It was last Halloween that Leo ran my story about zombie movies, Return of the Living Dead and the doomed city where it was supposedly set. Well I thought this October, I would give people a chance to read my full piece - a slightly longer and more personalized version of this undead tale. Including my interview with William Stout dropped right in the middle. So, without further ado...
(Attention: Massive spoilers will quickly be revealed for the film, The Return of the Living Dead. But hopefully by now, you’ve already seen the movie – especially if you live in Louisville.)
Zombies Ate My City!
(or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love being Bombed)
by Bryan Renfro
I remember the first time I saw The Return of the Living Dead. It was in the blossoming age of a new form of entertainment called… cable television. I saw it late one night and I remember it felt like I was treading on new cinematic ground. It felt fresh with a touch of deviant. While it had all the trappings of a run-of-the-mill horror movie – it wasn’t. There was just something so different about it. While sitting there watching it that first time, it’s like I felt it… changing the game. And just when I thought I couldn’t be shocked more then watching the living dead rampage this town, the movie dropped the bomb on me (literally… plotwise anyway). As they announce that all this insanity was in fact - going on in my own hometown! Of course that is revealed just minutes before the city is hit by a nuclear blast. For a town that isn’t featured on the big screen that often – we were certainly getting a lot of action in this movie.
Now I was a less sophisticated viewer back then (it’s arguable that that’s changed), but in the years since I’ve watched that film turn into a cult phenomenon. And even more surprising was that I began to watch the city I lived in, slowly become more and more obsessed with it's zombie subject matter. So in writing this, I set out to piece together how this movie got made, how the story came to be set in Louisville – and just why our town is so fascinated with zombies.
So I guess we’ll have to start at the beginning. The Return of the Living Dead, released in 1985, could never have existed without 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, Pennsylvania. It was written by George Romero and John Russo and was 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 around a small group of people who band together (sometimes) to try to fend off these undead creatures. It’s 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 sub-genre – the zombie movie.
Now 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 Night of the Living Dead falling into 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. But if you overlook the financial bungle aspect, I feel like that is probably the most instrumental factor in zombies imbedding 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 today most people you meet, if you ask them, probably have a “zombie contingency plan”.
Now in addition to the public domain debacle, another interesting fact was that after the success of Night of the Living Dead co-writers 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 phrase “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, John Russo published a novel entitled Return of the Living Dead. I talked with Russo a few years back, and of course I 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 his own child’s head. That was the rational [of doing a sequel], bring them back and then now what can you do to take it in a different direction then 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.
Another interesting character enters the mix as we learn how the movie eventually changed hands. Russo went on to explain, “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 good movie.”
And so Dan O’Bannon enters 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, Total Recall as well as, not only writing the screenplay for The Return of the Living Dead, but also stepping in to direct as his feature film debut.
Now I don’t know if it was his childhood love of Tales from the Crypt comic books or just his own need to shake up the system, but Dan O’Bannon’s version of The Return of the Living Dead changed a lot of things in the making of the film. Perhaps taking into account Orion’s comment about ‘straight horror’, this new screenplay was equally as much a comedy as it was horrific. It also drug the old black and white esthetic of the original ’68 story kicking and screaming into the 80’s, as it cast most of our main characters with punk rock youths. (Which by the way, I always thought made Louisville look much cooler circa 1985. I mean, if most people would have set a horror movie in Kentucky, it would have more then likely been about a bunch of backward, hillybilly types. So I was always thrilled to have this progressive vision of Louisville being presented to the world.)
In keeping with our punky cast of locals, O’Bannon also heavily featured punk music as the soundtrack to all the horrific scenes. Again a gutsy move, that I would assume 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 we had just started to see punk influences creeping into smaller studio films (Repo Man, Rock and Roll High School, Suburbia), the concept was still almost completely unproven as a draw for theater-goers.
So as if the comedic tone and musical choices weren’t genre-bending enough, then O’Bannon 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 or not), and let these creatures not only speak but also gave them the cognitive skills to operate machinery (like say a CB radio). Plus he 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 that they 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.)
So obviously, I’m pretty amazed with the talent and innovative style of writer/director Dan O’Bannon. And at this point in piecing our story together, I would of course love to ask him some questions about his thought process in creating this film. But sadly, Dan had been battling Crohn's disease for many years, and passed away in December of 2009.
But if there was one other person who was as involved in the majority of creative processes that led to the making of The Return of the Living Dead, it was William Stout. William was a phenomenal artist years before he even got involved in film. But when he came on-board for The Return of the Living Dead it inadvertently made him the youngest production designer in film history. He’s done everything from designing movie posters to creating creatures on-screen. From writing screenplays to heading up the art department on a number of films. He’s worked with everyone from Roger Corman to Jim Henson. From John McTiernan to Frank Darabont. From Guillermo del Toro to Christopher Nolan. William Stout has had, and continues to have, a remarkable career and I was glad to get a chance to ask him a few questions about his time working on The Return of the Living Dead and his thoughts on not just what they were creating, but also the impact it had on the horror genre.
Bryan: How did you initially become involved with The Return of the Living Dead? Had it already changed hands from John Russo and crew and moved to Dan O'Bannon?
William: John Russo got the rights from George Romero to do a "Living Dead" film. As far as I know --- and I could be wrong --- he was never considered to direct it. Russo was paid for the use of the Living Dead name, then Dan O'Bannon wrote the screenplay to The Return of the Living Dead (ROTLD). The film was originally supposed to be directed by Tobe Hooper. When Tobe dropped out, O'Bannon took over as director.
I knew Dan from meeting him at several parties thrown by Ron Cobb. I was working with Ron designing Conan the Barbarian. Ron and Dan had been friends for years. I often brought current non-Conan art projects or jobs to Ron's parties to get feedback from Cobb's guests. Dan always paid close attention to whatever I brought. I didn't know it at the time, but he was already considering me for ROTLD. He knew I could handle the zombies; he just wasn't sure I could design the film's high-tech stuff. One evening I brought in a comic book cover I had drawn for Alien Worlds. It featured an astronaut sinking into the ground. Later, Dan told me that when he looked at the high-tech astronaut suit he thought, "Ah-HA! Stout can do high-tech!"
Once he became the director, O'Bannon gave our line producer, Graham Henderson, a very short list of whom he wanted as his production designer. Dan didn't want a traditional production designer. He wanted someone with a comic book background. Dan's list was short: Bernie Wrightson and William Stout.
Graham did his homework and quickly discovered that Bernie, Dan's first choice, didn't have any film experience but that I did. He called me and cut a deal, then lied to Dan that Bernie had passed on the film.
I began work on ROTLD almost immediately, working very closely with Dan.
Bryan: For people who don't know, what exactly does the title "Production Designer" entail?
William: The production designer is the eyes of the director. He is responsible for everything you see on the screen except for the performances of the actors (although I provide things that will hopefully enhance and inspire their performances, too). So, I'm in charge of the sets, special effects, make-up, special effects make-up, props, set decoration and costumes. I typically have about 1200 people working under me. The title was created for William Cameron Menzies for his role in creating Gone With The Wind. Before that, they were called "art directors". Now, art directors work for the production designer. An art director does all of my budgeting and scheduling for me, giving me more time to focus on the film's design.
Bryan: And did what you ended up doing on Return of the Living Dead differ from the traditional production designer job?
William: Not really, except that there are three types of production designers: those that can draw (like me); those with architectural and art director backgrounds; and cut-and-paste guys. These are guys that can't draw but instead make collages and oversee illustrators to express what they think the film should look like.
I'm unusual in that I'm a very "hands-on" production designer. I'm on the set every day, making sure that every last visual detail and color is just the way I and the director want it. I was under the half corpse's gurney, for example, making her spine flop around and ooze spinal fluid.
Bryan: So, I'm assuming when you got the job on Return of the Living Dead, you were already very familiar with Night of the Living Dead.
William: Yes; my girlfriend at the time was a big fan of that movie.
Bryan: And probably Dawn of the Dead as well.
William: I saw its very first public screening (at FilmEx). Uncut, by the way --- very long. I'm sure it didn't, but it seemed like it ran about three hours.
Bryan: So what did you set out to do that was different from those two films that had arguably created the zombie genre?
William: Ours was the first zombie film to have fast zombies. You can outrun Romero's zombies --- but not ours. Ours was also the first film in which brain-eating was crucial to the zombies' "life" and existence. Plus, we were determined to have what O'Bannon called "principal corpses" --- very distinctive zombies, visually --- not just guys with dark rings around their eyes. The Tarman is a good example of one of our "principle corpses". He's unique in the annals of zombie film history, a real star on his own.
Bryan: Romero's Day of the Dead must have been in pre-production and then shooting around the same time, was there a sense of competition with what they were doing on that film?
William: Not at all. We were completely unaware of Romero's Day of the Dead. We were totally focused on our own zombie flick and making it as good as we could possibly make it given the restraints of our budget. And neither Dan nor I wanted to make a zombie movie similar to any of the Romero films. We had our own vision and stuck to it.
Bryan: And I would assume had the story continued from the Romero/Russo point of view, it would have still been set in Pittsburgh. So how did the setting of the Return plot line end up being set in Louisville?
William: I have no idea. That was something Dan came up with but I don't know why. The two of us did promote the film in Louisville. In fact, that's the only city we visited to promote our movie even though we never actually shot anything there --- although many of the locals think we did!
Bryan: You have a connection to Louisville, don't you?
William: Yes; my wife is from Louisville, Kentucky. She was Kentucky's Junior Miss and a talented actress.
Bryan: Do you think Dan knew that, and worked it in because of that?
William: No. I don't think that Dan had even met my wife until after he had written Return.
Bryan: Return of the Living Dead, to me, had a very different feeling then most other horror movies, especially at the time. What made it so different to you?
William: We were trying to create a real rarity in cinema: a film that is both really funny and really scary. I can think of only a small handful of films that have pulled that off --- Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is the first that springs to mind. It accomplishes both because the horror is played straight in that film --- like we did in ours.
Thank you to William for his stories and thoughts on the film. And I agree, the comedy aspect is probably what made The Return of the Living Dead so different. It’s something that others would eventually find, like Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive and even Sam Raimi more or less re-shot his earlier film and turned it into Evil Dead 2, trying to find that comedy balance (although hard-core geeks will acknowledge that “deadites” are different then zombies… but still, it’s playing with that same dynamic.) And it would be nearly twenty 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.
So 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, we obviously 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, I feel 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 Dan and William 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. And in my opinion, what took it to that next level was the new option of now being able to argue whether or not it was “actually” a zombie movie. This new cinematic grey 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 2000’s was the dawn of this age of widespread geek culture, where what used to be considered nerdy obsession over pop culture - is now embraced. I mean, we could never live in a world where the #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 the geek culture began to take over the mainstream markets, it brought with it - zombies.
28 Days Later was followed closely by the one/two punch of the Dawn of the Dead remake followed by Shaun of the Dead. 2004 was a very big year for zombies. From that point forward, America was obsessed with zombies. And though it was a trend that swept the country, it’s arguable that no city took to the movement as much as Louisville.
It was in fact, that following year that Louisvillians John King and Lyndi Lou decided to have a zombie-themed birthday party and have it drag 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. It was out of control!
But what did it? What made Louisville so crazy for the zombie lifestyle? Why our city more then 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?
I suspected that The Return of the Living Dead memory was secretly guiding this local fascination. So since they were so instrumental in leading our town down the undead path, I thought I would check in Lyndi and John, those founding members of the Louisville Zombie Attack, to see what their early zombie exposure was like – and if it tied to The Return of the Living Dead. Plus I thought they were both a good demographic of people that grew up at just the right time for that movie to potentially be a factor. A two person “case study”, if you will.
So when I asked Lyndi what her first exposure to zombies was, she said, “At a slumber party at Leslie Robert's 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…in“High school I'm sure.”
Now John’s recount of his zombie introduction goes a little differently. John 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 80’s 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 boy needs! Gore, rock music and preteen sexual attraction. And it is interesting to note that the zombie allure took hold of both of them around the same age. So I think between the two of them, we have our answer. I think you can broaden those responses and apply them to not just the entire city of Louisville, but across the country. Possibly across the globe!
Basically what we’ve found is that at a young age, kids are not just curious - but morbidly curious. In fact, most kids I come across have a weird 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 zombies 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 Night of the Living Dead. A classic film that still creepily holds up today, and was the entry drug for many horror junkies out there.
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. Being different. This isn’t your father’s zombie movie. It’s a cool, rockin’ version that you old people just don’t ‘get’. For many 80’s kids, that was more then likely the appeal. That… and the fact that it also happens to be a great horror movie on top of that.
So for each generation, they find their creepy entry point. For thousands of kids out there today it’s undoubtedly The Walking Dead… and that will go on to inform the rest of their horror influences. But what about the weird Louisville connection? We never really pinned down why The Return Of The Living Dead was set in Louisville. And just why we were so receptive to the increasing zombie obsession.
Well as far as why it was set in Louisville, while we can no longer ask Dan O’Bannon for a full explanation, he left us a little clue. Around 2007 the studio put out a new collector’s edition of The Return Of The Living Dead. And among the many special features it offers, is a commentary track with both Dan O’Bannon and William Stout. But don’t get your hopes up too high, O’Bannon doesn’t give a big lengthy explanation on why he set the story where he did. Even at the key moment in the film, when it is revealed that all this is in fact, taking place in Louisville… Dan is talking about other things, and really doesn’t mention it. But somewhere around the 47 minute mark, right in the middle of the movie, they make a comment featuring the phase ‘in a New York second’. Which spills over into a comment about potentially having set the story in New York City. To which Dan 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. Finally we have our answer. Why would you set a movie like this in our city? Because we’re weird. I have to admit, he’s got a point. I’ve lived here my whole life, and we are a strange place. Things are accepted and even celebrated in Louisville that just wouldn’t fly in other cities. And while I occasionally call us out for being unfocused and overlooking some of the great things we have here, one of those great things is - our own unique style. 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 build around a lot of eclectic individuals. Large groups of people coming together to form one massive wave of offbeat charm. So as it turns out, 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…
Again a big thank you to "Leo" for running the more succinct version last year. Check out what they currently have in the works at: http://www.leoweekly.com/ . And thank you to William Stout, John Russo, Lyndi Lou, John King and all the rest of the creepy Louisvillians who helped make this piece possible.