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Book Review: ‘The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead’

I love revisiting a classic, especially one that doesn’t get half the love it deserves.

Bloody Disgusting’s Ryan Daley went full-on undead this past weekend as he went back to 1985 and enjoyed Dan O’Bannon’s classic zombie flick Return of the Living Dead. In the film a bumbling pair of employees at a medical supply warehouse accidentally release a deadly gas into the air that cause the dead to re-animate and go on a rampage through Louisville, Kentucky seeking their favorite food, brains. You can read Daley’s fresh review here.

His trip back in time was inspired by Christian Sellers and Gary Smart’s “The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead,” a new book now available at a retailer near you. or the first time in 25 years, the cast and crew of all five films in this franchise reveal the stories behind the movies, offering their own opinions and details about life on the sets of some of the most fraught productions in cinema history. Supported by dozens of cast and crew members, the book features hundreds of previously unreleased behind-the-scenes photographs and exclusive artwork.

Inside you’ll find Daley’s thoughts on the book that should be sitting on each and every one of your coffee tables (or tank lid).
The great thing about niche publishing is that there’s something out there for everybody on the planet. So let’s say you’re an adult movie-lover still trying to outgrow a punkish youth that included pegged pants and spiky blue hair? Well, Fantagraphic Books can totally hook you up with Destroy All Movies!!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film. And let’s say you’ve never shaken your obsession with the staggeringly inconsistent Return of the Living Dead series? Plexus Publishing has got your fix with The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead, a gloriously glossy, 288-page dissection of the entire franchise. Sometimes it can feel like a book was written just for you.

Authors Christian Sellers and Gary Smart are nothing less than exhaustive in their approach to the material. Beginning with Night of the Living Dead and the agreement between co-creators George Romero and John Russo to go their separate ways (with Romero taking “____ of the Dead” for his future titles as Russo adopted “Return of the Living Dead” for his own), the book studiously observes the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of every single film in the series, even the last two super shitty ones that nobody really likes. The title doesn’t lie–as far as the Return movies go, this book is as complete as it gets.

Understandably, more pages (and most of the juiciest off-screen gossip) are devoted to the original Return of the Living Dead. Opening on 1,500 screens in August of 1985, the horror comedy would end up totally smoking Romero’s more somber Day of the Dead (released a month prior) at the box office. Although the film has amassed a sizable cult following in the years since its release, Sellers and Smart depict a film set dominated by uncertainty and egos gone berserk.

The interviewees attest that many of the problems could be blamed on the confrontational nature of director Dan O’Bannon, who was still riding the success of his Alien screenplay. “We were bitter enemies,” states star Clu Gulager (“Burt”), who had repeated run-ins with the director, frequently to the admiration of his fellow cast members. Co-star Beverly Randolph (“Tina”) says, “My fondest memories of Clu are when he let Dan have it and threw a vase at him!…I had a rough time shooting with Dan.” And Don Calfa (“Ernie”) recalls “Dan said something derogatory to me–I don’t even fucking remember–and Clu jumped over the table….he said, `Don’t ever talk that way to Don Calfa, one of the finest actors in North America.’ He jumped at Dan…we had to hold him back. And Dan sat in this chair…he was shaking head to toe.” Authors Sellers and Smart provide a juicy peek behind the curtain that is hard to resist.

Along with the in-depth text, the book is loaded with vintage behind-the-scenes photos. Some are crisp, some are sloppy, but perusing the sheer variety of photos makes you feel like you just spent a few hours on a Return movie set. (While the The Return I wrap party photos will leave you desperate to tip cocktails with an obviously blitzed James Karen and Don Calfa.) Storyboards, conceptual art, and international movie posters round out the package. Hell, it’s worth purchasing solely for the in-depth coverage of the franchise’s make-up effects, especially in regards to the gleefully gruesome third film. “Using real make-up is not just a practice in nostalgia for past techniques,” says director Brian Yuzna (Return of the Living Dead III). “Traditional make-up and prosthetics and puppetry have an aesthetic that communicates a kind of reality that the CGI can`t duplicate.” Wise words from the halcyon days when latex ruled supreme.

4/5 Skulls