Welcome to Commentary Commentary, where we sit and listen to filmmakers talk about their work, then share the most interesting parts. In this edition, Rob Hunter travels into the ravenous realm of ‘The Return of the Living Dead.’
1985’s The Return of the Living Dead has been one of my favorite horror-comedies since, roughly, 1985, and while the sequels went off the rails in tone and quality Dan O’Bannon’s original remains a modern classic even after numerous re-watches. It’s funny, cynical, terrifically-acted, and features fun practical effects that run the gamut of terrific to questionable.
Scream Factory is releasing a collector’s edition of the film later this month that not only looks beautiful thanks to a new 2k restoration but also comes loaded with special features new and old. The release features a whopping four commentary tracks, two of which are brand new, but for this week’s feature I decided to give a listen to the older one featuring the man behind the film.
O’Bannon passed away in 2009, and while he only directed two feature films his influence – direct and otherwise – is evident in numerous genre classics including Alien, Dead & Buried, Lifeforce, Total Recall, and more.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for The Return of the Living Dead.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Commentator: Dan O’Bannon (director/writer), William Stout (production designer)
1. O’Bannon is proud that his film is based on the facts and is shot on location where the real events occurred.
2. James Karen, who plays Frank, used to show up on-set on his days off “just to pump up the spirits of the rest of the cast.”
3. O’Bannon wrote the role of Frank for himself, but when Karen auditioned O’Bannon realized he was no longer the best man for the job.
4. Regarding the line where Frank tells Freddy (Thom Mathews) about the skeleton farms in India, O’Bannon recalls working on Alien and having H.R. Giger request fresh skulls to aid his designs. “They were wrapped in plastic just like that, and they were the most beautiful skulls I had ever seen, like works of art, and the teeth were all perfect. I was told they were ordered from India.” Tobe Hooper suggested the “skeleton farm” line, and a few months after the film opened O’Bannon read a report that “the government of India had stopped all deportations of skeletons for medical purposes.” He’s unclear if the timing was coincidental.
5. Tobe Hooper (Lifeforce) was originally going to direct this film.
6. The frost on the walls of the freezer room is actually Christmas tree flocking. O’Bannon wishes they had had a budget and could have afforded to actually turn the temperature down in there and see the actors’ breath.
7. The bum on the sidewalk at 4:05 is Stout’s cameo. “Dan, you had me gain 20 lbs for that role,” he says, “and you didn’t even get to see my stomach.” “I didn’t have you gain anything,” replies O’Bannon. “You must have just been porking it down.”
8. O’Bannon was aiming for a pacing similar to the screwball comedies of Howard Hawks, “which was fast, stepping on each other’s lines, I wanted it to sound chaotic.” They rehearsed for a week to ensure the dialogue he wanted heard didn’t get lost in the shuffle.
9. The exteriors were downtown L.A. warehouses, but the interiors were sets built in other warehouses.
10. Karen pierced his ear after O’Bannon told him the character was a hip guy. “I didn’t ask him to.”
11. O’Bannon wanted yellow smoke, and apparently the only way the production team could make it was with sulfur. “Just a few minutes shooting in there, I had a blinding headache. Horrible stuff.”
12. The shot of the barrel corpse – nicknamed Tarman – changing through the glass panel was done with a wax face over the skull and heat turned up to melt it. The glass cracking was unintentional but happened due to the heat.
13. The title font is based on Ralph Steadman’s style.
14. Col. Glover’s house wasn’t dressed by the production at all. This “garish display” is just how it came. “That is someone’s taste.”
15. Beverly Randolph, who plays Tina, ended up marrying the film’s assistant art director.
16. They spent entirely too much time looking for a patch of trees in Southern California and eventually had to settle on an olive grove.
17. Karen brought Jason Robards to visit the set one day.
18. They had to get approval from Lysol to have Frank spray away the stench of death with their product. “They liked the idea that Lysol would kill any conceivable odor.”
19. Effects guru Tony Gardner built the split dog. “If I’d had a bigger budget it would have been a split Great Dane,” adds O’Bannon.
20. The butterfly board was created by cutting photos of butterflies out of a book and folding the wings slightly before pinning them in. Stout was blowing air just out of frame.
21. Stout designed the weeping angel in the cemetery, but it was sculpted by Leo Rind – who never received a paycheck for it. O’Bannon ended up taking it home and putting it in his front yard, but after Stout told him about Rind the director returned it to the man. “He has since rented out that sculpture to about six different productions.”
22. A producer walked on set during Trash’s (Linnea Quigley) strip tease and was concerned that she was completely nude. The production had to make a prosthetic mold of her lower lady bits devoid of features “like a department store mannequin.”
23. Clu Gulager was cast his first day of shooting. O’Bannon was worried because his vision of Burt was so precise, but he loves what the actor created. “Of course he got a little hysterical and punched me out a few times, but that’s fine. I will forgive almost anything for the quality onscreen.”
24. There’s no blade in the side shot of the saw being used to decapitate the corpse.
25. O’Bannon figured the film would appeal solely to guys and included Trash’s nudity for that reason, but he was surprised to discover just as many female fans. “I’ll never make that mistake again,” he says, adding that going forward his nudity will be equal opportunity.
26. The back of Freddy’s jacket says “Fuck You” on it, but they also shot a television friendly version of the scene with a jacket that said “Television Version” on it.
27. O’Bannon recalls a conversation with George Lucas about John Carpenter’s Dark Star and its beach ball alien. “He was very disturbed, it’s the most disturbed I’ve actually seen him express himself, he said ‘It’s just a beach ball!’”
28. O’Bannon wanted a tan running suit for Ernie (Don Calfa), but wardrobe got him the wrong color. “Spielberg would have got a tan running suit.”
29. The shot of the skeleton rising out of the grave and opening its jaw is a major disappointment to Stout. He had assumed it was a work in progress and not the completed effect. “I was so busy being disappointed by other things,” says O’Bannon, “that I didn’t have time to be disappointed with that one.” It of course went on to become one of the key scenes used in marketing.
30. The Return of the Living Dead producers “hated the fact that the zombies ran.” They apparently wanted the more traditional lumbering kind. “It’s just so familiar the other way. I wanted to surprise the audience.”
31. O’Bannon’s commentary offered the extras a bonus if they ate real brains – calf brains – in their scenes. He even took a bite himself to show that he wouldn’t ask them to do anything he wasn’t willing to do himself.
32. He considered featuring Matthias Grunewald’s “The Crucifixion” on the wall but was worried about criticism from Christians. “I shouldn’t have chickened out.”
33. Stout and Gardner are beneath the metal gurney on which the half woman is twitching and hissing, and they’re operating the various moving body parts.
34. It was Karen’s idea for his character to remove his wedding ring and pray for forgiveness before killing himself.
35. O’Bannon cameos as the voice of the policeman in the helicopter. “The voice actor didn’t show up.”
36. Films mentioned as references or inspirations include Invaders from Mars, Alien, His Girl Friday, The Birds, Star Wars, Dark Star, Psycho, Vertigo, Jaws, Cutter’s Way, The Terminator, 2001, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Many people do not believe this, but this is an absolutely true film.”
“I got one of those Indian fetal skeletons for my girlfriend as a birthday present.”
“This looks pretty sexy, and it is pretty sexy onscreen, but it was very hard to do, and sometimes a little embarrassing. But we suffer for film.”
“What a fool I was, those shoes should not have been shiny.”
“He’s not only disgusting, he’s clever!”
“This is one of those actors that plays bums and winos a lot.”
O’Bannon and Stout deliver a fun, informative commentary track on The Return of the Living Dead that reveals their continued affection and excitement for the film. They talk over each other at times, interrupting each other’s thought to highlight one of their own, but the result is an abundance of insight and laughs.
Read more Commentary Commentary from the archives.