Thursday, April 5, 2012

Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead: A Novel By John Russo


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.

Beyond fidelity to the physiology and behavior of the walking (or running, who gives a care?) dead, O'Bannon's truly original sin in the eyes of those who owned Goblin records was to strip the zombie terror of social commentary and overriding apocalyptic bleakness. With a little humor and rock n' roll, The Return of the Living Dead became the blueprint for virtually the entire genre until present day. In the ensuing de-evolution, the relentless commodification of the monster by modern mainstream marketing has rendered them toothless jokes.

Could a random tween on Facebook clicking the "zombify" app on his profile picture even imagine the psychic dread these creatures once elicited to at least two generations of movie fans happening to catch a late-night public domain broadcast of the original Night of the Living Dead? Can a living corpse be an object of fear to an adolescent who's blasted approximately 200 million of their digital avatars in video games? Zombies today are simply one more footnote of the ethereal pop-culture-industrial-complex in which we're all stuck.

Effectively, our culture's attitude towards zombies has devolved into exactly that of the shotgun-toting rednecks Romero loathsomely depicted using the living dead for target practice, blithely dehumanizing the recently human.

I recently rewatched Dawn of the Dead, and something sad has happened. The overexposure of zombies in the media has made Romero's originals inescapably less mysterious and powerful to the viewer's imagination. You can't watch those Pittsburgh locals stumble through the Monroeville Shopping Center without unconsiously comparing them to every damned zombie since. The hundreds of blue-faced extras in the original Dawn, bless them, didn't have anything but the previous Romero film to inspire their behavior, if indeed they'd even seen it. How could any modern-day day-player try to channel their id in such a way without thinking of of a zombie sketch they saw on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon or something?


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.

I have seen The Return of the Living Dead at least a dozen times. Coming back year after year to the film certainly qualifies it as my personal favorite zombie movie, if not favorite horror movie, period. What struck me from the very beginning, watching the film for the first time on Joe Bob Briggs' immortal TNT series late night horror movie series Monstervision, was O'Bannon's respect for the few plot particulars shared by both Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead - strangers thrown together, barricading themselves for shelter against the hordes - while also having his protagonists reference Night of the Living Dead by name, and blowing up Romero's spot in the first act by having those same protagonists freak out upon realizing that these zombies aren't like the ones in Romero's movies. In 1984, this was the equivalent of Drew Barrymore getting quizzed by a prank-calling killer about Friday the 13th in the opening of a really despicable film directed by Wes Craven a dozen years later - without the snide, ironic attitude.


In the mid-90s, for a pimple-faced horror fan watching late night cable, seeing a zombie movie placed within the context of a world that had seen Night of the Living Dead, I can still recall the palpable sense of danger such an open declaration evoked. I felt just as the opening title card cheekily suggested: "The events portrayed in this film are all true." Did more modern audiences have their minds blown in a similar fashion by Shaun of the Dead? I doubt it.

O'Bannon's zombies were every kind of zombie. There hasn't been a new kind since. They were authentically the "living dead" in ways Romero hinted at without getting around to; rising from graveyards or shambling around as decomposing skeletons like the rotting grave crawlers of 1950s Tales From the Crypt horror comics. True, there was the "Father's Day" segment in Romero's Creepshow (1982) but that vignette is basically a blackout sketch, not a full fledged thriller. More to the point, O'Bannon's zombies could run (even more heretical in 1984), were impervious to the brain injuries that put down Romero's corpses, and hungered for the brains of the living. This last detail became a staple of the subgenre overnight, so pitch-perfect was Dan's conception for making the monsters interesting again - and do keep in mind that's what felt he had to do, make them interesting again - a mere, long five years after Dawn of the Dead.

The Return of the Living Dead was such a deft fashioning of everything a certain type of pulp had to offer that everyone assumed it was nothing new, and immediately took it for granted as it became canon overnight. See also Robocop.

ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT THE BOOK NOW (SORT OF):

The Return of the Living Dead, the novelization which drops the "The," has probably the most convoluted origin in the ignominious history of movie tie-in novelizations. To understand, we must begin with the very convoluted origin of The Return of the Living Dead, the film, which of course must begin with Night of the Living Dead. Night was written by both Romero and his then-partner John A. Russo. Yes, the author of the novelization in question. After Night was made and changed everything, he and Romero went their separate ways, but not before a lengthy legal battle over the intellectual property of the film - extremely valuable to the future of both men, since for reasons not pertinent to the story of Return, Night had fallen into the royalty-free netherworld of public domain upon release.

The result of the struggle was that neither man owned the concept of flesh-eating corpses alone, but if either man was to make films in the future about the subject, semantics would be critical: Romero could use the phrase "of the dead" while Russo retained ownership of the more memorable phrase "living dead." Hence, Romero's follow-ups have been the dawn, day, land, diary and survival "of the dead." And in 1978, the same year the first of those sequels introduced zombies to the mall, Russo penned his own sequel - a novel entitled Return of the Living Dead.


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.

By the time the rights to "The Return of the Living Dead" had been sold, Russo and partners had been bought out. Tobe Hooper was hired to direct, and recommended Dan O'Bannon. With free reign to write whatever script they wanted for the project, O'Bannon created a new story from the ground up. John Russo shares story credit with two other creative partners in the opening credits of the film only for legal reasons. Tobe Hooper's version of O'Bannon's script would undoubtedly have been brilliant in its own right, but fate dictated that O'Bannon would see the film to light himself.


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:

NOTE TO READERS:
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.

O'Bannon's screenplay has unfortunately remained elusive to obtain, even in an age when countless screenplays are available online and you can read through four or five unproduced versions of Freddy Vs Jason. We might have gotten excerpts in a book on screenwriting O'Bannon claimed to be authoring, but tragically he fell to Crohn's Disease in 2009. Thus Russo's novelization is as close as I've ever gotten, and does indeed seem to have been based on an earlier draft than what was ultimately committed to film.

Several characters, for instance, have different names and appearances. Linnea Quigley's punkette Trash is "Legs" and Miguel Nunez's token minority rebel Spider is "Meat." Colonel Glover, who orders the nuking of Louisville at the end of film, is referred to as Col. "Grover" - completing the trifecta of a subtle Sesame Street in-joke between him, Burt Wilson and Ernie Kaltenbrunner. A few specific costume and prop details like Scuz's mohawk, Trash's leg warmers and Freddy's baseball cap are retained, but almost none of the character's physical descriptions match their movie counterparts: Clu Gulagher's Burt becomes a bespectacled redhead, Jewel Shepard's Casey becomes a blonde and the Beverly Randolph's formerly preppie-ish Tina now sports long black hair and a red mini-skirt.


Cosmetic differences aside, the cast is essentially the same in personality with some amusing new details added by Russo that for the most part are thankfully in keeping with the integrity of O'Bannon's characters. My personal favorite is the revelation that Suicide's mom is a crazy cat lady and his rustbucket convertible smells like cat shit. Who knew? I can buy that. Some descriptive paragraphs mirror dynamics between characters that I always assumed the actors discovered in rehearsal, revealing just how exactly O'Bannon mapped out their relationships, even at the screenplay stage. Chuck, played by John Philbin, is the least "Punk" in the group of teens, which isn't apparent in the film until he's unsucsessfully hitting on Casey in the graveyard. At the point in the story when they're holed up together at Uneeda Medical Supply, Russo does a nice job elaborating on their implied backstory:

No one in the gang really was close to him. In fact they all treated him like a queeb most of the time. They knew he was hanging around with them because he had the hots for Casey. She had been in his class this past term, their junior year, but she hadn't given him a tumble. He wanted her so bad, he had wheedled his way into her crowd. But they sensed he wasn't for real - not really into their punk rock, New Wave kind of shit. He was at heart a square middle-class kid with a heavy crush on a chick who was beautiful but wild.

This is precisely the kind of passage you hope for, reading the novelization of one of your favorite movies. You hear the truth of the story verbally articulated in the style of the film, and you learn something new about the world of the film which exists only in imagination. Movie novelizations are - or were - a tricky business. A script is by design the skeleton of a film to be fleshed out during production. An author fleshing out the same skeleton into his more controlled medium must be judicious in choosing which cursory shorthand descriptions to expand upon in prose. This alone is not likely to fill the page quota, so the author must add a some scenes of their own imagination as well, without violating the mood or action of the screenwriter's story.


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.

Children of the Living Dead (2001) is by all accounts an incompetent uninspired cash-in while Night of the Living Dead: 30th Anniversary Edition (1998) is the horror equivalent of a George Lucas "special edition" with incongruously added scenes and soundtrack changes. The most offensive additions were evidentally of a religious nature - bookends involving a doomsaying preacher whose immunity to the zombie virus is implied to be his faith. And boy, do horror fans hate that shit. When was the last time a cross was even expected to work against a vampire? The only people who couldn't have been suprised by Russo's revisionist subtext were the scant few who'd already read his novel of Return of the Living Dead.


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.

The novel's take on the ill-fated romance of Freddy and Tina rather brilliantly dovetails with some unanswered (and nonessential) questions about why Freddy sold out and got a job, unlike his punk friends, and why a goody-goody like Tina is hanging with the likes of Trash/Legs and Suicide. The opening pages find Freddy gathering courage in the Uneeda bathroom for the rigor of a straight life. He and Tina found their punk pal "Sunshine" OD'd on the floor, and were scared straight. O'Bannon has noted that the death iconography of punk culture was one of the reasons for including them in the story, and Russo recognizes the signficance, except unlike O'Bannon, he's judgmental and casts the punk life in a more serious and realistic light:

Too much more of the street scene and he'd be dead. Up till a few weeks ago he had been under the illusion that he was on a glide rather than a nose-dive, cruisin' along not givin' a shit, spoutin' off the motto he had copped from an old black-and-white gangster flick: live fast, die young, and make a good-lookin' corpse. But now he was scared shitless of dying young. His mind was all bent out of shape from when he and his girlfriend Tina had found their pal Sunshine naked on his bathroom floor, all bloated and green and stinking of gangrene, the broken syringe and needle still sticking in his arm.

O'Bannon's film obviously had affection for all the kids; even Suicide is lovable when he tells a naked Linnea Quigley to "show some fuckin' respect for the dead." The gang in Russo's novel isn't any more criminal in attitude or behavior, only more obnoxious and aimless, in contrast with the redeemable Freddy and Tina. This new moral high ground with which the story is approached is alternately cornball and humorless, sucking dry the carefree sense of fun the punks herald in their very first scene of the film. Only when Russo is being derisive towards them does he attempt humor, like noting that Suicide's car has the stink of a litter box. The lack of a punk soundtrack - something the novel can't do anything about - also makes Return of the Living Dead: The Novel less of a punk-rock-zombie-story and more a zombie story that happens to include punks.

Insofar as Freddy and Tina, the novel's quasi-evangelical approach to the issue of teen juvenile delinquency is actually strangely compelling. Russo eventually makes good on the ominous ironic foreshadowing of Freddy's desire not to end up another live-fast-die-young casualty when he and Tina finally meet up at the morgue:

'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:

Tina had been raised a strict Roman Catholic in an Italian-American family - parochial school, the whole bit, including a great deal of pressure from the nuns when she was a senior in high school to make a decision to enter the convent. But then, as her parents would say, she 'had fallen in with the wrong crowd.' What had really happened, in her own opinion, was that she had started to think. She had bought a paperback of Mark Twain's "Letters From the Earth," and that single irreverent, humorous, satirical and iconoclastic book had pierced the dogma of her upbringing with a crack of light and fresh air...


...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:

"It's not possible for the dead to come back to life…except maybe on Judgement Day," Freddy hedged, suddenly making up his mind to go to church more often.

Incidentally, Night of the Living Dead is no longer name-dropped in the novel version of this scene. Also, Frank is now "Frank Nello" and pegged by Freddy as "an Italian Archie Bunker" just before Frank asks him if Tina is a "nice, clean Italian girl." Are there really that many persons of Italian heritage in Louisville, Kentucky?


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:

The others were following him, depending on his advice, drawing sustenance from his fortitude and resourcefulness. And it wasn't just because he had the gun. No. They sensed that he had seized command of the situation, because he sensed it himself. He was radiating something new - self-confidence. All of a sudden he, Ernie Kaltenbrunner - high school nobody, middle-aged bachelor, near virgin, obsequious funeral director - had emerged as somebody worthy of respect, maybe even admiration.

That's great and everything, but come on Russo, are you telling me that there was nothing in the script noting Ernie's ties to the Nazi party? Nothing about his pictures of Eva Braun and Goebbels on the walls of the funeral parlor? This is the kind of thing I want to read the original screenplay to find out. Ernie's Luger gets a mention, but that's the extent of his ties to the Fatherland.


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:

Don Berchok and Stan Feldstein, the two paramedics, sped to the scene of the poisoning call in their long white ambulance, lights flashing and siren wailing through a heavy downpour. Both men were in their early thirties, both Vietnam veterans, having received their medical training in the US army. Both had had men die in their arms, horribly wounded. After trying to patch together soldiers who were ripped to shreds by land mines, grenades and mortars, they might be expected to have a certain blasé attitude about the lesser forms of civilian tragedy. Both affected such an attitude, but neither really felt it, and neither would admit it to the other. So they each thought they were the only one with a secret soft spot.


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.

Ugh. There's constantly demeaning new lines for Meat/Spider like this which sucks considering how in the film, Spider eventually emerges as the bravest of the kids. In the novel, his glibness has him constantly flirting with minstrelry.

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.

"You're an agnostic then," said Chuck. "I guess so." "You don't believe in sin?" "What do you mean?" "Like sex, for instance. It isn't a sin for you? To do it with whoever you want?" "No, it's not a sin," she said. "It's not immoral or unethical either, unless I make a personal commitment to do it only with one particular person, or even a group of particular persons, and then go off and do it with other people." "But so far you haven't made that kind of commitment?" "Uh-huh." She peered at hi in the candlelight, obviously wondering why he was on to such a subject at a time like this, but she no longer looked quite so scared. Thinking about his questions and answering them had settled her down. He was incredibly horny. Hearing her talk so frankly about having sex with a whole group of people had fired him up worse than ever.

"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.

The one big difference from any zombie scene in the film concerns the other most famous principal corpse, the Half-Lady who explains to Don Calfa that she and her fellow zombies crave brains to drive away the pain of being dead. Russo modifies her into "Helen and Morton Dowden," a middle aged couple who got cut in half by a car crash and replace the nameless fat guy with a blue stomach who's lying on Ernie's mortician table when Bert brings over the "rabid weasels." At the point in the story when Brian Peck's Scuz becomes the last punk to get punctured by a zombie's jaws, the mouthful of supporting actor now belongs to Helen Dowden, an alternate Half-Lady to the anonymous, topless zombette in the film. Russo, staying par for course with the new Catholic spin on the saga of Return, offers an aside to Helen:

Burt Wilson piped up nervously, coming up behind Meat, but no closer. "Well Ernie, I don't understand what you want with them. I mean, what are we doing? Let's get it over with - put them in the incinerator." "You're going to...burn us?" Helen rasped. But she didn't sound the least bit scared. She even smiled enigmatically. "Doesn't that frighten you?" Ernie asked. "No...nothing can...kill us...we just take...different forms," said Helen. "There is...eternal life...after all." She chuckled hideously.


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."

The final outright aberration from O'Bannon's script is a bookending device, which is highly unnecessary since O'Bannon already gave the story bookends in the form of the long suffering Colonel Glover/Grover's duty to be on-call at all hours of the day in case the "lost consignment of Easter eggs" ever resurfaces. On top of this, Russo adds a hearty dollop of Cold War conspiracy and gives the Colonel a foil behind the Iron Curtain: one Raymond Aston, defector from the CIA to the KGB, and the traitor responsible for the Trioxin barrels being misplaced on their way back to Darrow Chemical.

The Soviets using a zombie outbreak against the United States is a neat idea that belongs in another movie, or novel in this case. The fits into Russo's world; this Italian Catholic really hates those godless Commie bastards. Aston and two fellow traitors from Her Majesty's Secret Service are introduced in a dacha outside Moscow sipping vodka and chuckling evilly about their countrymen they duped as their hot young Russian wives busy themselves. Really! Aston is the only one who can't enjoy the revelry completely, since "Operation Drummer Boy" is still in effect and the drums are still waiting to be cracked open so the zombie apocalpyse can begin in America's heartland. How does he know this?

"We live well out here," said McClean, trying to convince himself as much as the others. "Exceptionally well. Where else would we have such lovely wives, twenty years younger than ourselves, and without their pretty little heads screwed up by the Women's Liberation Movement and other decadent capitalist nonsense?" "I'll drink to that!" said Aston, and they all had a toast and a laugh. "I still don't see," Burgess mused, "how Zotov could be so sure that the drums haven't been discovered. The CIA probably located them and got rid of them by now...safely decontaminated. They wouldn't want us to know, of course, so they probably planted planted a bit of disinformation, and Zotov is falling for it." "Do you honestly believe the First Director is that stupid?" Aston sneered. "I can disabuse you of that notion. Six months ago, KGB agents in America surreptitiously entered the warehouse of the medical supply company in Louisville. They inspected the drums and their contents. The corpses are still inside. But the drums are old, corroded, and ready to crack."


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?

This Russian invasion into the world of Return of the Living Dead is placed where the introduction of Col. Glover/Grover would be in the movie, right after we see the yellow cadaver in Uneeda's freezer room start twitching to life. The colonel doesn't show up until after Frank makes his "We have a little problem" phone call to Burt in the office, and just before the scene when Legs/Trash does her naked graveyard dance.

The rearrangement works for the purposes of the novel's pacing, but thematically I really disapprove of the added importance. One of the great jokes in O'Bannon's screenplay is the arbitrariness of the inciting incident: if Freddy hadn't asked about "the weirdest thing" Frank ever saw come through Uneeda, or even if Frank hadn't been so boastful about the US Army Corps of Engineers' ability to make leak-proof barrels, the entire crisis could've been averted. More critically, the fact Russo changes the mishandling of the Trioxin from a "typical army fuck-up" to an elaborate conspiracy totally subverts the anti-authority satire whose punchline is the nuking of Louisville. He even denotes at one point that if Frank and Freddy had called the 1-800 number stenciled on the side of the tank when the gas first leaked, things might have been okay - if not for Frank and Freddy's health (or Bert's reputation) then at least for Louisville, Kentucky.


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..."

Return of the Living Dead, the novel based on the unofficial sequel film and written by the co-author of the original Night of the Living Dead is more or less the compromise one can expect from such a circular lineage. Russo's sensibilities are as uptight and formal as O'Bannon's were irreverent, and every little disapproving tut-tut towards the most lovable band of punks ever captured on film - horror or otherwise - reinforces the lost sense of fun that O'Bannon's film brings to every scene. If anything, Russo's novel shows that the film could have been a very straight forward and humorless affair. When Russo adds jokes of his own, they show how awful the humor could have been if not for O'Bannon's deadpan wit and practical sense of how funny trying to deal with an absurdly bad situation can be, until - because it's truly a horror story - things really get worse beyond repair.

When all is accounted for, the standout chapter of Russo's O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead is probably his rendering of Col. Grover and his long suffering wife Ethel. I believe amongst all of the colorful characters Dan O'Bannon cooked up for his unforgettable masterwork, Russo feels most strongly about the guy who hates Commies, drinks too much, and had his career stymied by circumstances beyond his control. Just read the sympathy towards disappointment and bitterness, it's hilarious:

He liked living elegantly, much as it galled him to have his expensive tastes paid for by a woman he no longer loved. He was a bitter, disappointed man, greedy without being shrewd, ambitious without being clever. He didn't even care much for his mistress, who was quite plain. Rather than thinking that he might attract someone prettier if he lost weight an improved his own disposition and outlook, his idea was that he could afford to shack up with a nicer piece if he could spend more money on her, but there was a limit to how much knocking around he could get away with as long as his wife controlled the purse strings...

...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.

4 comments:

Al said...

I enjoy your blog (especially that Toy Story 3 review). You should check out Joseph Kahn's Detention in Burbank's AMC 6 before it disappears on Friday. It applies Robert Altman satire to a Scream/Donnie Darko premise to visualize the cultural overexposure you talk about here.

L. T. Quinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
L. T. Quinn said...

So how much different is the 1978 novelization from the one Russo adapted from the screenplay? I was always curious, because I learned the story about the different novels a long time ago. The fact that the whole project was put together by that Chicago investor Tom Fox makes the whole thing that much more interesting.

I think Russo counted on no one reading his novels, because it seems like adapted each of his scripts (I'm positive he did this with his script for Midnight in 1980). However, there are still a few copies of the original "Return" still floating around in circulation, because you could sometimes find them on Amazon.com

Zidders Roofurry said...

Y'know, I was with you until I got to this point-" given merely 3 stars by a certain film critic who had his lower jaw removed so he could give better head to Hollywood."

...really? The guy got cancer. Attack his reviews and opinions all you want but that was low and a shitty thing to say.