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A few questions with the BRAAAAAINS behind Return of the Living Dead

After reading Russo's script, how did you come up with images of gases, cemeteries, punk rockers, etc.?
I wanted to do something entirely different than the Romero saga, and Russo's script was part of that.

At what point did you decide to turn ROTLD humorous?
At the time the film was made, I thought the marketplace was saturated with serious horror films.

Did you know what you're building towards when you were outlining the original story - I mean, a bomb at the end - was that an afterthought of any kind?
Yes. When I started writing the screenplay, I had no idea how it was going to end.  But when I got there, there seemed to be no way to dispose of the spreading zombie menace except to nuke them.

Was Tar Man really an ex-soldier that came to life in the VA Hospital?
It's an interesting question. I didn't do a bio of the Tar Man. I think you're right: he was a veteran from the VA Hospital.

Why were the frozen cadavers on meathooks rather than laying on slabs?
You have to admit that it's more disturbing to see somebody hanging from ice tongs in his ears, than lying comfortably on a slab. 

Were any scenes floating around in your subconscious before you started to write ROTLD?
Beats the hell out of me.

Were you or are you familiar with the actual chemical Trioxin?
I made up Trioxin. Are you telling me it's real? [Dan sees FAQ]

Were you at all surprised at Michael Jackson's Thriller video since your script preceded its similar imagery a few months in advance?
Great minds travel similar paths.

What do you think of the American public's popular conception that zombies are brain eaters not flesh eaters ala Romero?
I guess it's just an appealing idea.

What did you think of John Russo's twist on your story for his novelization - the KGB subplot, the last names given to certain characters, etc.?
I've never had a chance to read John's novel. Could you get me a copy? [Dan sees rundown on this site. I further note that John Russo had claimed in a magazine he had received a letter from Dan about how he liked it reading it - to which Dan commented "hmm maybe... my memory is not what it used to be")

What are some of the negative/stranger things you read about the movie?
One reviewer said the film looked like it had been photographed through the bottom of a Coke bottle; not my fault, I didn't get a chance to color-correct the film. If I get a chance to put together a Director's Version, I'll show you how good the film really looks. Another critic said I failed to focus on a central protagonist - he called it "the Casino Royale of horror films". This is a fair criticism, and I have been careful about this in my writing since.

What would you say to Bill Munns if you ran into him today?
"Hello." (See Munns' interview for a follow-up)

Why didn't work print footage show up as extras on the MGM DVD?
I came onto the DVD project too late to do everything I would like to do. I look forward to doing the fabled "Director's Edition".

What scenes would you remove or change if you could?
I CAN remove any scenes I want to; MGM is very good about that. There's nothing I want to remove; but I would like to travel back in time and do a better job of directing.

How do you feel ROTLD stacks up against Romero's zombie films?
Night of the Living Dead is a classic of weird cinema. My film is just a bit of fun.

What relics did you take home from the shoot?
I brought home one of the tombstones - the weeping angel. I installed it in my backyard. Eventually, I gave it to the fellows who sculpted it. [full story on the DVD commentary]

Who do you still keep in touch with as far as cast or crew?
{Production designer} Bill Stout, Jewel Shepard {"Casey"}, and others.

Would you ever pen a sequel?
It would have to be a very special project.

When is your screenwriting book going to be published?
Very soon.

When is your website coming out?
I hope to open my website this year. I am working hard on it and hope the fans will like it.

A TRIBUTE TO DAN O'BANNON (1946-2009) Visionary. Rogue. Writer. Fighter. Genius. When I first read about the making of pretty much my favorite, endlessly rewatchable horror movie, The Return of the Living Dead (ROTLD), I formed a picture of the writer/director at the center of the troubled production. This first-time director named Dan O' Bannon was described by cast members as "difficult", "abrupt", "temperamental", "maniacal". Basically the cliched Hollywood stereotype. These may seem like negatives. But from what I would find out from my correspondence witht the so-called madman himself, you could also add "generous" and "genius" as superlatives to balance out a complex artist. A fighter: when broke and living in Ron Shusett's house in the 1970s - he was forced to write to get out of debt and re-establish himself. He was also fighting Crohn's Disease. Of course, Dan was the actor in "Dark Star", the one John Carpenter named a character after in The Fog. He saw the cinematic potential of Dune before anyone else did. The creator of Alien (and opponent of Giler and Hill who tried to screw him over). And I was already familiar with his Dead and Buried script. Whoever he was, he had a morbid streak and was truly original. I don't know if I would have become a fan of the film ROTLD would have been if Tobe Hooper (a true one trick pony) had been writer/director as originally planned in its early stages. ROTLD - tar men, animal zombies, military cover-ups, acid rain, decrepit cemetery, cremations, chemicals - are all uniquely creations of Dan's, influences from a youth spent absorbing those ghoulish E.C. comics of the 50s. Dan's legacy is evident in pop culture. Nothing needs to be said about the huge following of the Alien franchise - sequels, toys, imitations. He came up with a Gremlins movie before the 80s Joe Dante movie. Ask most people what movie zombies want to eat and the answer will certainly be "braaains"- he had zombies running before anybody else did (to me those Italian zombies were closer to mutants). The ROTLD series could have been a big franchise too but producer Tom Fox was too much of a clown to understand the direction and strengths of the first film to build upon (part 3 was ok mainly because Fox had nothing to do with it). Maybe you recall Andy Samberg's "Kuato" on SNL. I sometimes wonder if O'Bannon had only directed more movies and gotten away with everything he wanted to show. How much more stylish, fresh, intense, innovative, resonant (and probably rewatchable) films like Lifeforce (scripted by Dan but directed by Tobe Hooper) may have been. I also think of how bad people tried to screw him. I don't mean out of just royalties but credit. He set an example to myself why Hollywood is probably not a good outlet for any stories I have to tell. His tribulations could be education enough for any aspiring screenwriter. Dan was not afraid to fight them back and make some enemies along the way, stories recounted in the industry magazines, and hopefully in his unpublished screenwriting book. Dan didn't fly, so there was no chance of shaking his hand at a convention unless it was out in California (far from where I was). I had actually spoken to nearly every person in the ROTLD cast and quite a few crew members, including producer Tom Fox, long before getting a hold of Dan, which I did through his agent at the time. It started out with a few written questions (in the days of Fax) and eventually turned into a few phone calls to him directly. Whenever I think of Dan, I think of his originality (what someone else may term eccentricity). He truly didn't care what anyone thought and I valued his opinionatedness. I think of his professorly specs, white beard, bowtie and suspenders. Like a professor from a bygone era. This was affirmed in one of my first conversations with Dan, we got on the subject of his religious views (he had none) and about proving evolution. I asked why can people accept that we are all born from a tadpole-like embryo (a design that vertebrates share) in just a nine month period, but can not understand organisms changing over millions of years. Dan launched off into a biological dissertation about perhaps he'd had the conversation a thousand times before but I was certainly impressed with this impromptu response why it wasn't enough. In the middle of discussing whether he was aware that 'Trioxin' - what he thought was his own fictitious chemical - was a chemical used by embalmers, he was intrigued. "Really? Is that a fact? I didn't even know that...hmmm hold on a moment while I make a sandwich for Adam." We might talk about the time ROTLD was released and discuss Romero's Day of the Dead and Dan filled me in a never before published concept he had. He told me that he had a mind to do a "Day of the Dead" script of his own, using the Mexican holiday as the occasion and a group of researchers trapped in a cave as the victims of resurrected mummies. Now Dan was quick and creative enough to think of something wonderful as that in the moments we were talking, but I do believe things like that were floating around in his subconscious. He had visited the living dead enough already and had another Civil War zombie project he was working on. For "Day" I suggested it'd be better if the title was in Spanish with respect to keeping it distinct from the Romero film (and dreadful in name only remakes), and showing his flexibility, he agreed he was a good idea. He was open to other ideas not the snob some geniuses are made out to be. Inevitably we would discuss subjects we had in common like war history, archaeology and paleontology, of course I looked forward to hearing his thoughts on horror and fantasy fiction and films of the past and present. I would also describe works of my own and he was always helpful and encouraging. I have a feeling he was that way with everyone smart enough to ask his opinion on their own craft. I say it again: we really do need to get his book on screenwriting published. Generous with time, and versed in so many subjects, Dan could talk (at length) about almost everything. Once I tested him on sports, but discovered he had nothing to say and no interest. Inquiring if he'd ever watched a game, he said something to the effect of "I don't like watching grossly overpaid athletes throw, kick or catch a ball, with a wooden stick..." I said it could be fun and he interrupted "but why get into following any teams? There's nothing at stake!" In the final years, I would periodically check in, usually speaking to his wife Diane. One of my last conversations with Dan was about his excitement that his "Alien" creations may be turned into a stage event like "Walking With Dinosaurs". Now she will be running his Official Web Site. He left behind great sound bites and candid interviews, and it would be nice to see them all collected on the site. I may add a few - if we have "legal" clearance to add them. He could write any fantasy genre more effectively than guys in the business making millions doing it. Thanks so much Dan for doing what you did, and when you did and how you did it.