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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Van of the Dead Book Review: The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead by Christian Sellers and Gary Smart

The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead - Christian Sellers and Gary Smart
2010 Plexus Publishing Limited
Ray Van Horn, Jr.

Though filmed and completed in 1984, Dan O'Bannon's The Return of the Living Dead became one of the horror breakout sucesses of the following year and time would remain friendly to it, marking O'Bannon's farcical zombie romp one of the all-time genre classics. You have to wonder, though, if you were around when The Return of the Living Dead came out, how it got an R rating and made the proper connection with Gen X teens who went in droves to catch it. Return commercially beat out its prime competitors of the day such as Re-Animator, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn and Day of the Dead, all of which were released to the theaters unrated and thus ostracized from their core audience. History shows the latter three films were all financial wrecks due to their creators' unwillingness to bend to the MPAA, yet Re-Animator and Evil Dead 2 are likewise considered masterworks of modern horror, while Day of the Dead has both its supporters and detractors.

Return of the Living Dead danced its way to a full recoup of its investment within its opening week. Dance would be the appropriate word as the MPAA allowed a buck naked Linnea Quigley to hip shake atop a sepulchure, clad only in leg warmers and a riotous cherry red punk do. What O'Bannon's film managed to get away with in Return should be enough to fill a book examining his film. You're talking brain munching, cranium tearing, the axe-picking and subsequent sawing off of a head, more nudity than your average R film permits and a talking half corpse complete with shimmying spinal cord and decomposed breasts.

Gonzo stuff, but one might assume the directors of O'Bannon's competition weren't so much pissed his film became a hit, but how the MPAA passed it through with an R rating.

Still, The Return of the Living Dead is a hallmark horror film because it pushed the boundaries between gore and titillation, yes, but moreover, it got away with something very few splat movies have been able to match, save for Evil Dead 2, Army of Darkness, Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead: playing the satirical trump card. Too bad the same couldn't be said for the dreadful Return of the Living Dead II, one of this writer's personal filmgoing disappointments--albeit Brian Yuzna's third Return film hit the proper mark.

British authors Christian Sellers and Gary Smart take on the enviable task of assembling the big picture, not only behind O'Bannon's landmark film, but the entire five film saga under the Return label. The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead is a horror genre and filmmaking bible which fascinates at every page turn. The photos alone are worth the pick-up, because Sellers and Smart gained access to many behind-the-scenes treasures, complete with a hilarious shot of Clu Gulager and James Karen posing with a topless Linnea Quigley wearing her ghoul mask. Gulager has reportedly been on the hunt for this photo for many years and we're all now privy to it, courtesy of Sellers and Smart, who acquired it from still photographer Rory Flynn (daughter of Errol).

While Sellers and Smart do rely heavily on their transcripts in The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead, this is still a pretty intelligent layout of all five films with a hard lean towards the original, naturally. The authors dig up varying points-of-view behind the aura of Dan O'Bannon. Ofted cited by many as tyrannical and violent (and at one point officially fired from Return, though only on paper), other opinions behind the director of Alien and Return stick up for the man. Sellers and Smart uncork anecdotes stating O'Bannon was subject to temper tantrums which included derision of the actors and chair throwing. He also fired original effects man William Munns, albeit the book finds enough support from O'Bannon's crew to back his decision to hand the zombie reins over to Kenny Myers, who would "return" himself in the first sequel. Only Myers' outstanding zombie sculpting validates Return of the Living Dead II, particularly since the sequel had but a handful of extras who played multiple zombies, including main undead Brian Peck, who played punk rocker Scuz in the original film. Peck also has a quick cameo in the opening of Return III and he pens this book's introduction.

On the flipside, many of the actors found camaraderie with O'Bannon and later, Brian Yuzna on the third film. Ken Weiderhorn had the confidence of some of his staff on the second movie, yet the final results of his attempt to out-slapstick O'Bannon became a genre disaster. Perhaps it was O'Bannon's teetering psyche that gave the first movie its edge and its verve. Shot largely in the same building posing as the Uneeda warehouse, the film crew's offices were likewise encased inside, keeping the sets and internal affairs largely on lockdown. It's no wonder O'Bannon might've been at flashpoint, yet no one will argue his results.

The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead gets into the crafting of the famous "Tarman" and the half-corpse from the original film, plus Kenny Myer's ghoul pals from Return II, including the notorious split ghoul, which was played by an amputee with no legs, and Brian Peck's goofy Michael Jackson zombie. Ditto for Steve Johnson's effective do-ups on Melinda Clarke, who will forever haunt zombie fans as Goth hottie Julie Walker from Return III.

The last two Return of the Living Dead films (Necropolis and Rave to the Grave) are touched upon as a formality, but the summation from co-writer William Butler (who was impaled by Jason in Friday the 13th Part VII) on those two films sums up his anguish over the final turnout of his script (co-written with Aaron Strongoni): "Disappointed can't even begin to describe what I was feeling. I went from being on Cloud Nine to wanting to hang myself because it was a massive deal for Aaron and I." Attempting to bridge Necropolis to the third film by using Julie's parents as zombiological weapons, the film and its successor went with a larger thud then Return II, despite some killer makeup and effects work on Necropolis.

The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead is one of the more comprehensive overviews of a zombie series since Paul R. Gagne's 1987 salute to George A. Romero with The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh. Getting much deeper into the stories behind the first three Return sets and some of the politics behind them is fascinating stuff. You have to feel for Don Calfa who came close to stealing the show in the first Return (there were many scene-stealers in the original) and was rebuffed from joining the cast of the second film when Thom Matthews and James Karen had been called back to reinvent their roles. Calfa had read for Doc Mandel in Return II, which ended up going to Philip Bruns. The sad part is, a controversy still lies (as suggested by Sellers and Smart) over whether director Ken Weiderhorn actually remembered Calfa's audition or not.

While only two of the three Return of the Living Dead films made an actual impact (who wasn't affected by Julie's constant puncturing and slicing of herself in Return III?), the reinvention of George Romero's halcyon Night of the Living Dead--as envisioned by Romero's shotgun rider John Russo--becamse the stuff of legend. While many horror fans of the day were confused by Russo and O'Bannon's titling of the first Return of the Living Dead, history has shown the duo created an effective and affecting piece of cinematic splatter art that holds up today.

The soundtrack for the first film alone with The Cramps, The Damned, SSQ, The Flesh Eaters, T.S.O.L. and 45 Grave is immortal unto itself. The image of Linnea Quigley's death-absorbed "Trash" grinding ass to SSQ's "Tonight (We'll Make Love Until We Die)" is a daring image no one will ever forget. Only Linnea sticking a lipstick tube into her nipple in the original Night of the Demons surpasses such bravado--or being impaled upon deer antlers with her yabbas on full display yet again in Silent Night, Deadly Night, for that matter.

Russo's original concept from his 1978 novel Return of the Living Dead is hardly the same story we got on film. Tobe Hooper had first been contacted to helm Return but O'Bannon later got the job. You have to wonder what if? Had a script been developed off of Russo's novel with Hooper directing it, would it have made film history?

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