When the final chapter is written on the history of zombie movies as we know them, The Return of the Living Dead will be the only American film worth mentioning outside the works of George A. Romero. His purists, not nearly so legion as once were, have so much to be bitter about in the matter of popular tripe which forever altered the subgenre's landscape (28 Days Later, the Dawn of the Dead remake, the Resident Evil movies) that Dan O'Bannon's wry homage to Romero seems positively reverential in retrospect - in fact, it always was. O'Bannon simply had the genius to do an homage so perfectly as to the reinvent the undead wheel, and have his effort taken for granted.
The strength of Romero's zombies was their pathetic nature, their attitude of lost toddlers separated from mom's protective legs at the Penny's department store, when not attacking the living. They were social metaphors, and people dealt with them over a long period of time, Return of the Living Dead happens in a single frenetic night. O'Bannon's genius let us have our cake and eat it in a way post-modern zombiedom can't: the Return zombies were conceived in an era when the creatures were first becoming totally alien, so that any injections of humor or pathos towards them were artistic leaps of faith. Then O'Bannon checks that mark on his artistic to-do list and when you least expect it, grants the living dead just a little pity: they don't want to be eating your brain, but it's the only way to heal "the pain of being dead." Countless horror fans have pointed out that somehow or other, the film miraculously got the balance of "humor" and "horror" just right, and I'm more convinced than ever that this matured alchemy was a fresh product of its time, never again to be equalled.
If Russo's novel were the same as the film sharing its title, our story would be shorter. Instead, Return of the Living Dead: The Novel: 1978 was a direct sequel to Night, with extremely similar plot circumstances - strangers thrown together in rural Pennsylvania, staving off the same slow moving ghouls. Russo's intention to have the novel filmed was the eventual birth of masterpiece, but only after a very long and complicated labor.
John Russo does not have a good reputation amongst horror fans for reasons I'll get into later, but he was certainly a good sport in working to promote the film by writing ANOTHER NOVEL with the title of "The Return of the Living Dead," based on O'Bannon's screenplay. This has got to be the only such instance in film history. The book actually has a disclaimer:
This novel is based on the film of the same name, and is markedly different from the earlier novel of the same title by John Russo, which was originally published by Hamlyn Paperbacks.
John Russo, as I understand from a friend's firsthand account of a horror convention - is somewhat ornery. You might be too, if you found yourself a footnote to your old creative partner's career after collaborating with them on a world famous film. Outside of some forgotten genre work like the 1986 slasher The Majorettes (which, good lord, he adapted from his own 1979 novel) Russo has remained on the periphery of even the most hardcore horror fan's sight, and primarily through his continuation of the post-Romero "Living Dead" brand. Recently this has included comic books under titles like Escape of the Living Dead and Plague of the Living Dead, but so far as film ventures beyond the Return franchise, they are apparently universally reviled.
Russo makes Return of the Living Dead: The Movie: The Novel his own as much as possible, and the majority of his personal context belongs to that of a devoted Italian Catholic. This isn't really a match made in heaven for O'Bannon's Southern-fried nihilist sci-fi instincts. Yet the crackerjack plot and dialogue remain intact, and Russo is definitely a skilled writer, so what the reader is left with is a more straight laced and serious version of a story that was only meant to be half-serious. For a devoted obsessive of O'Bannon's film, every little deviation screams loads about the mind of John A. Russo, and where Russo deviates from O'Bannon is in his Italian Catholic moralism. Where they meet is in their genuine affection for scary zombies.
'But what do you have, Freddy?' she blurted. 'I've never seen anybody look so awful. You look like...like...' She bit her lip, not daring to say what he looked like. 'Like Sunshine,' said Freddy, completing her thought in a mournful, self-pitying whisper.
Concerning her own relationship to mortality, Tina is now "Tina Vitalli," daughter of Italian Catholic parents against whom this whole punk thing was her way of acting out:
...She stopped reading and studying and started running around. The intellectual quest that had started the trouble was abandoned and largely forgotten, trampled in the climate of passion and confrontation. Tina became a street brat, defying her parents' conservatism by a pursuit of its diametric opposite, unbridled hedonism. She had been born with a good mind that could have been developed with enlightened guidance and stimulation. Instead, although she still possessed a capacity for subtle perceptions and delicate, refined emotions, that capacity was dulled and blunted by the frantically superficial lifestyle she had fallen into.
For the purposes of the film, Freddy and Tina don't need any more pathos in their relationship by the time Freddy is becoming a zombie and Tina doesn't want to leave him. For the purposes of the novel, the story takes off with a sense of freshness that a longtime fan of the film like myself can appreciate for plausibly fitting within the parameters of the characters O'Bannon created. Russo found his personal angle on the story, and for the most part it fits, except when having to wince through a clumsy religious reference like this unwelcome addition to the classic "Weirdest thing you ever saw" prologue between Frank and Freddy:
Since O'Bannon's brilliant screenplay opens with Freddy and James Karen's Frank before gradually shifting the action to other characters once they're poisoned, Russo's novel unfortunately can't help faltering once the action picks up and the focus turns to Burt Wilson and Don Calfa's Ernie Kaltenbrunner, since most of what they have to do is move the plot forward while everyone else is panicking. At about the halfway point in the story when the graveyard across the street from Uneeda sprouts a zombie garden and most of the surviving cast are holed up in the funeral parlor, finishing the novel finally starts to feel like a chore. Russo doesn't seem have any kind of emotional investment in the trio Burt, Ernie and Spider/Meat, the protagonists once Freddy and Frank are immobilized and the punks start getting chomped. Burt is as impenetrable in the novel as Clu Gulager is in the film, but Russo does give Ernie one dramatic internal moment, if awkwardly late in the game:
Ridiculously, Russo decides that the two paramedics who show up to tell Frank and Freddy that they've got no "blood pressure, no pulse" were highly deserving of an elaborate backstory that O'Bannon somehow neglected to include for two characters with literally no names in the credits who only exist to deliver exposition. This is Russo asserting himself creatively where there's no reason to do so:
Granted, a little extra characterization is necessary in a novel for otherwise unnamed characters with speaking roles, but there's another page and a half of background for the men formerly known as "Paramedic #1" and "Paramedic #2." In a stunningly silly new sequence, Stan Feldstein has a brief karate skirmish with the zombies before he and Don get devoured, as opposed to the quick work the undead mob makes of them before calling in dispatch for more paramedics. Like everything else in the novel, that classic line loses all its pithiness under Russo's pen:
The fat, muddy corpse with the greedy, piggish eyes raised the microphone to its lips. "Hello, dispatch centre," the corpse rasped in its choking, injured-sounding tone. "We're going to need back-up at Kaltenbrunner's Funeral Home. We have a half a dozen badly injured people here. Please send another ambulance as soon as possible. Over."
Spider/Meat suffers worst in Russo's expansion of the story's action-packed second half. Not only does he fail to gain any new depth under Russo's indifference, he becomes shallower under Russo's disdain for the punks - elected to provide way more bad joke lines than the situations ever call for, and without any of the Miguel Nunez charm:
"I'm not leaving Freddy!" Tina sobbed. "You got to be the dumbest chick in the world!" said Meat. "If you stay here with them, we're locking the door," said Burt. "Think what that'll mean if -" said Burt. "Think what that'll mean if -" "I can't leave him! We're supposed to get married!" she whined miserably. "Till death do us part!" Meat scoffed.
Freddy groaned, holding his stomach. So did Frank. "Oh..it hurts...it hurts," they both rasped. "I think they're gettin' hungry," said Meat. "And we had better get our asses in gear and dispose of them before they come to realize what they're hungry for - 'cause it sure as shit ain't chitlins."
Oh noes, dem's be guh-guh-ghoulses out dere! It doesn't help that Russo's first description of Meat begins with: Meat was the only one who was not caucasian; his skin was almost as black as a piano key...
The only addition to character development in this book that would've actually behooved the film is so appropriate, I have to wonder if it was a resolution originally in the script that got dropped for lack of time: when Chuck and Casey are stuck at the Uneeda building together, Chuck manages to finally talk his way into Casey's pants using - what else - God and the fear of death.
"Casey," he said, his throat dry. "Uh-huh?" "Since you don't think it's a sin to do it with whoever you want, how do you make up your mind who to do it with?" She thought about it, furrowing her unblemished brow and tossing her long blonde hair back in a careless, automatic way that got to him every time she did it. "I don't know," she said. "I never pick myself apart to find out why. It's just a certain chemistry happens. A certain person, a certain situation. I can feel when it's right, and then I go for it." He held his breath, then he took the plunge. "How about now? With me? Because if we don't get rescued, it might be our last chance to get our rocks off." "I'll consider it," she told him. "But zombies outside don't exactly put me in the mood."
"We can push those heavy filing cabinets up against the office door," he suggested, anxious to throw her on the floor and do it to her. He was so hard up, he was even scared they might get rescued before he got his chance. "I don't know," Casey hedged. "I don't know if I can really get into it right now. I mean, it might be bad for you, you know?" He said, "In the London air raids during World War Two, people made love like mad. It was an affirmation of life in the midst of destruction. The zombies could use some affirming - maybe more than the bombs - don't you think?" "It makes a weird kind of sense," she conceded. He got up from behind the desk, and with the bulge in his pants went over to kiss her.
Superfluous references to the Blitzkrieg aside, I would've like to see Chuck get a little in the movie instead of just being told by Casey that she never liked him, but hold her tight. They're the only members of O'Bannon's masterfully juggled ensemble I've ever felt got a little short-changed in what one critic called the Casino Royale of horror films.
The zombies deserve mention, of course, although their differences in Russo's depiction are not so marked in comparison to the human cast. The most famous of them all, the Tar Man, is not referred to as such but as a "chemical mummy," which is a really fantastic term. He also has the wherewithall to moan for help inside the Uneeda basement, thus luring in Tina. Russo lets the zombies behave just as they do in the film - completely counter to what he and Romero initially conceived. A couple of special effects moments hatched by O'Bannon but left out (until the sequel used them) make the cut in literary form: a moving, severed finger falling inside and being thrown out of a van used by Burt and Meat/Spider in their abortive escape attempt, and a zombie blown in half by a shotgun, still crawling after the cops.
Chuckling hideously spoils the pathos of the scene in the film and at this point in the book, I wasn't nearly as miffed by yet another Christian reference as the simple fact that there's no way the Trioxin contaminated rain from outdoors could've possibly found its way onto any of the corpses indoors! The Dowdens are established much earlier in the book when Ernie Kaltenbrunner makes his first appearance, so one has to assume that Russo was either too far along in his manuscript to realize the mistake, or that he didn't care if Dan O'Bannon's cause-and-effect zombie science prevented him from racking up more tertiary character details. I'm surprised he didn't invent a past life for the Tar Man. Sorry, "Chemical Mummy."
One of the brilliances of The Return of the Living Dead is how relegating the action to a few low-key relatable locations (a warehouse, a basement, a cemetery) and reusing those locations at different points throughout the story, the tale has the feeling of being grounded in reality, despite all the living dead running around. What could disrupt that feeling of reality is the mental image of Boris and Natasha minding that bitch of a third step as they tiptoe into Uneeda's basement past the Nixon/Agnew '68 poster, and making sure the Trioxin barrels were still good and rusty for the inevitable day when someone like James Karen was going to tell a new employee the true story behind Night of the Living Dead. For heavens sake, why not just put on some gas masks, open the seal and get out of there?
Raymond Aston and his fellow traitors' gloating takes the place of the film's concluding dialogue from Col. Glover about the president visiting Louisville and reused shots of the toxic rain coming down on the graveyard, something actually forced upon O'Bannon by the producers. As can be seen in the rare workprint cut of Return, the final shots were meant to be of Trionxin-contaminated dirt from the bombing being stored by the government in another innocuously vulnerable place, an unused railroad line outside of South Dakota. Ironically, this is something Raymond Aston gets to mention while sinisterly laughing about the inevitability of another zombie outbreak. This is a far bleaker laugh than even O'Bannon's ending, which grimly accounted for post-nuking leukemia outbreak in narration as well as an intended montage of real atrocity photos - never filmed. A committee or someone decided to replace it with recycled footage and the trailer, with an arbitrary final emphasis on the throwaway laugh line "It's not a bad question Burt..."
...When he came into the kitchen, he greeted his wife Ethel with a peck on the cheek. He knew that he ought to give her a real smooch and a big hug so that she wouldn't suspect that maybe he hated her, but he couldn't bring himself to go to those lengths because she so utterly repulsed him. He found her body ugly and totally unsexy. She was short, flabby and stocky, just like him.
There's a yin-yang between Grover the army flunky and Aston the Commie defector, holed up in their respective affluent homes thousands and thousands of miles away, each anxiously waiting for the day the Trioxin barrels surface. Except Aston has a trophy babushka and Grover has a well-meaning frump who doesn't know he already had lamb chops for lunch, damn it. Then he gives him a proud moment on which to close:
"Death and destruction to all communist traitors and defectors!" Colonel Grover said out loud, raising his glass in a toast towards the Pacific Ocean before downing the whiskey all in one gulp. An unabashed patriot, he said, "God save America," as he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.
I grew up with The Return of the Living Dead. I've seen it theatrically in New York (once), Toronto (once), and Los Angeles (once and a half). Unlike the other greatest zombie movie ever made, Dawn of the Dead, it's held onto its vitality because for all the great zombies, the story is really one of people and how they do or don't work together when re-animation hits the fan. O'Bannon knew enough about what made the original Night of the Living Dead great to know that the human strife indoors was more compelling than the ghouls outside. With two generations at play - three veteran character actors and a menagerie of spunky youth - the only real subtext is the metatextual passing of the torch from the grown ups who visualized the silent majority as creature feature flesh eaters, and the brats who inherit that legacy. Don't forget, Burt is the one who remembers to try destroying the yellow cadaver's brain while Freddy is the only youth who remembers Night of the Living Dead, as "the one where the corpses start eating the people."
|Illustration by Johnny Ryan, 2007|
I first saw Return of the Living Dead, the novel of the movie, at a used bookstore in England, a likely place since the publisher was British. I wish I'd bought it then, but in the intervening dozen or so years, Return of the Living Dead's stature has only grown - and it still hasn't gotten its complete due. Recently the documentary filmmakers behind Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy (in which they got the makers of Freddy's Revenge to finally admit that sequel's bisexuality) took on Return with More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead and after I check it out, I fear there may be nothing left to ponder about my favorite zombie film. Still, what a ride, and like all classic films, you can never really outgrow it. RIP Dan O'Bannon, and may the flight of Quigleys sing thee to thy rest.