Legacy of the Dead: Zombie Redux

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Romero, Return of the Living Dead & the Pros and Cons of Remix Culture

The fundamental decision was this:  George Romero is making a serious bunch of movies about the living dead.  I don’t want to walk on his toes any deeper than I have to.  I’m going to do mine as a comedy.

Dan O’Bannon, Director: Return of the Living Dead

Whether satire, camp, or homage, the art of the remix has always been prevalent in American society.  When Marcel Duchamp defaced the Moana Lisa by drawing a mustache on her upper lip, he helped to inspire a host of others to create works of parody.  As new technologies have created greater opportunities for artistic and creative expression, Remix Culture and Creative Commons advocates such as Lawrence Lessig argue that appropriation and remixing are vital to advancing culture.  Popular culture including the horror genre also goes through this progression. George A. Romero took the zombies of Haitian culture and remixed them to create his own mythology of flesh-eating corpses preying upon the living in Night of the Living Dead (1968).  In turn, writer/director Dan O’Bannon transformed Romero’s mythos, creating a darkly-funny, nihilistic satire that not only paid homage to Romero’s zombies but also offered something new.  Return of the Living Dead (1985) is a retelling of zombie origins that reinvents the living dead, again—much to the delight of fans but to the dismay of Romero himself.

Original Theatrical Poster

Return of the Living Dead and its behind-the-scenes history is very incestuous with Romero’s filmography.  The original screenplay for Night of the Living Dead was authored by Romero and his partner John Russo under various titles, eventually settling on Night of the Flesh Eaters upon completion.  When sold for distribution, Walter Reade changed the title to Night of the Living Dead and neglected to place it under copyright; thereby inadvertently entering the work into the public domain and forfeiting all future distribution revenue.  From that moment on the film would be bootlegged in a variety of media, making the movie more available to audiences, eventually to become a cult-classic, but also leaving its creators with empty wallets. 

When Russo and Romero’s partnership ended they gave each other the rights to create their own zombie films.  Romero would go on to make his standalone Dead films, while Russo retained the right to all films bearing the Living Dead moniker.  This resulted in a novel penned by Russo entitled Return of the Living Dead, published by Dale Books in 1978, which in essence was very much a direct sequel to Night.  Taking place ten years after the events of the first film and occurring in roughly the same geographic area, the novel centers on a man and his daughters as they encounter a church congregation who drive spikes into the skulls of the recently deceased in order to stop them from rising.  Soon a terrible accident occurs, and the family is once again forced to barricade themselves in a farmhouse in order to save their lives.  Russo adapted the novel into a 104-page screenplay co-authored by Rudy Ricci, and sold the property to film producer Tom Fox in 1981.  After several failed starts, Fox secured a deal with Hemdale Pictures and tapped horror icon Tobe Hooper to direct with Dan O’Bannon providing rewrites.  When Hooper was unable to continue with the project, producers asked O’Bannon to step in.  He agreed on the condition that he could drastically rewrite the script.

This independent producer named Tom Fox bought Russo’s script, set up a production deal with whomever, whenever, however, you know how these things happen.  When it finally arrived to me to write it, I read Mr. Russo’s script and . . .um . . . I didn’t want to make that script.  I didn’t think it was right to intrude so directly on Romero’s turf.  Because it was a sequel, it was a serious sequel to Night of the Living Dead, which was going its own way in Romero’s films.

Dan O’Bannon

Dan O’Bannon’s aesthetic embodied the very spirit of Remix Culture, and was heavily prevalent throughout O’Bannon’s career until his premature death from Crohn’s Disease in 2009.  No stranger to parody, O’Bannon loved to infuse his films with a dark sense of humor and irony, beginning as far back as the 1974 fan-favorite Dark Star, his collaboration with John Carpenter.  Essentially a parody of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a group of astronauts aboard a spaceship in 2250 must try to diffuse a bomb that has become self-aware and wants to explode, while getting into misadventures with a pet alien shaped like a beach ball.  Filmed on a budget of $60,000 as graduate students at the University of Southern California, Carpenter and O’Bannon sold the film to producer Jack Harris who distributed it in theaters.  The film was unsuccessful with audiences and devastated O’Bannon.  While the film would eventually be reassessed by critics to become an audience favorite in later years, O’Bannon reworked the comical alien subplot of the film with Ridley Scott to become the critically acclaimed horror/sci-fi Alien (1979).

You have to understand that after Dark Star, when that film was completed, when I saw the film up there on the screen as compared to what I had intended to make. Then I saw the reactions of the industry and the public to that film. It burned certain lessons into my head like a branding iron. Just right into my brain.  One lesson was not to make an episodic film; have a tight plot. Another lesson was do not make a comedy because nobody laughed. When I sat down to write Alien, Alien was very similar to Dark Star in many ways. It was just, ‘Well, I can’t make them laugh; maybe I can make them scream.’

Dan O’Bannon, Monsterland Magazine, 1988

O’Bannon applied a similar transformative process when he began working on Return of the Living Dead.  To make his zombie vision different from Romero’s, O’Bannon remixed the zombie myth. Gone were the lumbering creatures of Romero’s universe and in their place appeared zombies that kept their cognitive function, recovering from rigor mortis to become an onslaught of fast-moving corpses ready to run-down their prey.  In place of devouring human flesh, O’Bannon’s zombies craved human brains. O’Bannon’s undead were much more humorous in their portrayal and design, with production designer William Stout basing his creations on the zombies drawn by Ghastly Graham Ingles for EC Comics and the mummified corpses of Guanajuato, Mexico. Distinctions were made in the human characters as well.  While Romero usually depicts his cast in a sympathetic and humanistic light, O’Bannon’s protagonists are a group of teens, a subsection of the punk subculture of Louisville, with many of the characters portrayed as stereotypes written for satiric effect. 

When Romero learned of the script’s filming, he asked the production company to avoid similarities that could create confusion between the film and his movies as much as possible. With the issue of Return of the Living Dead in 1985, the film still came into conflict with the distribution of Romero’s Day of the Dead, released only weeks earlier.  After a strong box-office return during the first two weeks of Day’s distribution, ticket sales began to plummet due to Orion Pictures’ nationwide opening of Return.  In addition to hurting the revenue of the film, people were confused and had difficulty distinguishing Romero’s film from O’Bannon’s.  This angered Romero because the original agreement he and Russo had was based on Russo’s original 1978 story, not O’Bannon’s re-write.  In Romero’s view, the title was the only thing retained in the current property, making the agreement null and void.  Romero’s company, Laurel Entertainment, sent a letter to Orion Pictures requesting the name of the film changed, but the Motion Picture Association of America backed Orion in their decision to use the title.

I was reviewed three times for that film.  Entertainment Tonight announced it as George A. Romero’s Return of the Living Dead!  Even people in Florida who had been zombies in Day were going to see Return of the Living Dead, and they were calling us up and saying “Gee, I didn’t see any Florida stuff!”  I hated the way the whole thing went down, and I’m glad it’s over.  It was all dirty pool, and I never want to get into anything like that again. Jack [Russo] and I were trying to preserve our friendship during it all, and it got crazy.  I think he was screwed as well as everyone else – the film is his in title only.  It’s a send-up, which is exactly what I was worried it would be.  That damages your ability to do it straight.

George A. Romero, The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh, 1987


George Romero introducing "Return of the Living Dead"

There will always be differences between creative visions when it comes to the process of parody, but what is paramount here is the legality of the remix and its value to both parties.  While Romero was personally disappointed with the liberty that Return of the Living Dead took with the material, O’Bannon was entirely in his right to do so.   Inherently a form of criticism, parody must make use of another medium in order to convey its message.  As in the case with Romero and O’Bannon, the original copyright holder can be hesitant or unwilling to have their work parodied, resulting in the parodist having to rely on free speech principles such as Fair-Use in order to justify their creation.  The Four Factors of Fair Use – purpose and character of use, nature of the copyrighted work, amount of the copyrighted work used, and its effect on the copyrighted work’s value in the marketplace – are addressed in O’Bannon’s screenplay; the last factor, marketplace value, was a conflict of interest between the two properties.  While the title Return of the Living Dead confused audiences, an argument can be made that without that specific title O’Bannon’s parody would not have been possible.  The parody in part required referring to the earlier film in a conversation between two lead characters that directly refers to Night of the Living Dead to explain how the undead came to be.  Frank and Freddy are employees of the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse and their actions following this exchange establish the entire film:

Freddy: What's the weirdest thing you ever saw in here?
Frank: Oh, kid, I have seen weird things come and I have seen weird things go. But the weirdest thing I ever saw just had to cap it all.
Freddy: Oh, yeah? What's that?
Frank: Let me ask you a question, kid. Did you see that movie, "Night of the Living Dead"?
Freddy: Yeah, yeah, yeah, that's the one where the corpses start eating the people, right? Sure. Wh-what about it?
Frank: Did you know that movie was based on a true case?
Freddy: Come on, you're shi**ing me, right?
Frank: [raises right hand] I've never been more serious in my life.
Freddy: That's not possible. I mean, they showed zombies taking over the world.
Frank: They changed it all around. What really happened was back in 1969, in Pittsburgh, at the V.A. hospital, there was a chemical spill and all that stuff kinda leaked down into the morgue and it made all the dead bodies kinda jump around as though it was alive.
Freddy: What chemical?
Frank: 2-4-5 Trioxin, it's called. It was to kinda spray on marijuana or something. And the Darrow Chemical Company was trying to develop it for the Army. And they told the guy who made the movie that if he told the true story, they'd just sue his ass off. So he changed all the facts around.
Freddy: So what really happened?
Frank: Well, they closed it all down, see, and the Army shipped all that contaminated dirt and all those dead bodies out. And they kept it a secret.
Freddy: So how come you know about it?
Frank: A typical Army f**k up. The Transportation Department got the orders crossed, and they shipped those bodies here instead of to the Darrow Chemical Company.

This reference to Night of the Living Dead not only pays tribute to the original property but helps to differentiate it as well.  This allows for the title Return of the Living Dead to take on its parodic meaning by becoming one of its possible sequels. In his contest against Return, Romero cited an earlier 1978 legal matter he won against a distributor who wanted to re-release a picture originally titled Messiah of Evil, in which his objection was upheld because the film shared no direct correlation with his property. However, O’Bannon’s work is a spoof of Romero and his films, and without the direct correlation between the two titles, the satire would not be as effective. 

The behind-the scenes-controversy now long behind them, both films are have become highly regarded properties in horror cinema. Contemporary audiences are aware of the difference between Romero’s slow, creeping corpses and the fast-zombies of the 2004 Dawn of the Dead remake and World War Z (2013). Horror fans recognize the Haitian folklore-derived inspiration of director Victor Halpern’s White Zombie (1932) and the horror comedy roots of King of the Zombies (1941) and Zombies On Broadway (1945) on Romero’s Night and Dawn. Russo contributed to O’Bannon’s remix with Return, in its turn spawning a series of Return films, as well as more recent postmodern zombie spinoffs. Return featured a couple, one of whom becomes infected and delivers the fan-favorite, memorable line, “If you really loved me, you’d let me eat your brains!” More recently, the remix of zombies and Romeo and Juliet, Warm Bodies (2013), return to O’Bannon’s well to craft a horror-comedy romance. The zombie is us; the zombie must be periodically remixed to remain current, like all music, comedy, and art, Romero was only the first. 

Internet Movie Database (N.D.). “Return of the Living Dead Poster” (1985)   

by Rikk Mulligan, Andy Prisbylla, with David Scherer

Tags: Legacy of the Dead, See all tags

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