“You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy”
No folks, I am not talking about the Mos Eisley SpacePort, I am talking about the cast of the Return of the Living Dead series. Seriously. Monthly here at HorrorBound I do a deep dive on a horror series and usually I can find some through-line to connect them all. With Child’s Play it was the importance of family, Hellraiser it was the uniqueness of each sub genre and Poltergeist it was an overview of all the fears highlighted throughout the series. But oh no, not Return of the Living Dead. I watched all five of these movies, took notes, mapped out common threads of the films and it was all for not. There is nothing that ties these things together except for the scumbag characters who have to deal with the impending zombie apocalypse.
Before we dive deep into these scumbags let's talk about the series as a whole. Go find a random person and ask them to impersonate a zombie, they'll begin shuffling about, groaning “BRAINS”. That's the iconic zombie trait, brain eating, but this is not a trait of the original zombies. And by original zombie I don't mean the “those boys in the Caribbean doing wetwork for Bela Lugosi” as George A. Romero was famous for saying, I mean Romero’s original zombies. Sure they shuffled, but they didn’t talk or eat brains but almost 20 years after the original Night of the Living Dead the non-cannon sequel Return of the Living Dead was released and their zombies talked, a lot, about brains. As much as they talked about brains, theirs were not necessary for survival like the Romero zombies. See old George’s zombies were killed by a hard blow to the head, destroying the brain but the zombies from the Return series? Not so much. You could smash their heads, bludgeon them, drown them, shoot them, hack them into little bitty bits but they just keep on coming, looking for some brains. Zombies may not have started with the Return of the Living Dead series but they certainly are the most iconic. Now, onto the scumbags…
Spider, Scuz, Trash, Suicide and...Tina? These punks are the main characters of the original Return of the Living Dead which follows these punks partying in a graveyard waiting for their pal Freddy to get off work at the U Need It Supply company and deal with a zombie nightmare. Now, when you mention the OG original Return movie most people always bring up Trash aka Linnea Quigley and her naked graveyard dance, which is something of horror cinema legend. But I’d like to talk about a couple different scumbags. Remember Ernie the mortuary worker? Certainly the punks are clear and obvious scumbags but what about good old Ernie? You ever notice he was a Nazi? He had bleach blonde hair, spoke German, carried around that old school Walther 38 and had a picture of Eva Braun on the wall of the mortuary? Go watch the movie again and keep an eye out for all the Nazi paraphernalia. What about his good pal Burt? Get it? Burt and Ernie? But I digress. What a scumbag business owner that guy was! He’s hiding barrels of trioxin in the basement of his warehouse and when his employees open it and get infected and awaken a zombie what does he do? Does he call OSHA? Report a workforce accident? No, he hacks the cadaver to pieces and brings it to his Nazi buddy to burn it up. A true class act.
Return of the Living Dead is a horror classic which perfectly blends horror and comedy in a way no film has done since. Goofy antics like the zombie wiggling around in the trash bags, goofy dialogue with the zombie infamously saying, “Send more paramedics” and an entire cast of goofy scumbag characters that elevate the film from a standard 80’s horror flick into something of horror legend. Not to mention an amazing soundtrack! Certainly a sequel couldn't in any way match the original? Could it?
Oh yeah, that's right, this movie opens with a band of grave robbers pilfering a local mausoleum. And if one of those grave robbers looks familiar, that’s because James Karen is the actor who played Frank in the original. Now, you may assume that the scumbags of discussion in this movie are going to be the grave robbers, but you'd be incorrect. The scumbag I’m going to talk about in this film is the director Ken Wiederhorn.
Before I explain why let me just clarify something. Scumbag is not a negative in Bud’s world, it's a term of endearment. For instance I was recently watching Belzebuth on Shudder and I texted my buddy a pic of Tobin Bell, “Look at this fucking scumbag bro” his response, “Amazing, I’m going to watch this movie”. Most of my good friends in life are scumbags and most of them haven’t done anything wrong or evil to anyone in their life. It’s a look, an aesthetic, a certain je ne sais quoi that I can't fully put into words but just know, when I say the word, it’s a positive.
Anyway, this fucking scumbag director what does he do for a sequel to a movie about brain eating zombies that had a naked graveyard dance sequence and ended with the nuclear annihilation of Louisville? He made a kids movie. While the main characters being hunted in the original were Scuz and Spider, a couple of standard 80’s punks, who is being hunted in the sequel? Billy and Johnny, a couple of kids who get their babysitter brains eaten by zombies by opening a jar a vat of trioxin in the sewers. The only thing keeping Return of the Living Dead 2 from being a kids movie is the lack of a whacky soundtrack but if you swap out Anthrax and Leatherwolf for some Danny Elfman (not oingo boingo) and you have a Disney channel movie. Hell, this thing even has a Michael Jackson thriller zombie just for full parody effect.
As is with many sequels, the second entry is kind of weak and Return is no different. Very, very similar to the original but with the comedy and childish antics turned up a notch. Overall a legendary flick that doesn’t get enough love, especially as an early “real” horror film for parents to show kids. No nudity, no drugs, most of the gore is green goo which makes Return of the Living Dead 2 a next stop for kids once they've outgrown Hocus Pocus.
So after the kids movie that was Return of the Living Dead 2 you would expect that the series would course correct. Especially when you find out the director of part 3 is the same guy who directed such classics as Society and Bride of Re-Animator, a dedicated fan might be thinking, “Yes! We’re getting some serious horror!” No, you aren't. You're getting a Rom-Com...with blood.
A Rom-Com? The fuck? Listen, it may come as a sudden shock but Return of the Living Dead 3 is not only a romantic comedy, it is also the best movie in the series outside of the OG original that is. The movie follows young lovers Curt and Julie as they face loves challenges head on! Nothing can break up their special kind of love! Not Curt’s overbearing military father, not the gang of scumbags who they constantly run into everywhere they turn and certainly not Julie dying in a horrific motorcycle accident and being brought back to life by trioxin.
There are a few things required to be a Return movie. A rocking soundtrack, brain eating zombies, gratuitous trioxin toxin and of course, a bunch of scumbags. While the main characters are pretty standard folks their nemesis’s other than the zombies are a bunch of scumbags. Julie and Curt first find these gang members right after Julie is revived by trioxin in a mini-mart playing arcade games. They start a fight with a clearly ill woman and her boyfriend before robbing the store and shooting the store clerk. For some reason, they then decide to chase Curt and Julie all through the movie until finally, when Julie reached peak “BRAINS” in the sewers, surrounded by homeless people where she pierces her skin with all assortment glass, rusty nails and needles turning herself into a monster, what happens? The scumbag gang leader decides, “Hey man, lets have sex with this chick with a rusty railroad spike in her hand and glass in her face YEAH!”
While the original 2 films are standard zombie fair, Return of the Living Dead 3 is something completely unique and one of my favorite all time horror movies. Romance and horror are something that doesn't often blend, and when people try, they often don't blend well. This film certainly nails it! Curious as to why it took 12 years to have another sequel...or two.
In 2005 Return made its, uhm, return with not one but two entries into the series. The first, Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis which is about a group of standard early 2000’s kids, one of which gets hurt on his motorcycle and is taken to the hospital where the doctors start experimenting with trioxin? It doesn't make too much sense, it seems like the rambling first 30 minutes of the film are just an excuse to get everyone into one area to release the brain eaters.
Now there isn't much to say about Necropolis without being negative, it's not the best entry in the series. What it does do that is unique is it introduces a group of military controlled Uber-Zombies, one with machine gun arms and one with a buzzsaw arm. They remind me of the whacky deadites from Hellraiser 3 but without the Motörhead soundtrack.
Compared to the original three entries it clearly is a sub-par film. But as a stand alone film? It's pretty damned good. Certainly there are some flaws and the movie was hindered by budget, but damn if the special effects aren’t amazing, and damn if the movie is a bit of fun in a world of horror movies that tend to take themselves too serious. Besides, even if Necropolis isn't everyone’s cup of tea there was another sequel released that same year and it couldn't be any worse, could it?
Short answer? Return of the Living Dead Rave to the Grave is not winning any Oscars but it is winning a special place in my heart. This film is a return to form for the Return series and a fantastic send off to a great franchise. Made in the same year and with much of the same cast as Necropolis, Rave to the Grave outshines its predecessor in so many ways. First, the story. So, a group of scumbag raver kids find some trioxin toxin and mix it into the ecstasy that they start selling to party goers. Meanwhile, a goofy pair of Russian spies are hot on the trail of the teens and the trioxin. The whole thing culminates with an adeptly titled Rave to the Grave where most of the party goers turn into zombies and all hell breaks loose.
Necropolis was missing a few things. First, music, which has been a staple of the Return franchise and was mostly absent in Necropolis returns in Rave. CHECK. Gratuitous nudity, while part 2 was a kids movie the OG original was most famous for its gratuitous nudity and Rave has it in spades. CHECK. And finally the defining feature of the Return films, other than a bunch of scumbags, of course, is comedy and Rave brings the comedy. CHECK.
The two Russian spies, Gino and Aldo, which are clearly not Russian names, are hilarious throughout the whole movie. They find a vat of tioxin and argue who is going to take whose selfie with it. They are too noticeable as cops to get into the rave so they steal some pretty absurd costumes from a couple of party goers and spend the remainder of the movie fighting an unending zombie horde dressed in goofy costumes. Finally, when all seems lost, they handle the zombies the only way that works, NUKE EM!
Overall, like all franchises, Return has its highs, its lows, its masterpieces, creative outliers and low budget train-wrecks. Each and every entry of the series is special in its own way and I highly suggest watching them all in whatever order you feel necessary, but if you have only one take away from this right up it's that you should really watch Return of the Living Dead 3 because it’s a truly unique and wonderful film. A zombie love story that is the first of its kind since 1932’s White Zombie and the last truly good one until 2013’s Warm Bodies, a must see.
The sad part of the whole series? There is no talks of a new entry into the series or a reboot. All we’re left with is this amazing sequence from the end of Rave to the Grave.
Want more deep dives into your favorite horror franchises? Just search below!