When it comes to zombie movies, it is difficult not to start with Romero and his 1968 masterpiece “Night of the Living Dead.” The fact that this movie is considered to be the origin of all contemporary zombie movies, along with the fact that it made more than 263 times its production budget, makes it one of the most successful projects in Hollywood history.
While zombies were mainly ignored in movies, vampires and werewolves received the admiration of both filmmakers and fans. They did not join the party until 1968. The Return of the Living Dead originally began as a sequel to Romero’s 1968 film, which is why we are specifically addressing it here.
However, Romero and John A. Russo split up in the middle, and Russo left with the rights to the name “Living Dead.” Some of the movies in the “Return of the Living Dead” franchise were excellent, while others were just plain bad.
The first installment in the series is equally funny and terrifying. Despite being a horror-comedy, the picture was able to evoke a sense of dread thanks to the excellent special effects utilized.
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
On July 3rd, Frank, the foreman of a medical supply warehouse, recounts to Freddy that the story that inspired the movie “Night of the Living Dead” actually happened. When a chemical known as 2-4-5 Trioxin was discharged into a morgue, the bodies began writhing ferociously, seemingly coming to life. The military was eventually called in to handle the crisis as it was developing, but word of the sick bodies quickly spread. The authorities agreed to let the movie be made as long as it was labeled as a fictional work.
Additionally, Frank informs Freddy that a few Trioxin containers were accidentally sent to their warehouse and have been sitting there for a while. When Freddy goes with Frank to the basement to get his doubts cleared, he sees the mummified remains inside containers. In an attempt to allay Freddy’s fears about the durability of the containers, Frank slaps the containers and accidentally unleashes the toxic gas. The gas melts one of the corpses and reanimates another. Soon, Freddy and Frank are joined by their boss, Burt.
To their horror, they discover that each body part of the reanimated corpses or zombies can survive independently. Burt concludes that it would be best to get the zombie incinerated. So, he takes help from his friend Ernie, but the incineration had other terrible side effects. The gases that were released contaminated the air, and when it rained, the water became toxic, only to reanimate the corpses in a nearby cemetery.
Meanwhile, Freddy’s friends and his girlfriend Tina wait at the cemetery to meet him after he finishes his day at work. As is the norm with films like this one, Trash starts stripping on a gravestone while Tina goes to get Freddy. At the warehouse, she wandered around the basement, but instead of Freddy she encountered a disfigured and reanimated corpse from the barrel that was earlier presumed to have dissolved.
The rest of them arrive just in time to save her from the monster, but Suicide is killed in the process. Another friend, Casey, recollects seeing Freddy entering the mortuary, and they all make their way towards Freddy through the cemetery. However, they get attacked by the zombies who were emerging from their graves. While Trash gets killed, Casey and Chuck rush back to the warehouse, and Scuz, Spider, and Tina reach the mortuary.
At the mortuary, they discover that Freddy and Frank had grown severely ill because of their exposure to the toxic gas. To make things worse, medical tests indicated that they were already dead. After learning that corpses were re-emerging from their graves, Ernie and Burt close the mortuary gates.
By now, things have gotten worse, and the zombies have started to devour people, including cops and paramedics who had arrived at the scene. Also, Scuz gets killed while protecting the barricaded mortuary. When Frank and Freddy show signs of conversion into zombies, the group locks them up in a chapel along with Tina, who refused to part with Freddy. But Freddy had lost his mind and attempted to devour Tina.
Luckily, Burt, Spider, and Ernie rescue her, and in the chaos, Frank managed to escape and immolate himself because he still had some control over his mind. Burt and Spider flee the spot in a police car, leaving Tina and Ernie behind. They go to the mortuary’s attic in search of safety, but a blinded and zombified Freddy tries to break in.
Burt and Spider then reach the warehouse and find Casey and Chuck. They incapacitate the zombie from the basement, who Spider names Tarman. Burt then calls Colonel Glover, who orders a nuke strike on the town to cleanse it and stop the infection from spreading further. But the strike also killed many survivors. In the aftermath, we see that more resurrected corpses are screaming from inside their graves, effectively meaning that another wave is about to hit the town.
Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)
A military truck is tasked with transporting barrels of Trioxin, but unbeknownst to the driver, one of the barrels breaks loose and falls into a nearby river. The following day, a group of friends takes another kid named Jesse Wilson to the cemetery, for an initiation of sorts. But Jesse was terrified and ran into a nearby drain where the kids found the barrel. Upon opening the barrel, they find a corpse inside and run from the spot with their lives.
But they had inadvertently released the gas, and soon, all hell would break loose. When Jesse tells them that he would call the military number printed on the barrel, the bullies imprison him in the mausoleum and leave. After this, Billy and Johnny inspect the barrel further and release all of the Trioxin.
Later, graverobbers Joey and Ed start exhuming the graves to salvage whatever they could, while their accomplice named Brenda chose to stay in the van. Ed and Joey inadvertently free Jesse, who runs home. As should have been expected by now, rainfall helps the Trioxin permeate into the graves and reanimates the corpses.
After returning home, Jesse goes to meet Billy, who has fallen terribly sick. Billy warns Jesse against telling anyone about their infamous discovery, but Jesse goes back to investigate the barrel. He finds a zombie covered in tar and newer ones rising from the graves, so he runs back home and tells his sister Lucy about the outbreak. Obviously, she doesn’t pay heed to it and locks him up in a room.
Meanwhile Brenda, who was in the van, goes to find her friends but meets a zombie instead. Ed and Joey, on the other hand, also get attacked by zombies, but Joey smashes the undead dude’s head before fleeing from the spot and meeting a hysterical Brenda. Back at home, Jesse manages to trip the fire alarms to create enough distraction for him to escape. Jesse then calls the Army and speaks to Colonel Glover, but the call gets disconnected abruptly.
Ed, Joey, and Brenda barge into Jesse’s house and then break into a doctor’s home and convince him to give them his car so that they could take Joey to the hospital because he had fallen ill on account of the Trioxin exposure. Nonetheless, upon reaching the hospital they find it deserted. Back at Billy’s house, he had transformed into a zombie and attacked his mother, while his father got killed and devoured by zombies when he went out to get a doctor.
Meanwhile, a cable repairman named Tom, Lucy, and Jesse escape in a car. After procuring arms and ammunition, they reach the hospital, where they meet the three graverobbers. Both Ed and Joey soon transform entirely. Brenda sacrifices herself and lets Joey cannibalize her because she failed to kill her former love. In the meantime, as Tom, Lucy, and Jesse were trying to flee, the National Guard opened fire, assuming they were zombies. However, the survivors devised a plan to attract the zombies to the powerplant using brains from the meatpacking plant. The plan succeeded, and they managed to finally kill all the zombies.
Return of the Living Dead III (1993)
Curt Reynolds is the son of Colonel John Reynolds. Curt steals his dad’s security key card to wander about and explore the military base with his girlfriend Julie Walker. At the base, he finds his father at work, along with Col. Peck and Lt. Col. Sinclair. The three officers were observing a military experiment with a corpse that was exposed to Trioxin. As was expected, the corpse reanimated into a zombie right after being exposed to the gas. It turns out that the military was hoping to use zombies in combat, to reduce human casualties.
But their insatiable hunger for brains made them an unfavorable alternative to living soldiers, who follow commands. Sinclair suggests that the zombies should be encased in remote-controlled exoskeletons that would make the zombies immobile when not in action. However, Colonel Reynolds suggests using the paretic infusion, which is a process of shooting a chemical projectile into a zombie’s forehead.
The chemical would produce an endothermic reaction and freeze a zombie’s brain, to temporarily immobilize the undead entity. But the paretic infusion goes wrong, and a zombie manages to infect a scientist, who in turn infects others. Following this, the zombies are contained using paralyzing darts, and the survivors are quarantined. Furthermore, Colonel Reynolds is removed from the project and sent to Oklahoma, while Sinclair takes charge as the new head of the project.
When Reynolds informs his son Curt about moving to Oklahoma, Curt gets agitated and leaves with Julie on his bike. However, they meet with an accident, and Julie dies. Broken because of her death and desperate to find a fix, Curt thinks of an equally desperate solution. He brings her corpse to the military base, and using his father’s security key card, he gets hold of the Trioxin gas in order to reanimate her. Reanimated Julie has no desire to eat any normal food, and her hunger is growing by the minute, so Curt drives her to a store.
But at the store, a gang of rogues’ mock Julie and a fight breaks out. The shopkeeper succumbs to a bullet while Julie bites the shooter. By now, Julie has become hungry for brains, and she eats some of the dead shopkeeper’s brain, only to be stopped by Curt. The couple then leaves the place but gets hunted down by the gang members, who were alien to the fact that their friend was turning into a zombie.
The couple manages to evade their pursuers and take refuge in a sewer, where they meet a man named Riverman. Julie realizes that excruciating levels of pain made her hunger go away, so she mutilates herself with whatever she could find in Riverman’s junk. Once the gang manages to corner the couple, Julie goes on a killing spree.
But the military arrives and neutralizes all zombies. Curt soon realizes that the love of his life would be used as a weapon, and he cannot allow this. So, in a fit of rage, he frees the zombies, who then kill the soldiers. In the end, Curt gets bitten. Knowing his fate, he brings Julie near a furnace, and they die by sacrificing themselves after sharing one last kiss.
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005)
The film is set ten years after the events of the third film. Charles Garrison travels to Chernobyl to collect the six remaining canisters of Trioxin. Two Russians take him to a power station, but the Trioxin leaks and infects one, who devours the other. Garrison quickly shoots the zombie in the head.
Charles lives with his nephews Julian and Jake. After coming back home, Charles starts his experiments with Trioxin and reanimates an arm, while Julian, who was out motorbiking with his friends, witnesses a friend named Zeke meet an accident and fall unconscious. Meanwhile, Charles manages to reanimate a corpse and feeds it brains to keep it from turning violent.
However, the Trioxin leaked and reanimated a rat, and two homeless people named Joey and Crusty. Julian learns that Zeke was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital. Julian and his friends find out that Zeke was brought to Hybra Tech, the same organization in which Julian’s parents had volunteered before dying. Furthermore, they discovered that Zeke’s body would be used for experiments, so they broke in to rescue him. But it turns out that Zeke was alive, and so were Julian’s parents. They were all serving as forced test subjects in experiments involving zombie clones in test tubes.
In an attempt to escape from the facility, the friends create a security failure and unwittingly release several zombies. In the ensuing chaos, Darren gets killed and Zeke gets infected. Yet, the others manage to get hold of guns from the armory and climb up the vents to make an escape.
The group soon gets divided, and Julian and his two friends start looking for his parents. But the zombies attack again, until only Julian and Cody remain. Meanwhile, Zeke, Jake, and Becky make it to the parking lot and attempt to flee in a jeep, but Zeke is turning into a zombie. After his complete transformation, he largely retains his mind, but his zombie instincts make him crave brains. Meanwhile, Julian and Cody discover that Julian’s parents have been transformed into zombies and were fit with several weapons like wrist-mounted mini-guns and circular saws.
Julian’s parents break free from their restraints and begin to hunt Julian and Cody. After much struggle and slaying a few zombies on the way, Julian and Cody make it out of the facility with the help of their friend Katie. The other friends make use of makeshift weapons like flamethrowers to fight hordes of zombies. Soon, Julian’s dad arrives and shoots their vehicle with his mini-gun, but they manage to destroy him with a grenade.
Zeke had transformed entirely and was fighting with Julian, but the latter pulled the pin out of one of Zeke’s grenades, effectively killing him. Later, the SWAT teams arrive at the spot and take down the remaining hordes of zombies while rescuing the survivors. Surprisingly, Julian’s zombie dad had survived the grenade hurled at him . The SWAT team ends him once and for all with a tank. At the end of the film, it was revealed that Charles had escaped with the barrels of Trioxin.
The last two films of the franchise were sequels to the original, just by their names. They make absolutely no effort to rise above the low-budget direct-to-video feel. They intended for it to have similar comic elements as the first two films of the Return franchise, but clearly, no thought was put into the script and the jokes. Even Peter Coyote felt out of place and mistreated. They made the zombies weaker than a sloppy zombie from one of Romero’s films who could be taken down with just a single bullet, while the earlier films portrayed zombies such that even headshots weren’t enough to take them down.
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (2005)
This final film of the franchise opens with Charles Garrison from the last film going to a mortuary with a loadout of Trioxin. But Interpol agents apprehend him with the intention of destroying the canisters so that no other zombie incidents take place. As fate would have it, one of the officers sprays the gas on the corpses, and they get reanimated. In the ensuing struggle, the mortuary owner, a government agent, and Charles lose their lives. When Julian learns about Charles’ death, he arrives with Jenny in the hopes of selling whatever he could find.
Julian and Jenny find two barrels of Trioxin. Jenny’s brother Jeremy tastes the chemical, thinking it would be something like ecstasy but instead goes into spasms. Later, Jeremy, Shelby, and Cody extract the chemical from the canisters and put it in pills so that another student named Skeet could sell it to other students. Soon, these students start transforming into zombies. A student named Aldo calls in the military, and a bomber plane destroys the rave, leaving only a few survivors.
The last film does no better in terms of its technical aspects but still manages to have a slightly engaging story. But then again, it’s more of a waste to expect anything great from this one too. Although the film had an interesting and ambitious idea, the poor execution, fragile script, and shoddy camera work killed any opportunity for the film to receive positive feedback. It is widely accepted that zombie films are the easiest to make and the toughest to execute, and these last two films of the franchise prove the fact.
A documentary titled ‘More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead’ was released in 2011, but fortunately or unfortunately, there has been no news of reviving the franchise. We are witnessing a return of films like ‘Candyman’ and ‘Dune’, which go back to more or less the same era as the Return franchise, but it seems like directors and producers are considering the ‘Return of the Living Dead’ films to be truly dead.