The story is set a decade after the previous zombie uprising, which was successfully suppressed. Sisters Ann, Karen and Sue Ellen Miller are driven by their extremely religious, emotionally abusive father Bert to the funeral of the youngest daughter of Henry Dorsey, who died suddenly of rheumatic fever, her father drives a metal spike into her skull with a mallet.
The Millers and indeed everyone present are followers of the radical Reverend Michaels, who believes the recently dead must have their brains spiked. Not everyone agrees with Michaels' ideas, least of all Sheriff Conan McClellan, who doesn't believe "it" can happen again.
A violent bus crash interrupts the funeral, and a suddenly worried Michaels insists that the entire congregation come with him to spike the brains of all of the crash victims before the authorities arrive and stop them. Bert Miller forces his thoroughly horrified daughters, including pregnant Karen, to participate, despite their protests. They don't succeed, having to flee before Sheriff McClellan arrives.
Later that night the bus crash victims who didn't have their brains spiked begin to rise at the county morgue and go shuffling off to find victims. One of the first places they attack is the Miller house. Bert Miller gets eaten, but the girls are saved by the arrival of three men and one woman claiming to be State Troopers transporting two prisoners.
But there's a problem. Only two of the "Troopers," John Carter and Wade Connely, are in uniform, while the other two, with the rather unlikely names of Flack and Angel, aren't. It quickly becomes apparent to the Miller sisters that there "rescuers" are in fact escaped criminals posing as cops, and the "prisoners" are the real policemen. And that their rescuers turned captors plan on using them as what Flack calls "zombie feed" to keep the ghouls off of them while they make their escape...
It isn't to be confused with the film The Return of the Living Dead, or its Novelization, which, confusingly, was also written by Russo, meaning the same author has written two entirely different books with the exact same title. Russo did adapt the novel into a screenplay with some changes (toning down a lot of the sexual elements for one thing), but it was ultimately never made into a film.
The book remained out of print for years, making it a highly sought after collector's item. But eventually it was republished in Undead, an omnibus edition with the first film's novelization, featuring an introduction by Russo himself.
Tropes used in this novel:
- Abusive Parents: Bert, who forces his three daughters, including one who is pregnant, to go to a funeral they don't want to attend, and then forces them to help spike the brains of the bus crash victims, never once showing them even an ounce of sympathy.
- Accidental Murder: Henry Dorsey's triggerhappy son blows Carl away, mistaking him for a zombie. Later, one of Sheriff McClellan's zombie-hunting posse members shoots Dave, thinking he's a looter trying to run him down.
- The Alleged Car: The Dorseys' 1956 Ford, which is described as "rusty" and "filthy" and handles like crap.
- Ambiguous Disorder: Something is clearly wrong with Flack. Then there's Henry Dorsey's "idiot" son.
- An Axe to Grind: Axes are of course use a lot by various characters throughout the book, but in particular, and most memorably, Dave uses one to kill Flack in revenge for his feeding the Kingsleys and their son to the zombies.
- Anyone Can Die: Just like in the first film (and its novelization), numerous characters, major and minor, are treated to sudden, violent deaths.
- Asshole Victim: Several, particularly the emotionally and verbally abusive Bert Miller, and the entire looter gang, but especially Flack.
- Badass Preacher: Reverend Michaels.
- Brats with Slingshots: Dave and Carl get waylaid by the Zombie Apocalypse version of some of these, when they're held up by a group of children armed with bows and arrows.
- Chekhov's Gunman: The zombie that killed and ate Bert lingers in Bert's bedroom long after the looters think they've cleared the house. Then when Angel goes up to retrieve the pregnant Karen, the zombie drags her into the room with him and eats her.
- Cruel and Unusual Death: Several characters, but especially anyone used as "zombie feed," like the Kingsley family. Imagine the Nightmare Fuel of being tied up and gagged so you can't even scream when the undead begin feasting on you.
- Damsel in Distress: Despite showing some early promise as strong female characters, the Miller girls are quickly reduced to this. Karen is effectively removed from the action once she goes into labor, and Ann and Sue Ellen become little more than talking props to be dragged around by the criminals and eventually rescued. Neither of them offers much resistance against their captors even once.
- Death by Childbirth: The fate of poor Karen.
- Distressed Dude: Dave and Carl get tied up by the bad guys. Several male characters are also tied up to be used as "zombie bait."
- Doomed Hurt Guy: Carl. Shot by Carter, he is saved from death (and zombification) by some quick first aid by Dave. And then gets shot by a triggerhappy redneck anyway. Great.
- Enfant Terrible: Karen's baby, which she gives birth to after being bitten by a zombie, is effectively this, being, well, a zombie baby and all, although he never does anything particularly evil.
- Evil Redhead: Angel.
- Faux Affably Evil: Carter, who at first seems more reasonable than his companions, particularly while posing as "Trooper Carter." But he's completely insincere about it.
- Failed a Spot Check: While Carter's gang are generally intelligent and good about clearing any structures infested with the undead, for whatever reason they fail to look in Bert's room when they're in the Miller place. Consequently they overlook a zombie in there, and it kills Angel.
- Floating Head Syndrome / Evil Overlooker: The original paperback version of the book (shown above) features a disembodied zombie head and giant disembodied zombie hands chasing someone.
- The Fundamentalist: Bert Miller is a religious zealot, insisting that spikin' the brains of the recently deceased is his daughters' "Christian duty" and thinks the undead are because of the Devil.
- The Hero Dies: For all that he goes through to get Karen's baby to safety, avenge the Kingsleys and rescue Ann and Sue Ellen from Carter, poor Dave eventually gets shot by a jumpy zombie hunter who mistakes him for a looter.
- The Hyena: Flack. He has an annoying giggle and seems to find everything hilarious.
- Impersonating an Officer: Carter and his gang do this after escaping police custody and tying their former captors up. He and Wade put on Dave and Carl's uniforms and pass themselves off as "Trooper Carter" and "Trooper Connely."
- Infant Immortality: Cruelly averted with Rodney Kingsley, the ten year old son of a wealthy family Carter and Flack rob. He's tied to his mother and father and led out by Flack to get eaten by the zombies.
- It Can Think: Speculated a couple of times in-universe.Dave shuddered. He did not want to think the humanoids could reason and would have been more terrified of them if he thought they could.
- Men Are the Expendable Gender: At least as far as the criminals are concerned. When they're attacked on the road, Billy, their sole male hostage at the time, is the one they toss at the undead. This is justified by the fact they want to rape the women and so hold onto them as long as possible.
- Nightmare Fetishist: Flack, who likes watching people getting eaten by zombies a little too much.
- No Seat Belts: Wade isn't wearing his seat belt while driving the stolen police car. He hits a zombie and crashes. The impact sends Wade through the windshield as a consequence.
- Our Zombies Are Different: Given this book is a sequel to the Novelization of Night of the Living Dead, the zombies presented herein are the classic Romero sort. Slow and stupid, but still inclined to pick up and use tools such as rocks and sticks on occasion. One of the ones who awakens at the morgue even uses surgical tools to kill O'Neil the coroner in lieu of just grabbing and eating him.
- Rape as Drama: McClellan and Greene try to thwart a rape in progress at the beginning, and Sue Ellen gets raped by Flack later after he "rescues" her. As if we needed any more reasons to despise him.
- Red Shirt: Poor Deputy Greene. He gets killed before the zombie uprising has even started!
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Dave takes out Carter and Flack at the end in spectacularly violent fashion (in a scene similar to the later 28 Days Later).
- Spared by the Adaptation: Although it was never filmed, Russo's screenplay based on the book actually lets Dave get there in time to save the Kingsleys from becoming zombie fodder, and Dave himself doesn't die at the end, either.
- Took a Level in Badass: Sheriff McClellan of all people. In a stark contrast to the first film and its novel where he was kind of your stereotypical dumb, fat cop, here he comes across as a competent veteran officer who has learned from his past mistakes.
- Would Hurt a Child: Flack, who feeds poor Rodney to the zombies along with his parents. And then there's Henry Dorsey, who contemplates getting rid of Karen's baby when he thinks Dave isn't coming back. For... some reason.
- Waking Up at the Morgue: Greene, the murdered rape victim and all the bus crash victims who didn't get their heads spiked awaken in the county morgue.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Reverend Michaels just sort of disappears halfway through the book.
- Zombie Infectee: Carter tries to turn Carl into one of these, shooting him and leaving him beside the tied up Dave so he'll turn and eat his partner, but Dave manages to tend to his wounds. It still looks like Carl might eventually die from his wounds and turn into a zombie anyway - but then the Dorsey boy kills him.