Return of the Living Dead isn’t just a comedic knockoff of George Romero’s classic zombie movies, it actually connects directly to them. The first major zombie comedy, Return of the Living Dead paved the way for future blends of laughs with the ravenous undead, such as Zombieland, Shaun of the Dead, and Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive. Whereas Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead played a zombie apocalypse mostly serious, Return of the Living Dead turned the scenario into a wild party, full of punk rock music, wild costumes, slapstick physical gags, and a knowing wink at the audience.
If Romero’s movies are a warning about what humans might devolve into when faced with a contagion that can’t be stopped, and a threat that can’t be reasoned with, Return of the Living Dead is a celebration of how stupidly people might act when faced with zombies, and humanity’s unlimited potential for self-destruction. One need only look at Return of the Living Dead‘s hilariously dark ending, in which the entire town of Louisville is vaporized with nukes in order to stop the spread of the zombie uprising.
As different as the two movies are though, Return of the Living Dead is directly related to Romero’s movies in more ways than one. Not only is Return of the Living Dead connected in-universe to Romero’s zombies, it’s also connected offscreen as well.
Early on in Return of the Living Dead, Freddy (Thom Matthews), a new employee at the amusingly named Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, is taken aside by his supervisor Frank (James Karen) and shown around the place. As part of his orientation, Frank reveals to Freddy that George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was actually based on a real-life case in which an accidental release of the chemical 2-4-5 Trioxin caused zombies to rise in Pittsburgh. The U.S. military managed to contain the outbreak and mostly cover up what happened, although details ended up leaking somehow. According to Frank, the military agreed to let Romero make Night of the Living Dead as long as the specifics of the event were changed and the filmmaker denied any knowledge of the real occurrence. A barrel of Trioxin accidentally sent to Uneeda after the incident of course leads to Return of the Living Dead‘s zombie problem.
While that’s the in-universe connection between the two properties, Return of the Living Dead‘s existence is actually a direct result of Romero and his collaborator John A. Russo going their separate ways after Night of the Living Dead. Russo got to keep the Living Dead name and do what he wanted with it, while Romero got to make his own zombie sequels elsewhere. Russo wrote a novel called Return of the Living Dead, then adapted it into a script. However when Dan O’Bannon was brought on to direct the film, he decided to toss most of Russo’s story out, turning what was a serious follow-up to Night into the comedy that horror fans now know and love.
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