A forthcoming book titled ‘The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead’, by Christian Sellers and Gary Smart, delves into the history, production and legacy of the series; shedding light on each of the films in turn and providing an exhaustive study and appreciation of them.
I caught up with Christian and Gary recently to discuss the forthcoming book and the appeal and long-lasting legacy of the series. Read on...
What exactly was it about the The Return of the Living Dead series that compelled you to write a book on it?
Christian Sellers: I have always liked reading about the rise and fall of a franchise. It intrigues me how something can grow from nothing and become a huge phenomenon, then just as quickly it becomes a victim of its own success and self-destructs. There were two excellent books that charted the history of the Friday the 13th franchise and I knew that I wanted to document a series in a similar fashion. The Return of the Living Dead has had a complicated past and it seemed the perfect subject matter, particularly as many of the fans disliked the sequels so much. I felt that, particularly with the last two films, it was important to understand the conditions that these movies were made under and why they were so different in tone to the original film.
Gary Smart: I have been a huge fan of The Return of the Living Dead since I can remember. I have amassed a lot of memorabilia from the movies, anything I could find – magazines, lobby kits, photos. In 2007 I got in touch with Beverly Randolph via MySpace, we got talking and I told her about my love for the films and she gave me Don Calfa’s contact details. I asked Don if he would like to come to the UK for the Memorabilia at the NEC convention in Birmingham, and he agreed. He is an amazing man who is full of great stories. In 2008 I spent a week with him at his home in Yucca Valley CA. When I was there and I was hearing all these stories about The Return of the Living Dead, I thought ‘wouldn’t it be a great idea to get all these stories into a book.’ I got home and got straight in touch with Christian and we spent a year planning, debating and arguing. The main thing that convinced me to collaborate on this book was that these films have never been given the respect that they deserve and we wanted to celebrate and promote these movies and those who were involved in their creation. True classics. Having the likes of Clu Gulager, James Karen, Brian Yuzna, Don Calfa, David Trippett, Wayne Toth, Beverly Randolph, Linnea Quigley, Thom Mathews and many more have made this project very special to me and Christian; it was a labour of love!
The Return of the Living Dead and its sequels have amassed a sizable cult following over the years. What do you think the appeal of the series is?
Sellers: Dan O’Bannon successfully balanced horror and comedy, which only a handful of movies have managed. Whilst it seems like such a simple formula it is extremely difficult to pull off. If you focus on the comedy aspects too much you run the risk of turning your material into a farce, but if you make the film too horrific then the humour becomes lost. There are very few horror films I feel get the balance just right and what Dan O’Bannon did that worked a treat was that, for the most part, his cast played their parts straight. The humour came out of subtle moments instead of dumb slapstick or toilet humour, particularly through the fast-paced dialogue between the characters. I think Burt is one of the most underrated characters; I love how Clu Gulager shows no humour throughout the movie, and it is because of this that his performance works. Dan O’Bannon’s decision to place a character like Burt alongside a group of young punks was ingenious.
Smart: The humour, the costumes, the music, the great characters, and these films are so different to Romero’s Dead films. They gave a new lease of life to a stale genre. Plus Part One is funny, scary and just so well written, with some amazing performances from some great actors.
When did you first discover the series and what do you personally find so compelling about it?
Sellers: I bought the novelisation by John Russo when I was a kid without having any knowledge of the movie or its relation to Night of the Living Dead. I was immediately struck by his style of writing and the way in which he developed his characters. The humour was less prominent than in the film and he was able to explore the back-stories of the protagonists in greater detail, as is often the case with books. I found it very scary and re-read it several times before I got the chance to see the movie. Because of this, it took me a second viewing to appreciate what Dan O’Bannon had done with the film.
Smart: Like I already said, I have been a fan of these films since I was very young. I was always a horror fan and my mom says I inherited that from my granddad. My granddad Pop was quite naughty and would make copies of films back in the 80’s. He rented The Return of the Living Dead and made a copy and lent it to my dad. My dad never gave it back and when my granddad died in 1991, the VHS was still in our house. One day, being a bored 10 year old, I decided to have a mooch in the VHS unit at home and found this VHS with a sticker on it saying The Return of the Living Dead. I popped it into the VHS machine and from that moment I became hooked on the movie and zombies. I just loved it; loved the characters: the Tarman, ½ Corpse, and especially the character of Ernie, played by Don Calfa – who I recognised from the movie Foul Play.
How did you go about gaining the input of those involved in the making of the films? Did you get a chance to meet with Dan O’Bannon before he sadly passed away?
Sellers: Gary was already friends with several of the cast members from the first film so he was able to test the water with them to see if this was something they would want to be involved in. Even after all these years they still love the movie and attend various conventions, so they seemed enthusiastic about contributing. We wrote lists of everyone from all of the five movies that we could find contact details for and tried to sell the project to them. Some were easy to find, whilst others took a lot of phone calls and favours before we were able to track them down. Unfortunately, when we were about to commence work on the research we were informed that Dan O’Bannon was ill and would be unable to participate. Naturally we were disappointed, but being a huge fan of Dark Star I was extremely sad to hear that he had passed away. We knew that we should continue with the book and I only hope that if he’d had the chance to read it he would have approved.
Smart: We never met Dan, but his wife Diane has been brilliant, such a nice, loving and caring woman. Her support for this book has been great. We have been totally amazed at the support we have been given from the cast and crew, there is a real feeling that they love these movies and are happy to talk in detail about them. The funny thing is that out of all the cast and crew we contacted only two asked us for cash and surprisingly they are both from Part 3; I won’t mention their names and we decided not to use them in our book when so many others gave freely of their time and resources. Knowing key people like Beverly (Randolph), Don and Brian Peck has helped greatly as they have been able to track down other cast/crew for us. A HUGE thank you goes to our US interviewer Jon Kovel who completed some interviews for us of the cast we just couldn’t tie down on the phone.
Smart: That’s all down to Christian. He had previously interviewed him for a magazine article and had developed a mutual respect so Yuzna was more than happy to write the introduction – a great man! We also have a foreword by the amazing Brian Peck and closing chapters by the brilliant production designer William Stout, and Dan O’Bannon’s widow Diane O’Bannon.
Sellers: Brian’s a great guy and a real devoted fan of the horror genre. A couple of years ago I interviewed John Penney, who wrote the third movie, and some time later I was asked to do an article on the film and contacted him once again for a more detailed discussion. He put me in contact with Brian, who I was a huge fan of because of Re-Animator and Society, and he was really enthusiastic about giving an interview. When it came time to work on the book, Brian was kind enough to read through what we had done on the third film to verify its accuracy. I knew that we had to get someone important from the franchise to provide an introduction. I’m not sure if it was myself or Gary who suggested Brian but I was very grateful when he obliged.
Which film in the series is your favourite, and why?
Sellers: I guess it would have to be the first film, purely because it has everything: humour, gore, nudity and Don Calfa! It is one of those rare movies that seems to improve on every viewing and I love how indestructible the zombies were. You cut them up and the pieces come after you, burn them and the smoke will rise up and infect the surrounding area. There is literally nothing you can do to stop them. I was a huge fan of Day of the Dead when it came out, partially due to its bleak tone, and in many ways The Return of the Living Dead was just as dark, although the humour makes it a little easier to swallow. It is a great loss to cinema that Dan O’Bannon only directed two movies!
Smart: Got to be Part One, for the reasons stated before; an amazing film, and extraordinary legacy.
Smart: These movies were the first to add comedy. Part One got the balance perfect, and that is a really hard thing to accomplish with these types of movies. Plus fans were bored with the Romero movies to a degree. 1985 saw the release of Day of the Dead which did poorly at the box office and gained negative reviews, despite now being regarded as one of Romero’s best – which I agree with. The Return of the Living Dead came out the same year and offered something different and fresh and horror fans just went for it. The series is a cult classic today. I know the later movies didn’t do as well and have had negative reviews but they are still good in their own way. Take 4 and 5, if you remove ‘The Return of the Living Dead’ from the title and called the gas something other than ‘Trioxin’ they would be good movies. They are only seen as bad movies because fans were angered by the change of the rules. I would actually like to see a remake of Part One as long as the original cast could be involved.
Sellers: I can’t stand the current run of zombie movies; they’re not even trying to be horror films. Whilst they may throw in moments of gore, they’re far too focused on action, dumb humour and pop culture references. With the exception of 28 Days Later (not technically a zombie film but it stole enough from Dawn of the Dead to be categorised as such) and Shaun of the Dead, there have been very few truly effective zombie movies over recent years. As The Return of the Living Dead proved, to make a horror comedy effective you have to take both the horror and comedy aspects seriously, otherwise it just becomes ridiculous.
How long did the entire process take and did you already have a publisher lined up when you were finished?
Smart: About 18 months in all. Me and Christian first had a rough idea through email conversations back in 2007; it wasn’t until 2008 that we started seriously talking about it and in September 2009 we started the process officially. We send out a press-kit to 5 publishers and ALL 5 were very interested. We went with Plexus because they were on the same wave-length as us from the beginning and understood what we wanted to achieve.
Sellers: The actual writing process was completed in a few weeks; it was everything that came beforehand that took so long. As a writer, I like to work quickly as I find it helps with consistency, whereas if you take months to write a book it can lose its flow. Obviously, you then proofread and perform rewrites but the bulk of the writing was done in less than a month. I find that the more detailed your research and the more concise your notes, then the easier the actual writing is. Preparation and organisation are the single most important things for a writer.
Sellers: I can’t say I have ever been knowingly inspired by any film critics as I have always just gone with my gut instinct. I began writing professionally a year or so after graduating university so I think I was still in that academic state of mind, but as I began to write I soon developed my own style. What I realised early on was when it came to interviews you can’t play it safe, you have to ask some questions that other writers may shy away from. Be confrontational, be daring, it makes for a more entertaining interview. I think as a writer I like to get under the skin and scratch away at the surface to see what is really hidden underneath, but I’m not sure who or what has influenced me in that way.
Gary, you were responsible for the look and the design of the book – who or what has inspired you most as a designer? How did you tackle this project from a design angle?
Smart: I wanted to really utilise the fantastic images that we had and compliment the amazing narrative of the book. Of course I looked at similar books and was inspired by a few of them. So I wanted big, strong, unique images and luckily that’s what we had. The hardest thing was the cover as it is a montage of characters from all five movies. We wanted to respect all five films as they are ALL part of the legacy.
Finally guys – you’re both obviously extremely passionate about these movies. Why should viewers check out The Return of the Living Dead series?
Sellers: Dan O’Bannon was a damn good writer and one day the industry will give him the recognition he deserved. Whilst the obvious choice would be Alien, he worked on the screenplays for Dark Star and Dead and Buried, which was a very underrated thriller. The script for The Return of the Living Dead was very tight and nothing was wasted. It also included one of the finest casts I have seen in a horror movie, with veterans like James Karen and Clu Gulager playing off the younger actors, particularly the excellent Thom Mathews. It is also one of those movies that fans like to quote from; it gives us nerds something to do. If I’ve had a particularly irritating afternoon and someone asks me, ‘How was your day?’ I can’t help but reply, ‘The usual… crap.’
Smart: Why else other than they are amazing gems of movies and hopefully those who haven’t watched them and stumble upon our book will go out and buy The Return of the Living Dead DVDs. If you haven’t watched them and you love the genre, you are really missing out! Finally there are probably many, many more The Return of the Living Dead stories hidden out there, so depending on the success of this book we may look at a book just on the original The Return of the Living Dead. My dream project would be a retrospective on the career of Don Calfa…. but who knows?
'The Complete History Of The Return Of The Living Dead' is published by Plexus Publishing Ltd and will be available October 2010. Pick up a copy of the book over at Amazon... If you can’t wait that long, here’s an exclusive sneak peek inside the book Return of the Living Dead fans have been salivating for…