The film tells the story of how three men accompanied by a group of teenage punks deal with the accidental release of a horde of brain hungry zombies onto an unsuspecting town. The film is known for introducing the popular concept of zombies eating brains, as opposed to just eating human flesh, like previous zombie iterations, as well as its soundtrack, which features several noted deathrock and punk rock bands of the era. The film was a critical success and performed moderately well at the box office. It later spawned four sequels.
At a medical supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, a foreman named Frank tries to impress the company's newest employee, Freddy, by showing him military drums that accidentally wound up in the basement of the building. The drum contains the remains of an army experiment gone wrong that inspired the film Night of the Living Dead. Frank accidentally unleashes the toxic gas inside the barrel, knocking them unconscious. When they wake up, Frank and Freddy discover that the body inside the tank has disappeared, believing it to have probably melted. The gas reanimates a corpse inside a meat locker, forcing Frank and Freddy to call upon their boss and warehouse owner Burt Wilson to help them deal with the situation. When the three fail to kill the walking cadaver by damaging its brain and decapitating it, Burt decides to bring the zombie to the nearby mortuary to have its dismembered parts burned in a gambit to destroy it once and for all.
Meanwhile, Freddy's friends learn of his new job from Tina, his girlfriend. The group, consisting of Spider, Trash, Chuck, Casey, and Scuz, decide to pick Freddy up after he finishes his shift. Arriving two hours before Freddy leaves his job, the group, along with Suicide, their driver, go inside the nearby graveyard to wait for him to finish. Tina leaves the cemetery and enters the warehouse when the hours pass to find her boyfriend, not knowing he left for the mortuary. Her search brings her to the basement, where he is still nowhere to be found. Just as she is about to leave, she is suddenly ambushed by the zombie from the tank, "Tarman," who was initially thought to have dissolved. After a failed attempt to run away, she manages to lock herself inside a closet to prevent it from getting to her, but the zombie finds a chain and winch and tries to pull the door off. At the mortuary, Burt has Ernie, the mortician, burn the zombie in his retort until nothing remains. Unknown to them, this causes the deadly gas to contaminate the air and bring forth a toxic rainfall. The acid rain forces Freddy's friends to return to Suicide's convertible, but when the car fails to start and the roof begins to leak, they take refuge in the warehouse. Inside, Spider hears Tina's crying and they rescue her from the zombie and barricade the basement door, though Suicide is killed during the rescue attempt. Because Casey witnessed Freddy entering the mortuary, the group makes a run through the cemetery to find Freddy. Inside the graveyard, they discover the dead rising from their graves. The shock of this sight results in the group getting split up. Only Spider, Tina, and Scuz make it to the mortuary, while Trash is killed by zombies, incidentally fulfilling what she said would be the worst way for her to die. Chuck and Casey flee back to the warehouse.
Frank and Freddy have grown increasingly ill from their exposure to the gas and a medical test from paramedics implies that they are no longer alive. When Burt and Ernie learn of the dead rising from their graves, they quickly barricade the mortuary after Ernie is attacked and chased back to his building when he tries to use an ambulance to escape. Scuz is killed while protecting the barricade and the zombies eat the paramedics and police who arrive at the mortuary (one of the zombies showing uncharacteristic intelligence by using the police radio to ask the police to "Send more cops!"). With Frank and Freddy showing signs of becoming zombies themselves, Burt has them locked in the chapel. Tina, however, refuses to abandon Freddy and allows herself to be locked in with him. Meanwhile, Trash, having been exposed to the toxic chemicals in the rain and soil, rises intact from the mud as a zombie and begins to feed. Later she seems to form the zombies from the cemetery into a semi-organized horde that attacks the reinforcements head on.
Freddy soon attempts to eat Tina, but is stopped by Burt, Ernie, and Spider. In the ensuing struggle, Ernie manages to blind Freddy with acid and lock him back up. Frank manages to escape during the chaos, and, still having control over his mind, commits suicide by self-immolation in the retort. While Freddy breaks through the door holding him, Burt sees a police car outside with the motor still running. Along with Spider, he manages to get inside the car, but the large number of zombies forces him to abandon Ernie and Tina, despite Spider's pleas to go back for them. Ernie brings Tina and himself up to his attic, while the blinded Freddy attempts to break in.
Burt crashes the police car outside of the warehouse, and an explosion caused by a gasoline leak destroys the remaining cars outside. Burt and Spider manage to get back inside the warehouse where they find Casey and Chuck. After disabling Tarman by decapitating him, the survivors enter the basement, where the building's phone is located. With the police being massacred by the zombies, Burt decides to call the number on the military drums. The call goes to Colonel Glover, an Army officer looking for the barrels. When Glover learns that "the Easter eggs have hatched," he activates a containment protocol that destroys 20 square blocks of Louisville with a nuclear artillery shell, and wipes out both the survivors and the zombies. The film ends with footage of the disaster area, along with a voiceover from Glover describing the outcome as optimal ("less than 4000 dead") while dismissing the new reports of skin irritation by saying "the rain should wash everything away" in time for the President's impending visit to the area.
- Clu Gulager as Burt Wilson
- James Karen as Frank
- Don Calfa as Ernie Kaltenbrunner
- Thom Mathews as Freddy
- Beverly Randolph as Tina
- John Philbin as Chuck
- Jewel Shepard as Casey
- Miguel A. Núñez Jr. as Spider
- Brian Peck as Scuz
- Linnea Quigley as Trash
- Mark Venturini as Suicide
- Jonathan Terry as Colonel Glover
- Allan Trautman as Tarman
- Cathleen Cordell as Colonel's Wife
- Drew Deighan as Paramedic#1/Jerry
- James Dalesandro as Paramedic#2
- John Durbin as Radio Corpse #1 Zombie
- David Bond as Radio Corpse #2 Zombie
- Robert Libman as Tac Squad Captain
- Terrence Houlihan as Yellow Cadaver Zombie
- Jerome "Daniels" Coleman as Legless Corpse Zombie
- Cherry Davis as ½ Lady Corpse Zombie (Voice)
The film has its roots in a novel by John Russo also called Return of the Living Dead. When Russo and George A. Romero parted ways after their 1968 film Night of the Living Dead, Russo retained the rights to any titles featuring Living Dead while Romero was free to create his own series of sequels, beginning with Dawn of the Dead. Russo and producer Tom Fox planned to bring Return of the Living Dead to the screen in 3D and directed by Tobe Hooper. Dan O'Bannon was brought in to give the script a polish and after Hooper backed out to make Lifeforce (also from a script by Dan O'Bannon), O'Bannon was offered the director's seat. He accepted on the condition he could rewrite the film radically so as to differentiate it from Romero's films. Russo retains a story writer credit on the film for developing the project, but the final film bears little to no resemblance to his original novel. He later wrote a novelization of the film which was fairly faithful to the shooting script, though without the character names as in the final film and the addition of a KGB subplot as an explanation for the plot. (Russo would, eventually, make his own 'canon' series with a 1998 revised edition of Night of the Living Dead, subtitled the 30th Anniversary Edition, and its sequel, Children of the Living Dead.)
O'Bannon's script also differed from the Romero series in that it was markedly more comical than Romero's films, employing "splatstick" style morbid humor and eccentric dialogue. The films also boasted significant nudity, in marked contrast to Romero's work. Russo and O'Bannon were only directly involved with the first film in the series. The rest of the films, to varying degrees, stick to their outline and "rules" established in the first film. Although the movie is set in Louisville, Kentucky, it was filmed in California. The Louisville police uniforms and patrol cars were all period correct.
The "Tarman" zombie is performed by actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman, who is best known for his work with Jim Henson and The Muppets.
The "Half-Corpse" zombie character was an animatronic puppet created by Tony Gardner and puppeteered by Gardner, actor Brian Peck ("Scuz"), and Production Designer William Stout. This character launched Tony Gardner's career as an independent makeup effects artist.
The characters of Burt Wilson and Ernie Kaltenbrunner are, contrary to popular belief, not named after the characters from Sesame Street; Dan O'Bannon had no idea he was using the names of those characters.
Originally, Frank was supposed to be completely transformed into a zombie and join the zombie mob, but James Karen did not wish to film any scenes in the cold rain of Los Angeles, so he instead suggested that Frank immolate himself before said transformation could be completed. O'Bannon agreed to the suggestion.
The Return of the Living Dead was a critical and a moderate box office success. It currently holds an 90% approval rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes, and grossed $14,237,000 domestically on an estimated budget of $4,000,000. It was also nominated for four Saturn Awards, including Best Horror Film, Best Actor for James Karen, Best Director and Best Make-up, by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films.