The strange story of Return of the Living Dead and bringing the punk hero to horror.
1985’s Return of the Living Dead did a lot of things to expand on the modern cinema interpretation of the zombie (eating brains, fast zombies, and even talking), but the film also helped to define another trope within the genre: the punk. What made the punks of ROTLD different from other 80s movies is that they are main characters and some of them are even the heroes.
The History of The Return of the Living Dead
Return of the Living Dead has a complicated history. The project began as a treatment for an alternate sequel to Night of the Living Dead. We all know that the sequel to Night was Romero’s 1978 mall-roaming, gore-fest, Dawn of the Dead, but some people didn’t think George should be the only person to follow up the original.
Many people forget that a big part of Night getting made is that it was the product of a collective. Image Ten was a partnership of ten individuals that were investors in the project. At the core of that group were the collaborators that worked to create the feature film that we all love today. Three members of that collective were John Russo (co-screenwriter and actor), Russ Streiner (producer and actor), and Rudy Ricci (actor in both Night [ghoul] and Dawn [lead biker]). The three of them formed their own company and decided to work together to come up with their idea for a sequel to Night.
Quite famously, in this period Russo and Romero split as collaborators and legally decide that as the writers of the original film, they could both create their own series of films. Russo retains the “of the Living Dead” moniker and Romero uses the “of the Dead” names. This is a rift that took years to repair, but thankfully the long-time friends reunited at fan events over the years and eventually reconciled their differences (or at least chose to accept each other’s decisions were in the past and agreed to move on).
That script that was created by Russo, Streiner, and Ricci was eventually shopped around and years later would end up with Orion pictures. Orion brought in Dan O’Bannon, who had written the screenplays for John Carpenter’s first feature, Dark Star, Ridley Scott’s ground-breaking Alien, and Gary Sherman’s unfortunately often forgotten Dead & Buried. O’Bannon was tasked to write a new script for originally slated director Tobe Hooper, of Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame.
When Hooper had to exit in order to make Lifeforce, O’Bannon was giving the option to give directing a try. So now the project was completely overhauled and helmed by O’Bannon. It was Dan O’Bannon that brought the punks into the story, perhaps as a way to bring it up to date and appeal to a younger audience.
The movie we end up with is actually very far from what the trio of men from Night had intended, but their names were still attached to link the two films together. The two stories are so different, in fact, that Russo wrote novels based on both screenplays! Knowing how long it could take to get a film off the ground, Russo decided to put out a book based on the treatment for Return all the way back in 1978 (when Dawn came out).
When the ROTLD movie finally comes out, and Russo realizes that it’s so unlike the original book, he gets the rights to make a novel based on O’Bannon’s script. In fact, if you see Russo at a convention today, you will see that he actually has more books for sale than movies. Return put him on the path of making stories in print that did not require a budget, crew or cast. He has dozens of not just fiction, but also instructional books on filmmaking available today.
Punks vs Zombies
The cast of Return is made up of the middle-aged men that own and operate the local businesses (the Uneeda Medical Supply Facility and the local Morgue), as well as a group of teenagers that are bored and looking for something to do on a hot summer day. The bridge between these two groups is young Freddy, who is on his first day at the job over at Uneeda. By the time Freddy’s friends meet up with the three older men, all hell has broken loose. The canister has been breached, the smoke from the crematorium has been let loose in the atmosphere and the acid rain has raised the dead in the nearby cemetery.
These are not the best of times to introduce two groups of people. The punks are on the run from the dead and the older men are trying to deal with the two that have poisoned themselves in the basement and are slowly dying. We get the feeling that the meeting of these groups may have gone worse if the situation hadn’t been so dire. The audience is made to feel like there is no way everyone would have gotten along due to the gap in age and ideals.
Punks as villains was already a common trope in the 1980s. With movies like Class of 1984, video games like Double Dragon, and tv shows like Miami Vice; growing up in the 80s meant seeing villains with animal print pants, leather jackets, and green mohawks. Punks were all over entertainment in the 80s and 90s, but they were not put in a good light. So many cartoons and sitcoms would have punks representing the bad kids, while movies like The Terminator and Friday the 13th Part 8: Jason Takes Manhattan would throw a few punks in to show the audience that we were in the big, bad city.
Usually, punks were assumed to be violent gang members that sold drugs and roughed people up for fun. It was not common to see a punk protagonist that seemed like a good person. Some stand-out films, like Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia, were counter-culture and usually independently made. These were films about punks, for punks and these tended to be stories about kids who were lost and their friends would become their new families.
So what is great about the attitude that Return of the Living Dead takes towards their punk characters is that they are both fun and worth cheering on. Everyone can relate to being a broke teenager with nothing to do, so even if Trash likes to get naked in the cemetery and Suicide is a little intense, the audience isn’t repulsed by them. Instead we can relate to them and want to see them survive…of course that doesn’t happen, but that is not their fault.
What really makes ROTLD a true classic is how much fun we have watching the punks team up with the rest of the cast to try to fight back against the reanimated dead. We cheer when Spider fights off a zombie. We gasp when Scuz and Suicide get chomped on. We feel for Casey when she asks Chuck to hold her. We scream at Tina to run when Freddy turns. The fact that we care about the well-being of the punks in the film is a testament to the filmmaker’s ability to make them more than just the cardboard cutouts we had been used to seeing.
In the end, that is all I can ask of any horror movie regardless of who the protagonists are. Horror as a genre relies on the audience caring enough about the main characters enough to hope that they survive. If a horror movie can’t do that then, at least to me, it fails. That is why I love Return of the Living Dead, because every time I watch, I still hope that the punks will make it out alive…and then the senator hits that damn button. At least the rain will help to wash away the radiation.
If you would like to hear more about the original concept for Return of the Living Dead, check out the author’s interview with John Russo from the series indie/cult/horror on YouTube.