Flashback: The Return Of The Living Dead

This year marks 35 years since the release of The Return Of The Living Dead – we go behind the scenes of Dan O’Bannon’s gooey punk rock zombie classic…

The Return Of The Living Dead

What happens when you mix a cast of veterans and newcomers, add in a zingy horror-comedy screenplay, budget-defying ‘splatstick’ special effects and a raucous soundtrack and put it all in the hands of a talented maverick like Dan O’Bannon?

You get The Return Of The Living Dead, that’s what happens. Anarchic, kinetic and subversive, O’Bannon’s mid-Eighties romp has seen its initially positive reception snowball over the decades to the point that it’s now regarded as a genuine cult classic. The movie’s rich cocktail of elements is deftly handled by O’Bannon as the tale of escaped noxious chemicals creating an epidemic of re-animated corpses gleefully lurches from one memorable set-piece sequence to the next.

Upending traditional genre tropes, creating its own and approaching the whole exercise with a highly infectious, twisted sense of fun, The Return Of The Living Dead gave the zombie sub-genre a serious, impossible-to-ignore shake up. O’Bannon’s zombies weren’t the mindless slaves of Voodoo legend or the shuffling gut-munchers that George A Romero helped popularise, these zombies could move quickly, organise themselves and, perhaps most disconcertingly, they could talk.

The Return Of The Living Dead
The Return Of The Living Dead approached the genre with a twisted sense of fun.

They were a whole new breed of the living dead, intent on nothing more than eating the warm brains of the living and adept at luring victims to their gruesome demises. With bumbling warehouse and mortuary workers, a gang of thrill-seeking punks and members of the emergency services all fighting for their lives, The Return Of The Living Dead flies by in a riot of one-liners, graphic comic book violence and energetic unpredictability.

One of those bumbling warehouse workers was new employee Freddy, portrayed by Thom Mathews, and SciFiNow hooked up with the actor to reminisce about his experiences working on the movie. He now runs a successful construction company, Hammer and Trowel, alongside his acting career and is soon to be seen onscreen with PJ Soles in Killer Therapy (Barry Jay, 2019).

According to Mathews, landing the plum role of Freddy was a major, and somewhat unexpected, moment in the then-fledgling actor’s career: “It was a big break, it was a long process. I auditioned for it and then didn’t hear anything about it for nine months. So, I thought I didn’t get the part and they called me back nine months later I thought for a final call back but actually they’d already hired me. I found out when I got there that they were matching me up with actresses to play Tina, and the role eventually went to Beverly Randolph. What had happened in that nine months was there had been some issues with the name. It was a great part, a great experience, one of my favourites even today.”

With John A Russo eventually paid for the copyrighted use of ‘Living Dead’ in the title, and O’Bannon significantly rewriting the screenplay Russo had written based on his own The Return Of The Living Dead novel, shooting was free to commence. When it’s mentioned that Mathews seems to have fond memories of working on the movie, the actor readily agrees: “Yeah very much, I met James Karen on that movie and we became friends from that shoot. He was a great actor, had great stories, he was actually my age now when he got the part. He would tell me all these stories and just had great energy. If I was a producer I would just hire him because he’s so infectious on the set.”

On working with Karen and fellow acting veterans Clu Gulager and Don Kalfa being an interesting and informative experience for the young actor, Mathews said: “Yeah it really was. Clu was cast at the last minute, he was nervous as he had a lot of dialogue but it was just great to watch everybody work.”

The Return Of The Living Dead
Acting veteran Clu Gulager was cast at the last minute…

When the conversation turns to the movie having a very loose-limbed, off-the-cuff feel, Mathews explained that: “Well it was but it was unusual. Dan O’Bannon wrote the script and he came to direct it because Tobe Hooper was going to direct it but was committed to something else. So, Dan wrote it and most writer-directors want you to stick to the script but Dan let us do a lot of improv, so it was a real collaboration.”

On whether it was an arduous shoot due to the physicality of much of the acting, he laughs it off: “Ah, I was a young actor, maybe today if I shot it it might be harder on me. I was into sports and stuff and I think the physicality, you get lost in it when you’re acting. Especially towards the end when I’m busting through the door looking for Tina.” That leads us to chatting about how on-board with the project everyone looks: “Oh, we were. Dan got everyone together and we rehearsed for two weeks before we started shooting so everybody was in sync, had gotten to know each other and it was really good.” An example of the cast’s commitment levels were revealed by Matthew’s disclosure that “the guy who played Spider, Miguel A Núñez Jr, was actually homeless at the time when we were shooting that movie. He was sleeping in and working out of his car”.

When Mathews admits that he’s not a devotee of horror or sci-fi, the actor does single out Ruben Fleischer’s Zombieland (2009) as the kind of genre movie that he does love. The comparisons between the two movies are clear to see, with both mixing heavy amounts of comedy into what are, in reality, truly horrific circumstances. For him, these kinds of movies work because “it’s not so much the horror and comedy going together, it’s when the comedy comes out of the situation. I’m not a big fan of The Return Of The Living Dead Part II because they went for the jokes, but in part one you’re laughing at the situation that these kids get themselves into. When we cut the orange guy’s head off I had a funny reaction. I mean, I was laughing but couldn’t watch it at the same time. I’d never felt that before.”

The Return Of The Living Dead
The whole cast got on board with the movie.

His lack of affection for Ken Weiderhorn’s 1989 sequel, in which both he and James Karen starred playing entirely different characters from the original, highlights how the now five-movie franchise tried and failed to live up to the original’s magic because they are too knowing. Part II was “winking at the comedy” in Mathews’ words rather than letting it emerge because of the nature of the scenario in which ordinary folk find themselves dealing with horrific, fantastical events.

A prime example of one such memorably outrageous sequence from The Return Of The Living Dead is recalled by Mathews: “One of my favourite moments in the movie is actually a scene that I’m not in with the half-corpse and she’s on the gurney. The spines going back and forth and she’s screaming ‘brains’ and they have a conversation with her.” The now-iconic, animatronic puppet half-corpse zombie established the highly successful career of its creator, Tony Gardner, who has subsequently gone on to provide makeup effects for Sam Raimi’s Darkman (1990), David O Russell’s Three Kings (1999) and both Zombieland and its upcoming sequel, Zombieland: Double Tap (2019), among over a hundred other movies.

The Return Of The Living Dead
The effects still hold up today!

Mathews, who took the lead role of Tommy Jarvis in Tom McLoughlin’s Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives in 1986, readily agrees that 1985 was a special year for horror movies. Along with The Return Of The Living Dead, the year also saw Fright Night (Tom Holland), Demons (Lamberto Bava), Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon), House (Steve Miner) and, perhaps most significantly, George A Romero’s official Night Of The Living Dead sequel, Day Of The Dead, all hit the big screen.

Musing on whether the cast and crew felt like they were going head-to-head against Romero’s long-awaited follow up to Dawn Of The Dead, Mathews isn’t so sure: “I think Day Of The Dead came out like a month before so I don’t know if there was ‘competition,’ and I know that Orion who distributed it put a lot of money into advertising that one.”

As to whether the Living Dead team had any inkling the movie would be a critical success and then a cult favourite, Mathews is clear: “We had no idea. Clu was upset, he thought it was below his grade. Nobody really knew what was going on, but he’s become very proud to be a part of it over the years but at the time he thought it was beneath him.”

As for seeing the completed movie for the first time, the actor went old-school: “Oh it was fun. I took my friends and we went to an area in Los Angeles called Westwood to one of the theatres there. The lines were around the corner and I went in with a regular audience and it was a lot of fun. People were yelling at the screen you know.” Well over three decades later, it’s clear from our conversation the special place that the movie has in Mathews’ memories and career highlights, and that is one of the biggest compliments an actor can give both to a completed movie they’ve worked on and the atmosphere on set while making it. The Return Of The Living Dead is one of those movies where the sheer exuberant joy of being involved in a project is readily apparent from the first of its hilarious and horrifying frames to the last.

The Return Of The Living Dead is available on DVD from Second Sight Films.