The Return of the Living Dead series of gory zombie films produced some great entries and some awful ones, and here’s how they stack up. When it comes to zombie movies, there’s basically the works of George A. Romero, and everything else. With 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, Romero essentially invented the zombie sub-genre as we know it today, and every piece of zombie pop culture since owes Romero some level of creative debt, from The Walking Dead to World War Z.
What some fans may not know is that Return of the Living Dead actually began life as a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. Following the production of that film, Romero and collaborator John A. Russo agreed to part ways, with Russo retaining the rights to the “Living Dead” part of the title, and Romero having freedom to make his own zombie follow-ups elsewhere. Russo wrote a novel called Return of the Living Dead, and then a script based on that novel. However, when Alien writer Dan O’Bannon was hired to direct, he insisted on drastically rewriting Russo’s screenplay, in an attempt to not tread too heavily on Romero’s territory.
Thus, what had began life as a serious-minded sequel to Night of the Living Dead became what would go on to be a landmark in the horror/comedy world. There have been five Return of the Living Dead films made to date, and here’s how they rank, worst to best.
One of two belated Return of the Living Dead sequels filmed back to back in Romania and Ukraine, Necropolis centers on a group of teens who accidentally unleash a horde of zombies while attempting to rescue their friend from the experiments of a malevolent corporation. An absolutely terrible film in every respect, Necropolis does everything bad, even managing to get a dreadful performance out of veteran character actor Peter Coyote. To top things off, the zombies here act differently then in prior entries, and the film even spells Trioxin wrong.
Shot on the same sets, using the same cast – even Coyote, who again is terrible and looks ashamed to be there – Rave to the Grave is only better than Necropolis by the slimmest of margins. The cast appear to be playing the same characters, but bizarrely, don’t seem to have lived through the prior film, having no knowledge of zombies. It’s a baffling creative choice, in a sequel with many of those. The plot, such as it is, sees “Tryoxin” turned into a street drug, which gets college kids super high, then turns them into zombies.
With the abysmal Necropolis and Rave to the Grave out of the way, we get to the Return of the Living Dead movies that are worth watching. 1988’s Return of the Living Dead Part 2 is a flawed effort, but compared to Necropolis and Rave to the Grave, it’s a revelation. Most of the original film’s cast returns, albeit as new characters, since Louisville was blown up to contain the zombie outbreak at the end of the first film. Those efforts were for naught though, as a barrel of Trioxin falls off a military truck and starts the cycle all over again. Part 2 isn’t nearly as good as the first, in either the horror or humor departments, but it’s also far from unwatchable.
Directed by Brian Yuzna (the Re-Animator franchise), Return of the Living Dead 3 is vastly different than the first two, featuring all new characters, and seemingly no connection to the first film outside of Trioxin creating zombies. This could’ve spelled doom, but thankfully, what’s offered up instead is quite good. Return of the Living Dead 3 ditches the comedy for a tragic, almost Romeo and Juliet-esque romance between boy and his newly turned zombie girlfriend. Full of great practical gore, cool-looking zombies, and likeable actors, this sequel has rightfully earned a large cult following.
Arguably the best zombie comedy ever, and one of the first, The Return of the Living Dead just works extremely well. The pace is fast, the jokes are funny, the zombies are really cool looking – most notably the Tarman, pictured above – and the cast is easy to enjoy spending time with. Add to that a punk rock party vibe, and The Return of the Living Dead remains just as entertaining today as it was 35 years ago.
More: George A. Romero’s Zombie Movies Ranked, Worst to Best