When George A. Romero directed Night of the Living Dead, it is safe to say that he had no idea what the fuck he was getting into. There was no way of knowing that this micro-budget monster movie would become one of the most important horror films of the twentieth century, literally spawning a brand new genre of fiction and launching a dizzying web of sequels, spin-offs, and imitators. (For a handy visual representation of just how out-of-hand it all got, check out Den of Geek’s awesome flowchart.) At the time, it was just Romero and his twenty-something hippie friends, holing up in a Pittsburgh farmhouse and trying to make the best movie they could. As such, they didn’t take into account some of the finer points of the entertainment industry. This manifested most infamously in their failure to secure a proper copyright, allowing their million-dollar baby to instantly fall into the public domain. It also led to tensions down the road, when talk came to the possibility of a sequel. Romero had an idea, but co-screenwriter John Russo felt entitled to a piece of the pie. As so often happens, things got messy and eventually went to court.
In one of Hollywood’s most baroque, King Solomon–esque rulings, Romero was granted rights to any official sequels to Night of the Living Dead, while Russo was given custody of the Living Dead name itself. This worked out fine for Romero; he came up with the equally iconic title Dawn of the Dead and wound up cranking out a masterpiece that rivaled the original. Russo, however, was left in a trickier spot: How do you keep making “Living Dead” movies without any actual narrative links to Night of the Living Dead?
To solve this, Russo called on Dan O’Bannon, the maverick screenwriter behind John Carpenter’s Dark Star, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, and Ridley Scott’s Alien. O’Bannon’s solution was ingenious: In the “real world” of Return of the Living Dead, NOTLD exists as a fictionalized account of an actual zombie outbreak. Far from being a full-fledged apocalypse, the “real” version was quickly contained and covered up by the military . . . except one of the frozen zombies was accidentally shipped to a medical supply warehouse, where it’s sat as a conversation piece for the past 20 years. Needless to say, said zombie doesn’t stay frozen long, leading to a comedy of errors which quickly escalates toward an actual zombie apocalypse.
What sets ROTLD apart from the other 27 films on that chart is its wit; there have been many zom-coms over the years, but, with the possible exception of Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, none have been nearly as clever. Much attention is given to the hysterically over-the-top punk rockers who unwisely decide to party in the cemetery (particularly Linnea Quigley’s glowering, oft-nude femme fatale), but the film’s heart is in its older protagonists: Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Don Calfa play wry, wizened professionals who banter playfully and try to keep a handle on things, even as they have no idea what they’re doing.
Yet for all its irony and deconstruction, Return also granted zombie lore with one of its most famous aspects. The ghouls of Night of the Living Dead are iconic, but they’re also mute and will eat any old part of you they can get ahold of. It’s O’Bannon’s zombies, and none previously, who specifically—and vocally—hunger for braaaaains. A fitting legacy for one of the smartest films of the genre.
Return of the Living Dead
dir. Dan O’Bannon
Screens at the Coolidge Corner Theatre Friday, 5/1 and Saturday, 5/2 at midnight.