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.
Native Americans vs. Zombies in a Grim, Effective Film
Movie / Post-Apocalypse / Underrated
With so many low-budget zombie movies sneaking in through streaming services or film festivals, it’s easy to miss unexpected quality and creativity when it appears. Here’s an example.
Blood Quantum (sorry, kind of an awful and pretty much inexplicable name) has your standard virus-based flesh-eaters, and the opening scenes that establish it are deceptively familiar. But the truly intriguing part comes after a timeshift, as we focus on the stories that rotate around the effect of the zombie apocalypse on the First Nations and an already devastated Mi’kmaq reservation – a reservation that survives because Native Americans seem to be immune to the zombie virus, maybe because of their connection to the Earth itself.
Virtually all the principle players here are Native Americans, and many of them came from and went on to fascinating careers. Elle-Maija Tailfeathersis a multi-award-winning actor, writer, producer and director; her co-star Michael Greyeyes paid his zombie-dues in multiple episodes of Fear the Walking Dead,showed up after Blood Quantum, in the not-wonderful V Wars, and was excellent in the underrated mystery series Home Before Dark. He also has the dubious distinction of playing Rainbird in the otherwise awful remake if Firestarterin 2022. No George C. Scott, maybe, but at least the part was played, more than passably well, by an actual member of the First Nations as Stephen King meant it to be. The writer and director, Jeff Barnaby, is a member of the Mi’kmaq himself, and continues his work on projects based on the realities and fantasies of native Americans, past present and future.
It’s a bleak and brutal plot and worldview, but not without good reason, and probably one of the best – and most overlooked – ‘serious’ zombie movies of the decade.
28 Weeks Later: A Good But Not Great Sequel To The Classic
Sequels are an iffy business. For every Alienor Evil Dead 2 there are half a dozen lame, tired, and uninteresting sequels to pretty great movies, even in the world of the undead. By our estimation, 28 WeeksLater falls somewhere in the middle… but then it’s got a lot to live up to when it comes to its ground-breaking predecessor.
Of course, we all want to know what happened with Rage and all of the UK after the initial outbreak. The solution to move a few months downstream seemed promising; the main plot of trying to establish a “safe zone” in the middle of deserted, infected London seemed less so. And the fact that Danny Boyle, who remained as executive producer, stepped away to direct the hugely underrated Sunshinedidn’t help.
The action is great, the jump scares are well-earned. And like the first film, it’s got a great cast, including Robert Carlyle, Rose Byrne, Jeremy Renner (hey, remember him?) and some guy named “Idris Elba“ (Look him up. He has promise.). The notion of following two impulsive and dumb-ass kids was a fairly unpopular decision, and the lack of shock and detail of the first film made most zomfans go, “Yeah, it was okay, BUT…”
Still: You could do way worse when it comes to a sequel, and there are plenty of packages where you can buy both movies together. The makings of a great movie night!A