The Return of the Living Dead

The Return of the Living Dead is a 1985 American comedy horror film written and directed by Dan O'Bannon, and starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Thom Matthews and Don Calfa.[2][4] The film tells the story of how a warehouse owner, accompanied by his two employees, mortician friend, and a group of teenage punks, deal with the accidental release of a horde of brain-hungry zombies onto an unsuspecting town.

The Return of the Living Dead
Theatrical release poster by Carl Ramsey
Directed byDan O'Bannon[1]
Produced by
  • Tom Fox
  • Graham Henderson
Screenplay byDan O'Bannon[2]
Story by
Music by
  • Matt Clifford[2]
  • Francis Haines
CinematographyJules Brenner
Edited byRobert Gordon[2]
Distributed byOrion Pictures[2]
Release date
  • August 16, 1985 (1985-08-16)
Running time
91 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
BudgetUS$4 million
Box officeUS$14.2 million[3]

The film, described as a "mordant punk comedy",[2] is known for introducing the popular concept of zombies eating brains, as opposed to eating human flesh, like previous zombie iterations. It is also known as the first film to ever show zombies running, as well as zombies being able to speak. The film is also quite unique from virtually all other cinematic depictions of the living dead, in that the zombies portrayed in the film cannot be killed by a standard "head shot".

The film is also notable for its soundtrack, which features several legendary Los Angeles based 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.


Warehouse foreman Frank Johnson shows new hire Freddy Hanscom around the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse. In sharing the oddest experience of his career, Frank informs Freddy that the film Night of the Living Dead was based on a true case: a spill of an experimental military chemical designated 2-4-5 Trioxin resulted in the reanimation of the dead. The incident was contained and covered up, but through a clerical error the drums containing the chemical and the original zombies were sent to Uneeda, where they have remained for the last 15 years. While showing the drums to Freddy, Frank accidentally pierces one's rusting seam, and unleashes the toxic gas. The two are rendered unconscious and the gas travels through the building's duct work.

Upon awakening, they discover that a veterinary specimen and a cadaver in cold storage have reanimated. Locking the screaming cadaver in, Frank calls his boss Burt to help them deal with the situation. After recalling that Night of the Living Dead's zombies were killed by having their brains destroyed, they attempt to destroy the creature accordingly but find that even decapitation has no effect. Burt decides that the only option is to incinerate the corpse at a nearby mortuary, owned by his friend Ernie Kaltenbrunner.

Meanwhile, Freddy's punk rock friends are killing time in a nearby cemetery as they wait for him to get off work. Freddy's girlfriend Tina leaves the group to meet him at the warehouse. Venturing into the basement, she's suddenly ambushed by the rotting corpse from the drum (dubbed "Tarman" due to being covered in a tarry substance). At the mortuary, Ernie is convinced to burn the remains. However, the chemical smoke from the burning remains contaminates the air, starting a heavy acid rainfall that begins to soak down into the soil of the cemetery. The acid rain forces Freddy's friends out of the cemetery and into the warehouse. Inside, the group rescues Tina while Suicide is attacked by Tarman in the process. The group are left with no choice but to abandon Suicide, and barricade the door in order to trap Tarman. Out of options, the remaining punks attempt to head to the mortuary on the other side of the graveyard. However, they are split up when the zombies begin rising from their graves. Trash lags behind on her own and gets surrounded and attacked by zombies, dying the way she described earlier as the worst way to die. Tina, Spider, and Scuz make their way to the mortuary, while Chuck and Casey head back to the warehouse.

At the mortuary, Frank and Freddy have grown increasingly ill from their exposure to the gas. When paramedics arrive, they find that despite their conscious appearance the men show no vital signs. Tina, Spider, and Scuz join the group while the paramedics step outside to retrieve stretchers from their ambulance. Both of the paramedics are ambushed and their brains devoured by zombies, while the group inside the mortuary barricade themselves inside.

Scuz is killed protecting the barricade, though his zombie assailant is captured and interrogated. She explains that eating brains staves off the pain they feel from being dead. The zombies continue to eat the brains of the paramedics and police in the area, including reinforcements the zombies themselves called for over the vehicle radios. With Frank and Freddy showing signs of becoming zombies themselves, Burt has them locked in the chapel, with Tina choosing to stay with Freddy. Meanwhile, a police helicopter witnesses a large-scale attack by the zombies. This finally makes the chaos known to the police at large, who mount a massive blockade at the perimeter of the district to contain the violence.

Freddy succumbs to his infection and attacks Tina, but is fought off. Frank escapes quietly and makes his way to the crematorium, where he incinerates himself. The survivors decide that they must attempt to escape the mortuary. Burt and Spider make their way through the horde to a police car outside. Unable to retrieve Ernie and Tina, they are forced to retreat to the warehouse.

Reunited with Casey and Chuck, the group goes to the basement's phone after Burt knocks off Tarman's head. With the cops massacred and the barricade failing, Burt decides to call the emergency phone number stenciled on the tank. The call goes to Colonel Glover, an army officer who has been quietly searching for the missing barrels. When Glover learns that the gas has resurrected an entire cemetery of the dead, he activates a containment protocol with a nuclear artillery shell to destroy the area.

The shell destroys 20 square blocks of Louisville which ultimately kills both the survivors and zombies. Glover describes the outcome to his superior officer, dismissing reports of acid rain that are implied to start the undead rising all over again.




The film has its roots in a novel by John Russo also called Return of the Living Dead.[5] 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.[5] Russo and producer Tom Fox planned to bring Return of the Living Dead to the screen in 3D and directed by Tobe Hooper.[5]

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.[5] He accepted on the condition he could rewrite the film radically so as to differentiate it from Romero's films.[5] This was done out of professional respect, being that O'Bannon didn't want to tread too heavily on Romero's established territory, as Russo's original draft was a very serious sequel to Night of the Living Dead. He instead opted to include an undertone of black comedy and morbid humor, as opposed to a straight horror film. He further added the backstory that Frank tells Freddy to honor and reference the source material, but at the same time, to set it apart on its own.

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. 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 landmark Eastern Cemetery.

Filming began on July 9, 1984, and finished several months later in October.

Director Dan O'Bannon delivers a voice cameo in the film as the helicopter policeman's voice, and production designer William Stout does a small uncredited role as a street bum whom the punks walk past early in the film.

The "Tarman" zombie is performed by actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman,[5] 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.

Linnea Quigley, who plays Trash in the film, had to be fitted for a cup-like vaginal prosthesis to be worn during the vast majority of her scenes, which director Dan O'Bannon described as "A Barbie doll crotch, with no detail". Quigley herself had no problem with the full frontal nudity, but the producers insisted upon it when they happened to visit the set the night her strip dance was filmed in the cemetery, while she was completely nude, apart from her leg-warmers.

The characters 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. The character Ernie is a thinly veiled reference to infamous Nazi SS officer Ernst Kaltenbrunner, as Ernie has a photo of Eva Braun on the wall of his embalming room, can speak German, and carries a Walther P38 pistol.

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 incinerate 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, grossing $14,237,000 domestically on an estimated budget of $4,000,000.[6] It currently holds a 91% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, with a rating average of 7.2/10 based on 35 reviews. Its consensus reads: "A punk take on the zombie genre, Return of the Living Dead injects a healthy dose of '80s silliness to the flesh consuming."[7] 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.[8]

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."[9] 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".[10]


  1. "Surfin' Dead" by The Cramps
  2. "Partytime (Zombie Version)" by 45 Grave
  3. "Nothin' for You" by T.S.O.L.
  4. "Eyes Without a Face" by The Flesh Eaters
  5. "Burn the Flames" by Roky Erickson
  6. "Dead Beat Dance" by The Damned
  7. "Take a Walk" by Tall Boys
  8. "Love Under Will" by Jet Black Berries
  9. "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" by SSQ
  10. "Trash's Theme" by SSQ
  11. "Young, Fast Iranians" by Straw Dogs: 1991 Hemdale version and subsequent DVD and Blu-ray Releases, though not on official soundtrack album.
  12. "Partytime (Single Version)" by 45 Grave: Version actually used in the film, though not on official soundtrack album.
  13. "Panzer Rollen in Afrika vor" by Norbert Schultze: Song playing on Ernie's walkman, though not on official soundtrack album.

Home media

The film was originally released on DVD in the UK by Tartan Home Video on March 19, 2001.[10] Up until 2012, this was the only time it had been issued in its original form. In early 2002, a fan led online campaign was started which attracted the attention of the director and many of the cast and crew. Several of them commented online that the popular and robust efforts of campaign organizer, Michael Allred, were the direct result of not only the DVD release but that MGM created new supplements due to overwhelming fan support. 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 that can still be heard in theatrical trailers and releases that contain the original audio.

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.[11]

Scream Factory released a 30th anniversary Collector's Edition Blu-Ray on July 19, 2016.[12] It contains a new 2K scan of the interpositive, along with including the original mono audio. Though note while everything else was restored (the original "Tar-Man" voice and the other songs), the song "Dead Beat Dance" by The Damned could not be restored. [13] MGM also released another edition with hand-drawn cover art.


Return of the Living Dead invented the popularized notion in the public conscious of zombies eating specifically brains (as opposed to simply flesh) and that zombies groan "Braaiinnsss!" as they walk. It is also the first film to ever show zombies being able to run, as well as being able to speak, and being in possession of more than base animal instincts. In a critical scene in the movie, a zombie 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.[14]

  • The disbanded British horrorpunk/thrash quartet, Send More Paramedics, took their name from the film. They appeared on stage as zombies, apart from their drummer who wore a black luchador mask, and nearly all of their lyrics centered on zombie films.
  • Jason Heveran (aka J~Sin Trioxin) 6/11/79-12/14/18, of horrorpunk band Mister Monster, as well as a touring member of Blitzkid, took his stage surname from the film.
  • 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.[15] 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 fifth episode of The Simpsons' fourth season ("Treehouse of Horror III"), Bart & Lisa unwittingly unleash a horde of zombies upon Springfield. They break down the door searching for brains, but looking into Homer's ear, they rudely reject him after tapping his head & listening to the hollow echo inside. Zombie Principal Skinner summons Martin Prince to his office & reminds him to bring that "big, juicy chess club brain" of his.
  • 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."[16]
  • In 2011, More Brains! A Return of the Living Dead Documentary was released on DVD.
  • At the 91st Academy Awards, during the In Memoriam portion, a lighthearted clip of Frank was shown honoring James Karen.


  1. "The Return of the Living Dead (18)". British Board of Film Classification. September 3, 1985. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  2. Holden, Stephen (August 16, 1985). "Screen: 'Return of the Living Dead'". Movie Review. The New York Times. Retrieved June 19, 2019.
  3. The Return of the Living Dead at Box Office Mojo
  4. Macek III, J. C. (June 14, 2012). "The Zombification Family Tree: Legacy of the Living Dead". PopMatters. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  5. Kane, Joe (2010). Night of the Living Dead: Behind the Scenes of the Most Terrifying Zombie Movie Ever. Citadel Press. pp. 147–150. ISBN 978-0806533315.
  6. "The Return of the Living Dead (1985)". Retrieved September 21, 2012.
  7. "The Return of the Living Dead (1985)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved December 8, 2018.
  8. Awards for The Return of the Living Dead on IMDb
  9. Ebert, Roger (August 19, 1985). "Return of the Living Dead". Retrieved October 14, 2016.
  10. Holden, Stephen (August 16, 1985). "Screen: 'Return of the Living Dead'". Movie Review. The New York Times. Retrieved October 28, 2016.
  11. "The Return of the Living Dead (Steelbook Bluray) :: DVD & Blu-ray Disc Film Catalogue". Second Sight Films. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  12. Roth, Dany (April 5, 2016). "More brains! Return of the Living Dead is finally getting the special edition it deserves". Syfy. Retrieved October 23, 2017.
  13. "The Return of the Living Dead: Collector's Edition Blu-ray Review | High Def Digest". Retrieved December 13, 2019.
  14. Spitznagel, Eric. "George A. Romero: "Who Says Zombies Eat Brains?"". Vanity Fair. Retrieved September 20, 2012.
  15. IMDb – "South Park" – Pink Eye (1997)
  16. "Little Big Mom: Written by Carolyn Omine, Directed by Mark Kirkland". Retrieved September 21, 2012.
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