Return of the Living Dead

Year: 1985
Director: Dan O’Bannon
IMDB Link:


An often underrated horror movie from the 1980s, Return of the Living Dead was a milestone in the zombie apocalypse genre.  It was the first film to feature zombies obsessed with the consumption of human brains, and it also showed the first true “fast” zombies with intelligence.

The movie is about two bumbling workers at a medical supply warehouse who accidentally release “2-4-5 Trioxin” causing the dead to rise.  The movie has a very campy atmosphere and never takes itself too seriously, which is a stark contrast to the effects, which are extremely detailed and gory.  It’s this dichotomy that makes the movie work so well – you never know whether to laugh or scream.

The story begins when veteran Uneeda Medical Supply worker Frank (James Karen) shows newbie Freddy (Thom Matthews) around the warehouse and decides to show the kid the strangest thing in the place, metal drums in the basement accidentally delivered by the military years earlier.  The drums contain the shriveled remains of victims of “2-4-5 Trioxin,” which Frank claims was the basis of the movie Night of the Living Dead.  Frank demonstrates the structural integrity of the cylinders, causing a leak that blasts him and Freddy with the deadly gas (and also releases Tar Man).  As the gas circulates through the ventilation system, a corpse in cold storage comes to life, as do various medical displays, such as the split dogs.

After waking and discovering the empty container, Frank and Freddy panic and call their boss, Burt, who arrives in time to help them deal with the yellow corpse.  Unfortunately, destroying the brain does not stop these zombies, nor does decapitation, so they decide to take the chopped up (and still moving) body parts over to the next door crematorium.

Meanwhile, outside Freddy’s friends hang out at the cemetery while waiting for Freddy to get off work.  The teens, mostly punk rockers, party and dance.

Burt convinces his old friend (and possible Nazi) Ernie to cremate the remains.  The resulting smoke is absorbed by the clouds above, and the Trioxin rains down on the cemetery.  Frank and Freddy, meanwhile, continue to deteriorate, visibly becoming sicker as time goes on until Ernie finally calls the paramedics.

Outside, the kids are attacked by the rising dead, who all hunger for brains.  Some of them escape to the warehouse and encounter Tar Man.  Realizing Freddy must be at the crematorium, his girlfriend, Tina (Beverly Randolph) and Spider (Miguel Nunez, who went on to make the much scarier Juwanna Mann) race there, pursued by the zombies.

The paramedics arrive and discover that both Frank and Freddy are, basically, dead.  They have no pulse, are room temperature, and show no pupillary response.  However, they are both still very much “alive” which stumps the medics.  The zombies attack, much mayhem ensues including both paramedics being killed and a zombie using the radio to request, “Send…more…paramedics.”  The group also learns why the zombies want to eat brains – it eases the pain of being dead.

In the end, Frank crawls into an incinerator to avoid becoming a zombie, Freddy turns and tries to eat Tina, Spider calls the military, and the whole area is hit with a small nuclear bomb, which only serves to further spread the Trioxin.

Although the movie wasn’t considered anything particularly special and was followed up by a pair of dud sequels, it did cement the idea of zombies wanting to eat brains into the collective unconsciousness.  One of Dan O’Bannon’s finest films, making the story “real” was the idea of Tobey Hooper, director of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Poltergeist.

The movie spent years in limbo after an unsuccessful VHS release and it was only due to a fan campaign that it finally was released on DVD.  It can often be found in bargain bins for $10 or less, and so is a great deal for the horror film buff as this movie is a must have for any collection.

One thought on “Return of the Living Dead

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  1. I love this movie. While it is most definitely a divergence from the classic zombies, it did add a lot to the culture of zombies. Where would we be without “braaaaains.” But I think this movie holds up as a great farce of the horror genre at large.
    I actually reviewed this movie too on my new blog. I would love to hear from another critic. Too see if my review holds up.

    Check it out if you could. 😉

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