Way back in 1968 a groundbreaking film paved the way and established the rules for decades of zombie movie following in its wake. That movie is of course Night of the Living Dead. After the success of that landmark film there was a dispute between the two screenwriters – George A. Romero and John A. Russo – about how they should proceed with the sequels.
The two ultimately decided to pursue two distinct film sagas. Romero’s movies would belong to the “…the Dead” series while Russo’s films would be a separate series titled “Living Dead”. Romero’s next chapter would be Dawn of the Dead in 1978 but despite being written around the same time, Russo would not release his own follow-up until 1985 – the same year Romero released Day of the Dead.
Russo’s Return of the Living Dead begins with an explanation that the 1968 film Night of the Living Dead was based on a true story but some of the facts were altered to cover up the United States military’s involvement. Thus the movie can be considered a “sort-of” sequel. It has a lot more comedy than the original film was known for and introduces the popular Tarman, a severely decomposed zombie known for shouting “Brains!” in a deep and gravelly voice. In this movie we learn about Trioxin, a gas that can restore functionality to nervous systems of dead creatures. One other interesting tidbit involves classic scream queen Linnea Quigley and her iconic dance on a tombstone. That scene had to be reshot multiple times because the producer freaked out over the nude actress and the scene’s suitability for television.
The next film, Return of the Living Dead II, is not as well liked. A military truck is shipping 2-4-5 Trioxin when a barrel falls out and is later found by young bullies. They release the gas and cause a new wave of zombies to rise. I personally do not find this film to be remarkable though it does have its staunch fans.
The third film of the series is the most interesting to me. Appropriately named Night of the Living Dead 3, this movie is more of a romantic horror story. The military is experimenting with the 2-4-5 Trioxin again, this time trying to create undead soldiers. One of the officers overseeing the experiment has a teenaged son who is dating a girl named Julie. She is killed in a motorcycle accident and her boyfriend sneaks her into the military base and revives her with the gas. After a violent encounter with gang members, the couple is chased while Julie slowly transforms into a zombie. Her body mutilation is both scary and enthralling to watch.
The Living Dead series would not be revisited for another twelve years. The fourth and fifth films were shot at the same time in the Ukraine. In my opinion these films were not very good and the zombies have been severely weakened. If I had to find something positive about the final two films, I’d say that I am a little amused that the Tryoxin (note that the spelling has changed) is used as a drug during raves in the fifth movie. It also shows the return of Tarman in what I thought was a damn funny scene:
While I do not believe that these movies are the best of the zombie genre, they are worth checking out for their historical significance.