Ernie and Tina are hiding, the shell destroys 20 square blocks of Louisville and ultimately kills both the survivors and zombies. With footage shown of the destroyed area, Glover describes the outcome with less than 4,000 dead and dismisses reports of the acid rain, which soon restarts the zombie rising all over again.Clu Gulager as Burt Wilson
James Karen as Frank
Don Calfa as Ernie Kaltenbrunner
Thom Mathews as Freddy
Beverly Randolph as Tina
John Philbin as Chuck
Jewel Shepard as Casey
Miguel Núñez as Spider
Brian Peck as Scuz
Linnea Quigley as Trash
Mark Venturini as Suicide
Jonathan Terry as Colonel Glover
Cathleen Cordell as Colonel's Wife
Allan Trautman as Tarman
Drew Deighan as Paramedic #1
James Dalesandro as Paramedic #2
John Durbin as Radio Corpse #1
David Bond as Radio Corpse #2
Robert Libman as Tac Squad Captain
Terrence Houlihan as Yellow Cadaver Zombie
Jerome "Daniels" Coleman as Legless Corpse Zombie
Cherry Davis as ½ Lady Corpse Zombie (Voice)
The film has its roots in a novel by John Russo also called Return of the Living Dead. When Russo and George A. Romero parted ways after their 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Russo retained the rights to any titles featuring Living Dead while Romero was free to create his own series of sequels, beginning with Dawn of the Dead. Russo and producer Tom Fox planned to bring Return of the Living Dead to the screen in 3D and directed by Tobe Hooper. Dan O'Bannon was brought in to give the script a polish and after Hooper backed out to make Lifeforce (also from a script by Dan O'Bannon), O'Bannon was offered the director's seat. He accepted on the condition he could rewrite the film radically so as to differentiate it from Romero's films. Russo retains a story writer credit on the film for developing the project, but the final film bears little to no resemblance to his original novel. He later wrote a novelization of the film which was fairly faithful to the shooting script, though without the character names as in the final film and the addition of a KGB subplot as an explanation for the plot. (Russo would, eventually, make his own 'canon' series with a 1998 revised edition of Night of the Living Dead, subtitled the 30th Anniversary Edition, and its sequel, Children of the Living Dead.)
O'Bannon's script also differed from the Romero series in that it was markedly more comical than Romero's films, employing "splatstick" style morbid humor and eccentric dialogue. The films also boasted significant nudity, in marked contrast to Romero's work. 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.
Although the movie is set in Louisville, Kentucky, it was filmed in California. The only scene actually filmed in Louisville was the shot of the front gate of Louisville's Eastern Cemetery. The Louisville police uniforms and patrol cars were all period correct.
The "Tarman" zombie is performed by actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman, who is best known for his work with Jim Henson and The Muppets.
The "Half-Corpse" zombie character was an animatronic puppet created by Tony Gardner and puppeteered by Gardner, actor Brian Peck ("Scuz"), and Production Designer William Stout. This character launched Tony Gardner's career as an independent makeup effects artist.
The characters of Burt Wilson and Ernie Kaltenbrunner are, contrary to popular belief, not named after the characters from Sesame Street; Dan O'Bannon had no idea he was using the names of those characters.
Originally, Frank was supposed to be completely transformed into a zombie and join the zombie mob, but James Karen did not wish to film any scenes in the cold rain of Los Angeles, so he instead suggested that Frank isolate himself before said transformation could be completed. O'Bannon agreed to the suggestion.
The Return of the Living Dead was a critical and a moderate box office success. It currently holds a 91% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, and grossed $14,237,000 domestically on an estimated budget of $4,000,000. It was also nominated for four Saturn Awards, including Best Horror Film, Best Actor for James Karen, Best Director and Best Make-up, by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.
Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, writing that the film is "kind of a sensation-machine, made out of the usual ingredients, and the real question is whether it's done with style. It is." Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film a "mordant punk comedy", stating that it "is by no means the ultimate horror movie it aspires to be".
- "Surfin' Dead" by The Cramps
- "Partytime (Zombie Version)" by 45 Grave
- "Nothin' for You" by T.S.O.L.
- "Eyes Without a Face" by The Flesh Eaters
- "Burn the Flames" by Roky Erickson
- "Dead Beat Dance" by The Damned
- "Take a Walk" by Tall Boys
- "Love Under Will" by Jet Black Berries
- "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" by SSQ
- "Trash's Theme" by SSQ
- "Young, Fast Iranians" by Straw Dogs : 1991 Hemdale version and subsequent DVD and Blu-ray Releases, though not on official soundtrack album.
- "Partytime (Single Version)" by 45 Grave: Version actually used in the film, though not on official soundtrack album.
- "Panzer Rollen in Afrika vor" by Norbert Schultze: Song playing on Ernie's walkman, though not on official soundtrack album.
The film was originally released on DVD in the UK by Tartan Home Video on March 19, 2001. Up until 2012, this was the only time it had been issued in its original form. On August 27, 2002, MGM released a Special Edition DVD in the US with a new cut of the movie (with music alterations due to copyright issues) with a commentary by O'Bannon and a documentary on the making of the film. The cover of the DVD case for the 2002 release glows in the dark. On September 11, 2007, a Collector's Edition of the film was released with additional extra features involving the cast. The different home video releases have featured different soundtracks, often changing the songs used. Also, the basement zombie's ("Tar-Man") voice was altered. Originally, the zombie had a higher, raspier voice.
A 25th anniversary edition was released on September 14, 2010, exclusively for Blu-ray Disc. The Blu-ray Disc version is a 2-disc combo pack with both a Blu-ray Disc and DVD. This release is very similar to the MGM/Fox print from 3 years earlier.
On June 4, 2012, Second Sight Films in the U.K. released DVD and Blu-ray Disc versions of the film where the original audio and soundtrack in its original form can be selected, the first time since 2001 a release has had this option. The release had its first insight into the movie with the inclusion on a booklet (claimed to be based on Ernie's notes from the events of the film) which was edited from Gary Smart and Christian Seller's publication The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead.
Scream Factory released a 30th anniversary Collector's Edition Blu-Ray on July 19, 2016. MGM also released another edition with hand-drawn cover art.
Return of the Living Dead popularized the notion in the public conscious of zombies eating specifically brains (as opposed to simply flesh) and that zombies groan "Braaiinnsss!" as they walk. In a critical scene in the movie, a zombie (presumably female) who has killed one of the characters is tied to a table (she exists only as a half-torso) and explains that the dead seek brains because eating brains "makes the pain go away--the pain of being dead". It is a popular misconception that George Romero invented this specific trait as part of his Night of the Living Dead series, though he has emphasised that it was not his idea.Clu Gulager's character, Burt Wilson, sports a "Members Only" jacket while fighting off zombies. This brand was popular during the 1980s.
The film was spoofed in an episode of South Park called "Pink Eye" where Kenny catches the eponymous infection and everyone becomes brain-eating zombies. The film's zombie cries of "Brains...more brains" were parodied in the South Park episode "Night of the Living Homeless" where the town is overrun by homeless people who repeatedly ask for "change".
In the tenth episode of The Simpsons' eleventh season ("Little Big Mom"), Bart and Homer believe they have leprosy and begin to act like zombies. When trying to ask Ned Flanders for help, they reach through the mail slot on his front door, saying, in a zombie-like voice, "Brains. Brains." Then Homer cheerfully says, "Use your brains to help us." Then, using the zombie-like voice again, he says, "Your delicious brains."
In 2011, More Brains! A Return of the Living Dead Documentary was released on DVD.
A book titled The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead was released October 2010. The book covered all five movies in the series. It featured interviews from over 70 members of the cast and crew, as well as 150 never-before-published filmmakers photos, film stills and posters.