On July 3, 1984, at the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, foreman Frank Johnson tried to impress his new employee Freddy by showing him some ancient storage drums from the U.S. military filled with toxic gas called Trioxin. Unfortunately, he accidentally leaked some of the gas, and it founds it way to some nearby corpses (?), causing the spawning of a whole new generation of stupid, semi-fast zombies – the real zombies, not the ‘fake’ ones from George Romero’s movie – with a small but useful vocabulary and a taste for brains.
Yes, it’s true: July 3, 2023 is the 39th anniversary of the ‘historical event’ that led to a whole string of ‘funny zombie’ action thrillers, beginning with the surprisingly entertaining Return of the Living Dead (1985) and stumbling, inevitably, into a string of increasingly unsuccessful and inconsistent sequels.
Return was directed by Dan O’Bannon, who by that point had directed only one other film, but had been involved, one way or another, in everything from Dark Star to Alien to Star Wars to Blue Thunder. He went on to great work as a writer and/or director on projects ranging from Lifeforce to Invaders From Mars to Total Recall to Screamers, Bleeders, and Alien vs. Predator, until his death in 2009. But this was his big break. And the movie is crowded with classic character actors of the day as well, including James Karan and Clu Gulager – two middle-aged men whose faces you’ll recognize the instant you see them (and Gulager’s son went on to be a horror director of some merit himself.)
The plot here is thin as the skin on a walker: toxic gas is accidentally released, converting some nearby corpses into zombies who, in turn, can convert the living with a bite or scratch. Hilarity ensues, at least for a few hours, until Louisville is overrun. Then, on the Fourth of July 1984, the military ‘solves’ the problem by destroying the city with a nuclear bomb… which, in fact, just makes matters worse, as the end-credit “ending” implies. Damn that pesky radioactive toxic rain!
How did all this come to be? Well, after a lengthy and too-boring-to-bother-discussing legal battle, the co-creators of the original Night of the Living Dead – George A. Romero and John Russo – finally came to an agreement that Romero could go make his own zombie movies and use the term “Dead” in the titles (and, as it happened, times of day) without any legal hassles from Russo. Russo, on the other hand, could make zombie movies with the term “Living Dead” and not get hassled by Romero. They had entirely different ‘takes’ on the creatures, as you can see from the various “Dead” vs “Living Dead” movies that ensued, and after a small but persistent rash of “Living Dead” films, the Russo line faded away in 2005. The first sequel, Return of the Living Dead Part II, showed up in 1988, and changed the rules about killing this version of zombies (electrocution works? Cool!). Return of the Living Dead III (1993) was produced and directed by Brian Yuzna, who’d done great work on the Re-Animator series. It goes more serious and goth-metal-punky, but it bombed big-time at the box office.
There are a variety of other movies with “Living Dead” in the title during and after this set, as Russo gradually lost control (or interest?) in the brand – Flight, Day, Age, Virgin, Hell, City – but none are connected to this timeline and none are, frankly, worth the time. John Russo himself is still with us; he'll celebrate his 84th birthday in September.
There is, however, a pretty damn good documentary about the making of the first film, More Brains: Return to the Living Dead, with interviews from tons of people and some pretty amusing anecdotes.
Today, Return (the first one, only the first one!) is still pretty damned amusing and has a legit place in zom-culture history. For one thing, this is one of the first times that we get a “scientific” explanation for the walking dead. The original NotLD made a two-sentence pass at maybe saying it was radiation or a satellite or somethin’, then retreated in “Dead” sequels to the religious/supernatural raison d’etre:
“When there’s no more room in Hell, the dead will walk the earth.”
But in Return and its sequels, it was clearly a toxic gas that caused it. Good ol’ Trioxin. Since then, toxic waste or industrial accidents in general has become a mainstay in ‘scientific zombie' movies, whether it’s gas or waste products or bad food, or even a downed satellite. The viral alternative, a la 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead, would come even later. But here’s where “it’s bad science, and it’s the government’s fault” began.
Additionally, the now-often quoted (often to a ridiculous degree) desire of speaking zombies yearning for, “Brains! Brains!” started with Return. Apparently, the brain-parts make the unendurable pain of reanimation slightly less… unendurable? Whatever: the hunger endures, and so does the quote.
For these reasons alone, 1985’s Return of the Living Dead deserves a spot on the “essentials” shelf of any zombie aficionado. Not the best zombie movie you’ll ever see, and certainly not the best thing O’Bannon ever came up with, but.. a keeper.
Ex-Heroes: A great series of Super-Heroes v. Zombies novels
Movie / Shambler / Years After the Apocalypse
What comics fan hasn’t asked themselves, Who would win a fight between Superman or the Hulk? By the same token, what comics or zombie fan hasn’t wondered how the cape types would fare against the walking dead if it ever came to that.
From 2013 to 2016, novelist Peter Clines had a hell of a good time answering that question while building a whole pantheon of convincing stretch-suiters along the way, in a series of novels from Broadway Books that are, quite basically, Superheroes vs. Zombies taken to the logical extreme. It's called the Ex-Heroes Series.
They’re fast, frequently funny, often bloody and both exciting and tragic, as we follow the superheroes who fight a losing battle against the hordes of the shambling dead and their extremely noisy teeth – your basic virus-based biters that have taken over whole cities, whole countries, and left the last few humans cowering behind a dwindling number of walled compounds. Many of the characters continue from book to book – books with totally cool names like Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communciation, and our personal favorite, Ex-Purgatory. And plenty more die heroic and occasionally pointless deaths. There’s no true ending to the timeline, and we can always hope for more, though Clines has gone on to best-seller status with his non-zombie-ish Threshold series. Still, you can spend plenty of happy hours following the dark adventures of Stealth, Zzzap, The Mighty Dragon, and the rest.
Pretty much anything by Peter Clines is worth the read. You can check out his full repertoire here. Exactly what you’d expect from the one-time prop master of Psycho Beach Party.
Even big-time zombie movie fans may have mostly missed Fido. It came and went with barely a whisper back in 2006, maybe because of its Canadian origins and poor distribution; maybe because nobody knew what to make of it. Is it a comedy? A satire? A skewed love story? Tor is it, in fact, a skewed sequel to Romero’s classicNight of the Living Dead (1968)? That’s still a good question, but there’s no doubt this is one of the least expected and most watchable of the “dark comedies” to come out of the genre… and it might be brand new to the zomfan in your life (or unlife).
Comedian and satirist Billy Connolly is virtually unrecognizable as Fido, the domesticated zombie “contracted” to Carrie-Anne Moss‘s family. They’re part of a bizarre alternative America in which radiation brought about the rising of the dead in the early Fifties, it seems, and led to a long-ago, hard-won set of “zombie wars.” Now the world, or at least as much as we see of it, is a weirdly static Perfect 1950’s World, kept that way by the ubiquitous ZomCom Corporation (you have to love that name!) that created electronic collars that allow the calming and control of your classic Romero slow zombies with the touch of a button. And that’s what Fido is – just one of the shuffling, voiceless, undead slaves in this odd world – until the family he’s working for develops an equally odd affection for him. Then the collar malfunctions and Fido kills a neighbor (who deserved it, but still …
From the beginning, Fido is not what you expect, and the entire presentation – from the off-puttingly realistic Fifties Paradise to the performances of Moss, Connolly, Dylan Baker (currently in Hunters) and the rest, are flawless and devoid of any wink-wink nudge-nudge to the audience. It’s a shame Fido’s been nearly forgotten since its appearance fifteen years ago, but that can change with a click… and it should. We’re willing to bet you’ll like this hidden gem.
All Cheerleaders Die: A Darkly Comic, Bloody Revenge Flick with Smart Zombies
Not everybody loves this movie – you can look at the Rotten Tomatoes and MetaCritic numbers and see that – and part of its appeal is definitely just the name and notion. Come on: zombie cheerleaders? You have to love it. But we tend to agree with the WeGotThisCovered review, who called All Cheerleaders Die“mindless and contrived”, but also admitted it was a “witching, bitching good time.”
One interesting production point: The semi-legendary grim-and-bloody horror auteur Lucky McKee first made this movie in 2001 when he was fresh out of film school, and liked the idea so much he remade it in 2013. The first version was a pretty straightforward (and not terribly interesting) bloodfest; in the newer edition, there’s a whole team of cheerleaders killed by heartless football players who are brought back to life with Wiccan magic, and who work together to avenge their deaths by knocking off the jocks and their minions one by one. And yes, there’s a wide-open “The End??” ending that begs for a sequel that unfortunately has never shown up.
Wedecided to include it here, and give it a solid “Adequate” rating, partly for its sheer Australian exuberance, but mostly just for the idea itself… and if you happen to have a cheerleader-type in the fam, this could be a great little gift.