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.
The Evil Dead "franchise" (God, how we hate that term!) has wandered all over the map in plot, tone, and mythology, from energetically terrifying (like Evil Dead 2) to wonderfully goofy (like Army of Darkness) to consistently enjoyable, if not exactly groundbreaking (like Ash vs. Evil Dead). And though Evil Dead Rise has little or no direct connection to the plot of characters of the core story or the 2013 remake, it has some of the same manic energy and gleeful gore of the core films -- a welcome return to form.
Now we've got at least three separate Evil Dead 'threads' that could continue: Ash's original and continuing adventures (Come on, Bruce! More!) ... whatever happens next to ** of the 2013 remake ... and now the 'mother and daughter team (we know, we know) of deadite-destroyers from Evil Dead Rise. And we want it all.
Aubrey Plaza’s deadpan, off-kilter, unpredictable manic energy seems perfectly suited for horror in general and the Zombie World in particular. And though Life After Beth had a whole bunch’a problems, Plaza – as usual – never fail to impress.
As one critic put it, “It's an age-old story. Boy loses girl. Boy finds girl. Boy realizes girl is undead.” And that basically sums up the premise. Conceived by writer/director Jeff Baena (Horse Girl,I Heart Huckabees), who also by pure coincidence happens to be married to Aubrey Plaza, the story doesn’t follow any classic zombie rules. Beth herself – killed by a snake bite – remains coherent for a long time, though increasingly hot-tempered and violent, until things get truly out of control in the third act.
Not a big hit, not terribly well-received, it seems to have more in common with “bedroom community” zomromcoms like Fidoor Warm Bodies than it does with Night of the Living Dead. But Plaza carries it well and – for the most part – makes it work. She’s also aided and abetted by an astonishingly strong supporting cast, from Dane DeHaan to John C. Reilliy to Molly Shannon and Cheryl Hines and Paul Reiser and Matthew Gray Gubler and Anna Kendrick – Anna Kendrick! -- as the ‘final girl,’ of a sort.
Some good laughs, some memorable moments (love that refrigerator!) and a ‘must-have’ for the Aubrey Plaza completist, this one’s worth a few drinks and a lounge on some quiet Saturday night.
Bruce Campbell turned 65 in late June, and he sent out a great pic to remind us of just what a legend he is – not just in Zombie World, but all over the place. Speaking zombierifically, here are some of the high spots worth looking at as we celebrate @GroovyBruce in all his glory:
It all began with Evil Dead 2 (1987), where deadites and Ash and his chain-saw arm all first appeared – each one unquestionably a zombie icon (Evil Dead , the first one, was just… a preview)
It was a few years before Ash would return in Arny of Darkness (1992), when Ash was pushed into some skewed version of the Middle Ages to fight a whole different kind of deadites with his boomstick. By far the funniest (intentionally) of the whole ED set, and filled with more good memes than all the others combined.
Bubba Ho Tep (2002) deserves a mention as well. Let’s not get into the whole, “are mummies zombies?” thing – not here, anyway! -- but it’s clearly an alternate-universe story about at least one impressive character – and maybe others? -- returning from death (or never really leaving in the first place). If you haven’t experienced this half-hidden classic about an old, old man who may or may not be Elvis Presley in a fight against an abandoned mummy in an old age home, joined by a black man who claims to have the brain of John F. Kennedy – yes, we know, it’s odd – then you have not truly lived. Based on an equally toothsome (literally) novella by the equally legendary Joe R. Lansdale, this cracked gem will live in your heart and your brain for a long time.
There were video games and cameos and a crazy amount of work for the years in between and after, but Campbell didn’t return to Zombie World until relatively recently, with three seasons of the remarkably energetic series, Ash v. Evil Dead (2015-2018) Ash is older and maybe a little wiser (or at least world-weary), but not too wise to keep from getting caught up in yet another round of deadites from the Necronomicon. The series is reinforced by a great supporting cast, including the awesome Lucy Lawless for most of the episodes. We can always hope for more.
And most recently, a very different Bruce Campbell – complete with a truly ugly walrus mustache – joined with a strange new crew to fight an entirely different kind of zombie outbreak in Black Friday (2021). This time he’s a doughy late-middle-aged guy who has to be dragged kicking and screaming into defending the Walmart-like ‘big box’ store he’s sworn to manage and defend on – you guessed it – Black Friday. It’s clever and fast-paced, and it’s nice to see Campbell back facing the risen dead, even as he embraces his age (especially since he played an even older version of himself in Bubba Ho Tep, twenty years earlier).
Meanwhile, Evil Dead and the character of Ash himself have spawned multiple spin-offs and a near-infinite amount of merch. Apart from the 2013 remake of Evil Dead and the recent well-received ‘side story, Evil Dead Rise, there are graphic novels, posters, and even door mats and decals. Among our favorite Ash-centered items:
The Evil Dead Canvas Art Print is 16”x24”, printed on canvas rather than paper. Waterproof, moisture-proof, and durably colorful. You can even request alternate sizes with a single email.
The Evil Dead: 40th Anniversary Edition Graphic Novel. Mark Verheiden, a long-time comics writer and part of the Ash vs Evil Dead creative team, teamed up with innovative and exciting comics artist John Bolton in this slightly brain-blasting “expansion” of the film. And this fancy 40th-anniversary edition even includes an afterword from Mark Verheiden. (Other versions are available too, including an ebook version).
And from the far outfield:
The Ash/Evil Dead Decal, a 5.5” tall silhouette decal. Great for cars, laptops, tablets, skateboards, or a close personal friend. Available in a variety of colors.
Funko POP Pop! Evil Dead Ash Figurine
How can he look so innocent and yet be so deadly? Even the chainsaw is cute! 3.75”, styles may vary slightly. Whether this is your first or your fiftieth FUNKO, any Evil Dead fan has to have it.
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.