(Attention: Massive spoilers will quickly be revealed for the film, “The Return of the Living Dead.” But hopefully by now, you’ve already seen it -— especially if you live in Louisville.)
Released in 1985, “The Return of the Living Dead” broke new cinematic ground. While it had all the trappings of a run-of-the-mill horror movie, it wasn’t. Near the end of the movie, after the town has been almost completely ravaged by the undead, Louisville is revealed as the city being destroyed by the first fast, brain-eating zombies in film history and is hit by a nuclear blast. The zombie bomb was dropped on Louisville, and its effects are even stronger today than they were then. Over the past 30 years, the film has turned into a cult phenomenon as Louisville has become obsessed with zombies.
But what did it? What made Louisville so crazy for the zombie lifestyle? Why our city, more than Cincinnati or Indianapolis or Chicago? There are plenty of other towns out there, many with more people or resources to put these elaborate events together … but no, it was Louisville that latched onto this creepy subculture. Could it be just random chance? Or was it that seed planted in 1985, when Dan O’Bannon decided to annihilate our city with zombies and nuclear weapons?
“The Return of the Living Dead” is indebted to the movie “Night of the Living Dead.” “Night” made its debut in 1968 and was filmed on an ultra-low budget on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. It was written by George Romero and John Russo and directed by Romero, who up until that point had been making mostly industrial films for different Pittsburgh industries. It told the story of a mysterious situation wherein the dead returned to life and began to chase and eat the living. And the plot, which became the first of many, centered on a small group of people who band together (sometimes) to try to fend off these undead creatures. Its grim black-and-white cinematography and grisly, realistic feel shocked audiences and turned away many critics. Before long, however, someone had the genius idea of playing the film “at midnight” — and it took off, making it arguably the first successful midnight movie. But along the way, it also took hold of the American consciousness in a way that we never saw coming, redefining the horror genre and creating a new subgenre: the zombie movie.
With a movie that successful and cinematically impactful, a sequel would, of course, be imminent. But things are never that simple. For one, a mix-up with the original theatrical distributor ended up with “The Night of the Living Dead” falling into the public domain. Which is why to this day, you will find a cheap (and probably bad-quality) copy of it sitting near the cash register of your local grocery store or gas station. While, on the one hand, it totally ruined the creators’ chances of ever really making money on this extremely successful film, that is probably the most instrumental factor in zombies embedding themselves in our national cognizance. Suddenly the movie was available everywhere, and every low- rent TV station across the country cashed in on that. Countless horror hosts played the movie over and over until that undead scenario had woven itself so far into our psyche that most people probably have a “zombie contingency plan” now.
After the success of “The Night of the Living Dead,” cowriters Romero and Russo parted ways professionally. And in a strange turn of events, they were both allowed to continue making zombie films, but with different title structures. While Romero was free to continue making movies using the phase “of the Dead,” Russo was tossed the other side of the coin by being granted use of the wording “Living Dead.” And that is how both of their careers continued.
In 1977, while Romero began shooting his own sequel, “Dawn of the Dead,” Russo published a novel titled “Return of the Living Dead.” I talked with Russo a few years back and asked him about his involvement with what would eventually become the film “The Return of the Living Dead.”
Russo said, “We wrote a straight horror, actual sequel, in the vein of ‘Night of the Living Dead.’ So that straight horror version opens with the funeral of a child, and the farmer who is father of that child is handed a spike and he has to drive it in[to] his own child’s head. That was the rationale [of doing a sequel], bring them back and then now what can you do to take it in a different direction than ‘Night of the Living Dead’? So we opened it up with the raiding party, because there would be people taking advantage of such a crisis, and looting and raping and so on. And there would be good guys too, trying to stop them and stop the plague of the zombies. So that was the whole idea behind ‘Return of the Living Dead.’ Well, if you know anything about the way the movie actually turned out, that’s quite a different direction.”
When the movie eventually changed hands, a new and interesting character entered into the mix, bringing a new, game-changing dimension to the film. Russo explained, “We finally had to sell the screenplay because nobody would finance it. Frank Sinatra was going to finance it. And we went out to Las Vegas to close the deal … and his mother’s plane went down in the mountains and she was killed. And so the deal didn’t go through. And we sold the script, for a lot of money — but lost control of the project. And then Orion Pictures said, ‘Straight horror is dead. Don’t make straight horror.’ They hired Dan O’Bannon to turn it into a comedy … so the script got revised. Which he did a good job … it’s a good movie.”
And so Dan O’Bannon entered the picture. A longtime fan of EC Comics and Heavy Metal magazine, O’Bannon got his start in the business collaborating with the likes of John Carpenter on his early project “Dark Star” and attempting to work on the now-infamous Alejandro Jodorowsky version of “Dune.” O’Bannon went on to become a major force in the world of screenwriting, penning films like “Alien,” “Blue Thunder,” “Lifeforce,” “Invaders from Mars” and “Total Recall,” as well as not only writing the screenplay for “The Return of the Living Dead,” but also stepping in to direct it as his feature film debut.
Whether it was his childhood love of “Tales from the Crypt” comic books or just his own need to shake up the system, O’Bannon’s version of “Return of the Living Dead” changed a lot in the making of the film. Perhaps taking into account Orion’s comment about ‘straight horror,’ this new screenplay was as much a comedy as it was horrific. It also dragged the old black-and-white aesthetic of the original ’68 story kicking and screaming into the ’80s, as it cast most of the main characters with punk rock youths (which made Louisville look much cooler circa 1985). At the time, a horror movie set in Kentucky would, more than likely, have been about a bunch of backward, hillbilly types. This progressive vision of Louisville being presented to the world served us well.
In keeping with the punky cast of locals, O’Bannon also heavily featured punk music as the soundtrack to all the horrific scenes — again a gutsy move that most studio execs would have disagreed with. Punk certainly had built an underground following in the music world, but still didn’t pull in big money in terms of record sales. And though punk influences had begun creeping into smaller studio films (“Repo Man,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School,” “Suburbia”), the concept was still almost completely unproven as a draw for theatergoers.
As if the comedic tone and musical choices weren’t genre-bending enough, O’Bannon then took the very “rules” that previous zombie films were built on and threw them out the window. He featured fast-moving zombies (at least 17 years before geeks everywhere would argue over whether that was appropriate) and let these creatures not only speak but also gave them the cognitive skills to operate machinery (like, say, a CB radio). O’Bannon also added a key factor that would change the way people saw zombies as a whole from that point on: “brains.” Having his featured zombie utter that one word, he reset the whole undead mythology — by now making the zombies not flesh-eaters, but ones that specifically fed on the brains of the living. (And even more groundbreaking was that they had a specific reason for doing so! And were even conscious of it.)
But the comedy aspect is probably what made “The Return of the Living Dead” a standout in the genre. It’s something that others would eventually find, like Peter Jackson’s “Dead Alive” and even Sam Raimi, who more or less reshot his earlier film and turned it into “Evil Dead 2,” trying to find that comedy balance (although hardcore geeks will acknowledge that “deadites” are different then zombies … but still, it’s playing with that same dynamic). And it would be nearly 20 years before “Shaun of the Dead” would eventually master that same concept and bring it to what is probably the biggest mainstream audience of all of these films.
It was around that time that the shift began to happen. We had all survived crossing into the new millennium, and since civilization didn’t collapse around Y2K, perhaps we were unconsciously looking for a new apocalypse to be obsessed with. Then along came “28 Days Later.” While there had been many other zombie movies over the years, that was the movie for most horror fans that revitalized the zombie genre. And oddly enough, it did it by NOT being about zombies. Not only did it introduce the concept of “fast zombies” (to all those people who had forgotten that O’Bannon had already done that in 1985), but it also brought with it the idea of infected humans. Essentially not undead, these humans were infected with a new strain of virus that made them behave like animalistic zombies. Building on real-world virus stories in the news and Hollywood versions like “Outbreak,” director Danny Boyle made “28 Days Later” and cleverly crossed the hype of virus paranoia with the pre-established zombie formula … and a new era was born.
What took it to that next level was the intellectual game of arguing whether or not it was actually a “zombie” movie. This new cinematic gray area awakened the geek gene in many mainstream viewers and led them to start seeking out older zombie films, looking for previous movies to confirm or deny their zombie mythology, and then seek out others to argue with over these minute details. The 2000s was the dawn of this age of widespread geek culture, where what used to be considered a nerdy obsession over pop culture was now embraced. (I mean, we could never live in a world where the No. 1 TV show in America is “The Big Bang Theory” without this millennial change and the steady increase of acceptance over the last decade or so.) And as geek culture began to take over the mainstream markets, it brought with it … zombies.
Boyle’s “28 Days Later” was followed closely by the one-two punch of the “Dawn of the Dead” remake, followed by “Shaun of the Dead.” The year 2004 was big for zombies. From that point forward, America was obsessed with zombies — and, perhaps, no city more so than Louisville.
Louisville’s Zombie Walk
In 2005, Louisvillians John King and Lyndi Lou decided to have a zombie-themed birthday party dragging down Bardstown Road in full undead regalia. And again, we come across another moment in local history that led to what would soon overtake our town. Within a few short years, not only did the Louisville Zombie Attack (as the annual birthday celebration became known) find a huge following, but in addition our town was overrun with zombie proms, zombie music events, zombie dress-up day at school or work … and suddenly, everyone who owned a home video camera in Louisville was shooting an indie zombie movie.
Lou’s first exposure to zombies was, she said, “at a slumber party at Leslie Roberts’ house when I was like 8 or so. We were watching ‘Night of the Living Dead,’ and her dad, Gary, snuck up to the window behind us, banged on the window and scared the bejeezus out of all of us! I was hooked after that.” But when I asked when she first saw “The Return of the Living Dead,” she said she didn’t really remember: “High school, I’m sure.”
King said, “My first exposure to zombies was ‘The Return of the Living Dead’ when I was probably 8 or 9. Linnea Quigley, who played Trash, was one of my first crushes (along with Agent 99 and Catwoman). I have older sisters that were punks in the ’80s that exposed me to that life very young, maybe too young, but the music and the camp horror always stuck with me. My sister took me to my first rock show at around the same time.”
So there it is — everything a growing adolescent needs! Gore, rock music and preteen sexual attraction. And it is interesting to note that the zombie allure took hold of the Louisville’s Zombie Walk founders at around the same age. At a young age, kids are not just curious, but morbidly curious. They have a fascination with gruesome subjects. So if you are going to grow up to be a horror fan, that young age is when it sinks its teeth into you.
And as for the zombie obsession in particular, it’s probably a combination of what you are exposed to. But for a huge part of the last several generations, it was the seminal “The Night of the Living Dead,” a classic film that still creepily holds up and was the entry drug for many horror junkies out there.
Each generation finds its creepy entry point. For thousands of kids out there, it’s undoubtedly “The Walking Dead,” which will go on to inform the rest of their horror influences. But in 1985, we were given a new option, a different approach to the zombie world, and for many kids coming up at that time, this new style of horror probably had the same enticement as the punk rock music it featured — the chance to be different. This wasn’t your father’s zombie movie. It was a cool, rockin’ version that you old people just didn’t “get.” And for many ‘80s kids, that was more than likely the appeal — that and the fact that it also happened to be a great horror movie.
But what about the weird Louisville connection? Why was “The Return of the Living Dead” set in Louisville? And just why are we so receptive to the increasing zombie obsession?
We can no longer ask O’Bannon why he chose Louisville for the setting. Sadly, he died in December 2009 after battling Crohn’s disease for many years. However, there’s a clue in the 2007 collector’s edition of the film.
Among the many special features is a commentary track with both O’Bannon and production designer William Stout. Around the 47-minute mark, right in the middle of the movie, they make a comment featuring the phrase “in a New York second,” which spills over into a comment about potentially having set the story in New York City, to which O’Bannon nonchalantly says, “Naw, I didn’t want New York. I wanted Louisville, Kentucky. ‘Cause it was offbeat. And nobody would set a movie like this in Louisville. That’s why I wanted Louisville.”
So there you have it. Why would you set a movie like this in our city? Because we’re weird, and because what’s accepted and even celebrated in Louisville just wouldn’t fly in other cities. Maybe that all stems from not being a lot of things. We’re not quite Midwest, we’re not quite Southern. We’re not a huge metropolis, we’re not a small quiet town. We fall somewhere in the middle of most categories, somewhere in that ambiguous existence where there are no set rules. And so we’ve used that unrestrictive circumstance to explore some of our more unconventional avenues. To cultivate some of our more unusual options. And what we’re left with is a town built around a lot of eclectic individuals — large groups of people coming together to form one massive wave of offbeat charm.
Maybe our fascination with zombies is just a reflection of what we are every day: a horde of unorthodox characters all coming together to form something bigger, a wave of bizarre progression. A force that can’t be stopped … well, at least until the military realizes we’re out of control and nukes us all. Which could happen. But until that day comes. …
Bryan Renfro is not only a lifelong movie fan, but also producer and host of the podcast “Movie Meltdown,” where they have group discussions about horror movies as well as a wide spectrum of different types of films, featuring interviews with actors, directors and anyone else connected with the entertainment industry. For more on the show, go to