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Return of the 

Living Dead 






Read it!



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"You're not from around here, Greene," Sheriff McClellan said. "This area was one of the hardest hit ten years ago. Remember? The dead had to be burned or decapitated. The brain had to be destroyed. I don't know if those creatures were really dead or not -- not in the usual sense. Nobody knows. But somebody is afraid it's going to happen again."

Greene blanched. "It can't happen again..."

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Back in 1968 Image Ten Productions, a motley band of weekend filmmakers, cobbled together the no-budget classic of all time -- not to mention one of the greatest horror films ever made, that came to be known as Night of the Living Dead. Soon after, however, the company splintered apart, but an amicable agreement was reached on the copyright to their seminal film ... Director George Romero was allowed to the use the word “Dead” in future films, while scriptwriter John Russo laid claim to the phrase “Living Dead.” And while Romero would go on to write and direct the classic sequel Dawn of the Dead, followed by the not quite as classic, Day of the Dead (-- and the long promised but still not here Dead Reckoning), around the same time, Russo had hammered out a sequel of his own, titled Return of the Living Dead. He too tried to put the script to film -- several times, but the financing always eluded him.

Eventually, Russo gave up and sold his share of the copyright, which changed hands several times before falling into scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon’s lap. Knowing full well that he couldn’t compete with Romero’s films, O’Bannon -- best known for scripting Alien, junked Russo’s script; a direct sequel that seemed content to just rehash its source material, and so Return of the Living Dead went through a massive overhaul, and in the end it became more of a black comedy that still managed to scare the begeezus out of you as the zombie chant of "Brains!" rightfully joined the pop-culture lexicon.

But one can still read Russo’s original treatment -- if you can get your hands on a certain elusive paperback. You see Russo converted the script -- co-written with Image Ten collaborators Russell Streiner and Ricci Valentine -- into the novel Return of the Living Dead for Dale Books.

First published in 1978, Russo's story opens in rural Pennsylvania at the funeral of a young girl. After finishing the ceremony, the preacher then nods to the girl’s father, who then solemnly takes up a hammer and spike and drives it into the deceased’s skull. When word comes that a bus has crashed close by, killing everyone on board, fearful that the dead will rise again -- like they did ten years before, the congregation manages to spike most of the victims in the head, but the authorities arrive before they can finish the job.

Soon enough, the dead do rise and start rampaging and feeding again on the living. And while the carnage progresses exponentially, the narrative keeps its focus on the Miller sisters -- Sue Ellen, Ann and Karen (-- who is critically pregnant), a group of four sadistic looters who invade the Miller home, and two state patrolmen -- Dave Benton and Carl Martinelli, and as the night wears on, the protagonists must fend off both the flesh-eating ghouls and the equally dangerous thieves. Who will survive this second night of the living dead? Needless to say, come the dawn, not everyone makes it.

Return of the Living Dead has a great beginning, where Russo establishes a creepy atmosphere that just drips with tension and anxiety, but, unfortunately, quickly loses all momentum once the dead arise. Any novelty the narrative had is quickly abandoned to rehash the hole-up and siege motif of Night of the Living Dead. Here, the zombies are just a nuisance, almost an afterthought, as the main conflict is between the looters and the cops, who are fighting over the Miller sisters. And Russo seems a little preoccupied with getting those sisters naked -- alive or dead:

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"The ghoul knelt over the unconscious girl, its dead lips drooling spittle. With a glint of lust in its eyes, it bit into the soft flesh of her neck and lingered there. Then its rough hands moved down, and pulled her blouse off her body in one brutal motion. The ghoul bent its head and sunk its teeth into the girl's firm breasts, chewing bits out of one and then the other. All the while groans came from deep within its throat and the ghoul's body moved rhythmically ... more determined than before, it ripped off the rest of her clothing and relished in the soft pulpiness of her thigh and groin until it had chewed its fill."

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See what I mean?

The book does recover when it’s being original in spots, and contains several truly macabre scenes of the looters baiting the zombies with hostages so they can get away. It also has an ambiguous ending concerning Karen’s baby that will either anger you or send chills down your spine.

But the biggest obstacle the book has is that it's hamstrung by the notoriety of its source film. Sure characters abruptly die with little or no warning; but these deaths lack any real shock value because you’re expecting it. We know this drill by heart: No one’s safe and any one can die at any moment. And all plans -- no matter how sound, are doomed to failure as dire situations exponentially get worse and spiral out of control. With each turn of the page you anticipate the ironic twist -- like the proverbial other shoe, waiting to drop on your head like a twenty-ton anvil. Case in point: When Sheriff Conan “Yeah they’re dead - they’re all messed up” McClellan and his posse make a return appearance, we wait, patiently, to see who they accidentally kill this time -- and aren't disappointed.

Tracking down a copy of this novel isn’t easy and it took me several years to secure one through eBay. And you have to be really careful, too, because Russo also did the novelization for O’Bannon’s film. As they have the exact same name, that will cause you even more confusion and consternation -- and don’t get burnt and purchase the film adaptation by mistake, like I did, for way too much money by an unscrupulous eBay seller who insisted it was an original. Over the years, Russo's novel has gone through three different printings -- the last one in 1996, but it’s still very rare. The original price was a mere $1.99 but expect to pay at least $35-$50 for a copy today.

Is it worth that kind of money? Well, that all really depends on how big a Living Dead fan you are. Return of the Living Dead is not the greatest piece of literature you’ll ever read, but no zombie completist should be without it. To me, the book just seems rushed and slapped together, where parts of it are fleshed out while others are dangerously anemic. And in the end, the book reads just like it should -- the first draft of a movie script. The sad thing is, there honestly seems to be a decent story here trying to get out, but it’s to preoccupied by a misogynistic mean streak that has nothing to do with zombies that squelches it. With a little nurturing it might have been a fascinating film, but, as it is, it’s just a mediocre novel.

Originally Posted: 11/11/00 :: Rehashed: 05/20/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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