Film: Return of the Living Dead

aka: Return Of The Living Dead Necropolis

The Return of the Living Dead (1985) is a horror-comedy film written by Dan O'Bannon, starring Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Beverly Randolph and Linnea Quigley. Return is based on the premise that Night of the Living Dead was based on actual events, caused when a gas called 2-4-5 Trioxin was released into the morgue in the basement of a VA hospital in Pittsburgh, causing the bodies to jerk around as if they were alive. Unable to contain the undead threat, the military stored the lively corpses in sealed barrels. When the story leaked out, the government allowed Night of the Living Dead to be made, but they ordered the filmmakers to alter the story and claim it was fictional.

However, due to a clerical error, a few such Barrels of Doom were shipped to a warehouse currently employing our intrepid heroes, and stored there for years. As testament to the strength and quality of the barrels, one of them springs a leak as soon as the foreman reassures his new employee of the solid military construction by slapping the side of one of them. The Trioxin gets into the cadaver freezer, animating the contents. The shambling, hungry dead escape, craving their favorite food: Brains...

The Return of the Living Dead was followed by four sequels, one of which featured a tragic romance between a boy and his zombified girlfriend.

This movie series contains the following:

General Tropes

The Return of the Living Dead
  • Adaptation Expansion: Russo's novelization adds a KGB subplot to flesh out the origin of Trioxin.
  • And I Must Scream: The zombies in the canisters are still "alive" and unable to move, trapped in a constant state of rot, unable to die and unable to ease their suffering.
  • Artistic Licence Biology: Zombies aside, rigor mortis is solely a phenomenon of muscle tissue, hence can't "start in the brain" as the first film claims. Livor mortis, yes, rigor no.
  • Asshole Victim: Suicide.
  • Barbie Doll Anatomy: The actress playing Trash (Linnea Quigley) was wearing a prosthetic crotch cover, the result of meddling executives wishing to avoid an "X" Rating.
  • Based on a Great Big Lie: An in-universe example, as the military insisted that certain elements of "the original story" be changed.
  • Batter Up: Burt decapitates Tarman (The zombie in the page picture) with a baseball bat.
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: When Trash resurfaces as a naked zombie near the end of the first film, having been (theoretically) eaten by a bunch of zombified old men... one can't help but notice a distinct lack of bite marks.
    • Remember that the zombies here are only interested in her brain, and so she should only have head wounds..
  • Berserk Button: Tarman does not like having his meals interrupted, nor does Suicide like being called spooky.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Averted. Spider, the only black member of the crew, is among the last to die at the end of the film.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Averted. Ernie's Walther P38 holds 8 rounds in the magazine and 1 round in the chamber. He fires three shots at the zombie by the ambulance, then four more at the horde trying to break through the front of the mortuary. Later he's seen trying to reload it once all the windows have been boarded up.
  • Burn The Undead: Burt resorts to this when Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain fails to do the job. It doesn't end well.
  • Cool Old Guy: Burt kicks more ass than any of the seemingly tough punks.
    • Ernie has his moments as well.
  • Cute Monster Girl: Zombie!Trash.
  • Death by Irony: Earlier in the film, Trash says the worst way to die to be eaten by a bunch of old men. The zombies that eat her are such.
  • Death by Pragmatism: The characters decide that they can't handle the zombies by themselves, so they call the military. Helpfully, the military nuke the town. But see Deus Ex Nukina.
  • Deus Ex Nukina: Instead of sterilizing the zombie outbreak, the nuclear blast only serves to distribute the Virus widely.
    • heavy artillery ammo, nuclear or not, is never like a one-piece, round-nosed, giant rifle cartridge, it comes in either two parts or more before loading.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Inverted with Suicide. He's too self-absorbed into his Breaking the Fourth Wall monologue about his self-image to notice a naked Trash doing a bump-and-gind against him. When he does notice, he shoves her away and says "Show some fucking respect for the dead!"
  • Distress Call: Two of the brain-hungry zombies use a fake distress call to request more food: "Send more paramedics", followed by "send more cops" a little later.
  • The Ditz: Freddy.
  • Driven to Suicide: Frank commits self-immolation while he's still in control of his own mind after Freddy becomes a zombie.
  • Drop the Hammer: Spider uses a sledgehammer to try and fend off the zombies.
  • Dying as Yourself: Towards the end of the film, Frank immolates himself in the retort, as he has become a zombie and has no other means of ending his agony that would be certain to work.
  • The Eighties: Almost a cross-section, too. You have punks, preppies, greasers, and so on all in the same group of kids - complete with '80s Hair, of course.
  • Fanservice: Trash appears naked for most of the first film... and continues to be naked after she's zombified.
  • Foreshadowing: As Burt and Ernie burn the evidence of the Trioxin leaking, Frank sneers, "Some big favor. I can operate that goddamn thing." In one version, Freddy asks in reply, "But who'd want to?" Frank would, later in the film, to take himself out of the equation before he can eat any brains.
    • Also at the beginning of the film, once Frank, Freddy, and Burt release the yellow animated cadaver you can clearly see that it charges directly at Burt since Burt was apparently the only living person in the room while Frank and Freddy after being exposed to Trioxin were either dying otherwise already dead.
    • Trash's description of her ideal death is exactly how she winds up dying (albeit with undead old men rather than just the standard type). Turns out she doesn't enjoy it as much as she thought she would.
  • A Friend in Need: After escaping the chemical rain into the warehouse, the teenagers hear Tina screaming for help from the Tarman. They immediately rush to her aid which results in Suicide's death.
  • From Nobody to Nightmare: Freddy. When he started out he was just a dumb, average morgue worker. When the Trioxin finally turns him, he becomes hell bent on eating his girlfriend's brain.
  • Genre Savvy: Good news: Some of the men are aware that Night of the Living Dead was based on true events. Bad news: The movie was loosely based on actual events, and the "real" zombies are completely different.
  • George Lucas Altered Version: The voice of the "Send more paramedics!" zombie has been altered and is no longer as funny as the original version.
  • Get a Hold of Yourself Man: At one point Spider starts babbling and Ernie slaps him.
  • Heroic BSOD: Ernie, after encountering his first zombie.
  • Horror Doesn't Settle for Simple Tuesday: The first film begins on July 3rd, late afternoon. It's probably safe to assume that by the end, midnight eventually rolled around.
  • If You Can Read This: There is an eye chart in the background in the first movie that reads, "Burt is a slave driver and a cheap son of a bitch who's got you and me here."
  • Immortality Hurts:
    Ernie: Why do you eat people?
    Zombie: Not people. Brains.
    Ernie: Brains only?
    Zombie: Yes.
    Ernie: Why?
    Zombie: The PAIN!
    Ernie: What about the pain?
    Zombie: The pain of being DEAD!
    Ernie: It hurts... to be dead?
    Zombie: I can feel my body rot!
    Ernie: Eating brains... How does that make you feel?
    Zombie: It makes the pain go away!
  • Incongruously Dressed Zombie: Several, including a brain-eating priest. Trash becomes an Incongruously-Nude Zombie after her cemetery striptease and death.
  • It's All About Me: Suicide.
  • It's the Only Way to Be Sure: About ten blocks of Louisville are converted to radioactive slag.
    • Also, as Burt and Ernie destroy the yellow cadaver:
    Burt: [Ernie,] you're absolutely certain that this is gonna get rid of everything and do the trick—I mean, nothing left?
    Ernie: Nothing but a little-bitty pile of ashes.
    Burt: We don't even want the ashes, Ernie!
    Ernie: Then I'll turn it up higher, and we'll burn up the ashes, too. [slides the yellow cadaver into the retort] Dust to dust.
  • Jerk Ass: Suicide.
  • Kill It with Fire: This ends very, very badly.
  • Lost in Translation: The Italian dub translates the film's funniest line, "You mean the movie lied!?", as "Continua a muoversi!"English translation 
  • Made of Iron: Freddie's skull withstands several blows from a hunk of pipe, an 8-pound sledgehammer and a jar of nitric acid, experiencing only minor skin abrasions.
  • Mercy Kill: It's implied that Ernie is getting ready to do this to Tina when Freddy has them both cornered in the attic and is about to break in. He has his pistol pointed at her head, ready to kill her and spare her the pain of Freddy eating her brains. Of course, the Deus Ex Nukina arrives before he has to do it.
  • Name's the Same: O'Bannon swears it's a coincidence that the main heroes of the first film include a man named Burt and his old friend Ernie.
    • Not to mention that Clu Gulager and Don Calfa sort of look like that other Burt and Ernie.
  • Nightmare Fetishist: Quite literally in the first movie. When Trash is describing the worst way she can think of to die (namely, being eaten by a bunch of old men), she is clearly getting turned on, to the point that she tears off all her clothes and does a naked dance in the middle of a cemetery.
  • Noodle Incident: "No, we can't, the cops said they'd shoot us if we went back to the park."
  • Not a Zombie: Averted. The first group to encounter a zombie knew about the chemical, and the first animated corpse they encountered was one they already knew to be dead. The second group encounters a zombie so horrifically rotted, and screaming for brains, that there isn't much question.
  • Not Using the Z Word: Averted. At one point Spider says, "There's zombies all over the cars outside."
  • Nuke 'em: It only spreads the virus.
  • Phlegmings: In the first movie, when Freddy finally succumbs to the zombie hunger he starts foaming at the mouth like he's chewing on Alka-Seltzer.
  • Pipe Pain: Burt uses a pipe as a weapon when the zombies try and break into the mortuary.
  • Raising the Steaks: Several preserved specimens are animated, including half a dog and a number of preserved butterflies.
  • Reality Ensues: Inverted. Remember how the zombie infestation in Night of the Living Dead worked the way it would've in real life, with the ending that reveals that the infestation was stopped as easily as it had started? Well, in this movie, it doesn't work that way. "You mean the movie lied!?"
  • Second Law of Metafictional Thermodynamics: The army has no idea how to get rid of the zombies. They bomb the whole town. This proves to be ill-advised.
  • Tempting Fate:
    Freddy: These things don't leak, do they?
    Frank: Leak? Hell, no! This was built by the Army Corps of Engineers!
    (slaps tank, which instantly leaks)
    • Trash's fantasy of being eaten by old men wouldn't have been expressed by someone more Genre Savvy.
  • Those Wacky Nazis: Ernie, in the first film, is strongly implied to be one. He listens to a German march on his headphones, uses a pearl-handled Walther P38 handgun, and has an Eva Braun pinup on the wall in one scene.
    • His name is Ernie Kaltenbrunner.
    • On the DVD commentary track, Don Calfa claims that he didn't personally see Ernie as a nazi, but rather someone just "really proud of his heritage".
  • Transhuman Treachery: Freddy has an epiphany:
    Freddy: [to Tina] See? And now you made me hurt myself again! You made me break my hand completely off this time, Tina! But I don't care, Darlin', because I love you, and you've got to let me EAT YOUR BRAAAAAAAAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIINS!
    • The workprint footage makes this even creepier as he plays on Tina's love for him.
    Freddy: [to Tina] Tina...Tina, listen to me. We always meant so much to each other. So please open the hatch, it's wrong that you should keep me locked up like this!
  • Understatement: After driving through a throng of brain-hungry zombies: "I think that something is not right outside!
  • Up to Eleven: "Then I'll turn [the retort] up higher, and we'll burn up the ashes, too."
  • Vertigo Effect: When Tina first sees the Tarman.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: During the scene where Frank, Freddy, and Burt try and fail to destroy the cadaver on their own by Removing the Head or Destroying the Brain:
    Burt: I thought you said that if we destroyed the brain, it'd die!
    Frank: It worked in the movie!
    Burt: Well, it ain't working now, Frank!
    Freddy: You mean the movie lied!?
  • Zerg Rush: How the zombies kill.

Return of the Living Dead Part III
  • Absurdly Spacious Sewer: The Riverman lives in one.
  • Better to Die Than Be Killed: Curt and Julie immolate themselves as lovers rather than let Julie be used as a superweapon.
  • Boy Meets Ghoul: The third movie.
  • Cute Monster Girl: Zombie!Julie.
  • Driven to Suicide / Downer Ending: Julie can't bear existence as a zombie, and Curt can't bear existence without her, so they both allow themselves to die in a fire at the end.
    • It goes beyond that. Curt gets bitten by one of the reanimated and thus has no future with or without Julie. Rather than become reanimated or made into a super soldier if the base is ever retaken he opts to burn with her so they can be together in relative peace.
  • Fingore: The third movie has two obvious examples: once in the beginning, where a lab tech's fingers are torn off by a zombie, and once about 2/3 of the way through where Julie rams a glass shard through her hand. She also ends up driving several metal spikes (where is she GETTING all this sharp metal?) through her fingertips in order to have really awkward claws.
  • Horror Hunger: In Return of the Living Dead 3, the hero's (undead) girlfriend develops painful hunger pangs, but none of the snacks that he procures for her will sate her appetite. Her zombie cravings cause her to mutilate herself in order to drown out the hunger... but she feels much better after she munches on a couple of street toughs.
  • I Know You Are In There Some Where Fight: Curt has one with the Zombiefied Riverman near the end of the movie.
  • Magical Negro: The river man.
  • Resurrected Romance
  • Schrodinger's Lipring: Throughout the movie, Julie may or may not have one, two, or no liprings. She is never shown adding or removing them.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Curt causes the deaths of countless people through his adamant efforts to preserve his zombie girlfriend. How he stays alive as long as he does is a mystery.
  • Vampire Refugee: The love interest in the third movie must keep finding new and unique ways to injure herself to keep from succumbing to her zombie hunger.

Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis
  • Captain Ersatz: Hydra Tech is pretty much The Umbrella Corporation.
  • Electric Boogaloo
  • Meganekko: Becky from Necropolis (but not Rave to the Grave)
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: The fourth film had zombies with miniguns and circular saws for arms. Unfortunately, they were also the main character's parents who died about a year before.
  • One of Us: Perhaps the filmmakers took a cue from Lucio Fulci's Zombi 3D (which was inspired in part by the first film, mind you) when writing the zombies of this film; in both films, it takes just a few hits to off a walking corpse.
  • Raising the Steaks: A number of rats are affected.
  • Villain Decay: The zombies in this movie and the sequel are nowhere near the invincible juggernauts of films previous; whereas those zombies could only be killed by burning or by electrocution (preferably by electrocution), here it takes just a few hits to kill them.

Return of the Living Dead: Rave from the Grave
  • Beware of Hitchhiking Ghosts: Played with at the very end; a second Tarman is seen hitchhiking to the rave on a highway. A couple actually stops and screams when they see he's a zombie.
  • Deus Ex Nukina: The government actually tries this maneuver again.
    • It wasn't nukes, just regular missiles.
  • Drugs Are Bad: In Rave to the Grave, a bunch of college students cook up a recreational drug based on Trioxin. Three guesses what the side effects are, and the first two don't count.
  • Electric Boogaloo
  • Villain Decay: Tarman is subjected to this for the most part.
    • All of the zombies are really. Instead of being unstoppable juggernauts, these Trioxin zombies don't even have to be shot in the head to bring them down. A few rounds in the chest will do the job.

Alternative Title(s):

The Return Of The Living Dead, Return Of The Living Dead, Return Of The Living Dead III, Return Of The Living Dead Necropolis, Return Of The Living Dead Rave To The Grave