Collins’ Crypt: The Chaotic Production Of A Zombie Classic

Everyone on Return of the Living Dead was fighting - but it didn't hurt the movie any!

Much like a crash at a car race, we seemingly love to know about fights and problems that occurred on the sets of our favorite movies. No one feeds on Jaws behind the scenes material because they want nice stories about Richard Dreyfuss - they want to know about the shark not working, and how dickish the Martha's Vineyard locals were. Terry Gilliam is a genius, yes, but there's a reason there's practically a market in recounting all of the production problems on his films (there is seemingly a full length documentary or a book about the making of most of his films, always covering the clashes that happened along the way). I can't quite explain our fascination with this; perhaps we enjoy the idea of insurmountable odds being overcome and producing a winner, or maybe we just love drama. Sadly, we can't always find out much about a particular favorite movie if it didn't happen to be a major hit or at least part of a big franchise (like Hellraiser: Bloodline - the box office was so low that further installments went direct to video, but you can still easily find juicy stories about its troubled production). I love the movie Judgment Night, for example - I've never heard a damn thing about its shooting.

But I'm sure I will learn something if it ever gets a special edition Blu-ray, especially if that disc happens to be released from another studio. Universal is probably never going to put out a disc where the stars of the film talk about how all of the fights they had with each other or the director, even if they have that "The views of the interview subjects are their own and do not reflect ours or our partners" disclaimer at the top. That warning always makes me laugh - the commentaries are always edited whenever something uncouth is mentioned (see: any Community commentary whenever the discussion turns to Chevy). That's part of what makes Scream Factory discs so enticing, because they always have that disclaimer but actually EARN it, as they are free (or at least, freer) to dive right into such scandalous material. Not every release has this sort of stuff (some productions are just drama-free!), but when their release is actually the second go-around, you can be sure you'll get a little more dirt than you did on its studio-released predecessor. But in the case of Return of the Living Dead, the movie had so many production problems and personality clashes that any special edition couldn't possibly skip over those stories or there wouldn't be much else for them to discuss - the shooting was rough for nearly all involved, and those stories have been being told on the film's home video releases for over a decade now.

Not so speak ill of the dead, but a giant part of ROTLD's legacy as a troubled production can be chalked up to Dan O'Bannon, the legendary screenwriter who was making the film his directorial debut. No one doubts his visual sense or creative genius, but it seems he had trouble communicating with his cast and crew, which led to many fights on set - all of which are covered on the bonus features and commentaries. One of the more infamous instances involved Clu Gulager, a beloved character actor who unfortunately was hired late - literally the day before filming began, supposedly. So while the rest of the cast had gone through fairly extensive rehearsals, Clu was kind of left in the dark and didn't have any existing chemistry with the other actors, resulting in some frustration on his part (it was also his first horror movie, which didn't help). This frustrated O'Bannon as well, as he was an inexperienced director who didn't realize how much of an effect Clu's late casting would have on his ability to play the scenes the way he wanted. This led to some unusual attempts to make sure he got what he wanted; the bonus features tell a story where O'Bannon had one of the actors tell Clu to fuck himself, right before action was called, in order to get him properly worked up for the scene - it didn't quite work the way O'Bannon assumed.

(For what it's worth, the two made up and when O'Bannon was alive they'd laugh about the stories at Q&As - he even came to a New Beverly screening that was dedicated to Clu, back in 2008.)

But Clu wasn't the only one O'Bannon clashed with, and the veteran actor also had enough experience to know it was OK to fight back (to the point where O'Bannon had his metal pipe prop replaced with a rubber one in case the actor decided to use it on him instead of one of the zombies). Lead actress Beverly Randolph was new to the film business and wasn't prepared for her director's tyrannical ways, and would break down on set on numerous occasions, something O'Bannon later realized was on him (the disc features a 30 minute interview with him - possibly the last one he ever gave before his death - where he cops to his mistakes). And we're not sure what the problem was with the DP Jules Brenner, exactly, but while O'Bannon is apologetic and/or laughs off the memories of his other squabbles, he's seemingly STILL angry at Brenner, muttering "Oh that asshole..." when asked about him on the interview. Apparently, Brenner thought he was slumming on the film (he is probably best known for John Milius' Dillinger) and wouldn't cooperate, though the specifics aren't as well detailed as the other fights.

To deflect some attention away from O'Bannon, it should be noted that Jewel Shepard was a thorn in the side of a few of her co-stars, with at least three of them singling her out as a "whiner" or something along those lines. It's interesting that the 2011 documentary More Brains (previously available on its own, but now part of this mega-release) nabbed pretty much every living participant from the film to offer their side of the story, and also that many of these folks came back for more interviews or commentaries for this release - no one is talked about behind their back, so to speak. Some of the memories don't match up (or they simply weren't around that day to know one way or another), but that also adds to the fun in a way. It's worth stressing that except for O'Bannon re: that DP, no one seems to harbor any grudges about what went on 30 years ago - but also want to set the matter straight on any rumors about their own behavior, usually by blaming the other guy (albeit with a friendly tone).

The thing about actor and director clashes is that as long as they do their job when the cameras are rolling, it doesn't really matter, ultimately - you shouldn't be able to tell on screen. However, when there are problems with the FX department on a big zombie film such as this, that could be far more damaging to the final product. Issues with that part of the production began almost immediately, as the hired makeup FX designer, William Munns, was told the actors playing the punks would be coming to set fully made up properly - they would look like punks as is. That didn't turn out to be the case, which isn't something he prepared (or budgeted) for, so making them look like authentic punks (from Louisville?) fell in his lap. Needless to say, he didn't quite know how to do that, so the actors went off and got them done elsewhere. This was just the first of what would prove to be several issues with Munns, and while O'Bannon's fully documented issues with communication certainly played a part in the problem, Munns was clearly not up to the task for what needed to be done on the film, and he was ultimately fired during shooting, immediately after botching yet another effect. Munns is accounted for on More Brains (as well as a newer set of interviews focusing specifically on the film's effects) and to his credit takes the blame for some of his mistakes, and also praises the work of his replacement Kenny Myers. 

What makes all that drama interesting for this particular film is that it's one defined and championed by how much fun it is. I don't think it's got a particularly great narrative or anything, but the film has endured - ironically - because of how well everyone on screen plays off of each other, as if a bunch of pals got together and decided to make a zombie movie one day. There are two distinct groups of characters: the young punks and the trio of older character actors (Clu, James Karen, and Don Calfa), and while the movie takes a bit too long to lump them together, it's remarkable how well they mesh once they do. There's not a lot of fighting among them the way other zombie movies (like the same year's Day of the Dead) have often dwelled on - their bickering is closer to buddy movie ball-busting than any sort of legitimate resentment. I always loved how Miguel Nunez's character helps Clu out of the car after the latter crashed their car, rather than leave him to the death he practically deserved. They work together and protect one another, and that's something that's always really stuck with me - and makes it even more charming when you learn about all of the hell they were going through (fighting wasn't the only headache - it's not O'Bannon's fault that the rain was cold and the movie's budget wasn't exactly generous for all that they were trying to pull off, after all).

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the more I learn about the movie's production and all of the fighting that occurred during it, the more I appreciate the film itself. I was late to the party with this one (it wasn't until that aforementioned 2008 screening that I saw it in its entirety for the first time), and when I first saw it I thought it was fun but kind of forgettable; it made sense why everything I knew about it (the soundtrack, Linnea Quigley's graveyard dance, etc.) had nothing to do with zombies or the storyline. But with each new edition - and this is by far the most extensive, with FOUR commentaries and close to as many hours' worth of supplements - shedding more light on how difficult it was to pull off, I find myself more and more endeared by it (having since seen all four sequels, only one of which is even worth watching, doesn't hurt). I could go off now on how vital the bonus features are (and in turn, why physical media will always be preferable to streaming, which 99% of the time lacks any supplemental material options), but that's another article entirely. Instead I'll just give Scream Factory props for putting all of this together (two of the commentaries and several of the bonus features are brand new), and give thanks to all of the movie's cast and crew for sitting down and having such good memories about this little flick that they made over 30 years ago. Their long-past troubles are still entertaining us, and as a bonus they made a pretty good movie too.