SYNOPSIS: 2011 marks the 26th anniversary of a certain Dan O’Bannon cult-classic zombie-comedy, and with it the release of THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is just that: an extensive and exhaustive rundown of the behind the scenes mechanics and machinations of the productions and the producers of the entire series, rife with snippets and tidbits from almost every still-living person involved both in front of and behind the camera on each of the five ROTLD films. As if that wasn’t enough, it also contains hundreds of wonderful pictures, a good deal of them never before released, including make-up and special effects tests, posters from around the world, and concept art, all lovingly rendered in a large, glossy, trade paperback-format book.
REVIEW: THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE ROTLD starts on a classy note right off the bat: the dedication page not only pays homage to the now-deceased writer/director Dan O’Bannon and money man Tom Fox, but also Mark Venturini, the actor who played Suicide, my particular favorite character from the film (because I see so much of my teen self in him) who passed away at the ridiculously early age of 35, from leukemia, back in ‘96. After a foreword by Brian Peck, and an introduction by Brian Yuzna, the book begins proper with a history of ROTLD’s direct antecedent, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. I admire the decision to embrace instead of sidestep the connection between the two movies, especially considering George Romero’s and Tom Savini’s apparent disdain for the film.
The next section, which naturally comprises the bulk of the book, tracks the first ROTLD from its source novel by NOTLD alumnus John Russo to the script by Dan O’Bannon, delineating how the two ended up not resembling or being connected to each other in any way, other than in title. It then gives an entertaining and informative timeline of all the setbacks and successes of the production, pulling no punches on O’Bannon’s eccentricities or the thoughts and feelings of any of the participants. It is particularly funny to read so many interviews that directly contradict what others have said. Some of that can be attributed to the fog of memory, but I think a lot has to do with personalities. William Munns, for instance, who was the original special effects make-up artist on the film, had a miserable time on set and was eventually fired, whereas Brian Peck, who played Scuz, was a total horror fanboy and looked up to O’Bannon and had the time of his life on set. Also, fans of Tarman will not be let down picture-wise in this section.
After a much shorter section on the regrettable ROTLD II (which sought and failed to create humor through gags that its predecessor achieved effortlessly through characters and situations) comes a much more enjoyable section on Brian Yuzna’s wonderful gore freakout ROTLD III.. This entry was stark in its decision to eschew the pulpy humor of Part 1 and go for much darker, cynical horror, but in my opinion director Yuzna saved the franchise from the joke that Ken Wiederhorn tried to make it in Part 2. This section has some particularly interesting SFX pictures, and a very funny story that Brian Peck tells about Clarence Epperson, the homeless man who plays the gaunt zombie in the beginning of the film, and his junk that would not be contained. Noticeably missing from this section, though, is a new interview with Melinda Clarke, who played the sexy and self-mutilating lead character Julie. Clarke was in both KILLER TONGUE and SPAWN, so I don’t think she’s too good to do a damn interview about ROTLD III.
Next comes another short section, this time on the abortive failures of the fourth and fifth ROTLD films, NECROPOLIS and RAVE TO THE GRAVE (shot back to back, so basically considered one production), in which most of the participants don’t hold any grander illusions about the films than the people from Part 2. From there the book swings back around to the original ROTLD with a series of epitaphs from not only participants of the films, but also from directors inspired by the films, such as JR Bookwalter, Jose Prendes, and Ryan Nicholson, before closing with reminiscences on Dan O’Bannon from ROTLD’s production designer, William Stout.
All in all, aside from a smattering of typos (including one suggesting that Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce was a remake of Invaders from Mars) and a bizarre bit of editorializing on Redneck Zombies and The Video Dead (abysmal? I don’t think so, my friend) THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD is the gorgeous realization of a mammoth undertaking, and a book that absolutely needs to be on the coffee table of anyone who considers him- or herself a fan of horror films. Rating: 9/10