BASTARD SON OF A PRODIGAL SON: INTERVIEW ON “THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD”

We film buffs are lucky that our passion is a mere remote click away, not lost in history like the originals of other performing arts. With so much accessible, histories of many films remain in fragments – brief mentions in movie guides or broader studies, reviews floating here and there. Yet, the story behind Romero’s “Dead” series, as grand as it is, has become overwritten, with Joe Kane’s new text retreading more than delivering insight. Authors Christian Sellers and Gary Smart consider an unsung offshoot, the “Return of the Living Dead” series. This “bastard son” has its own worthy tale, which Sellers and Smart have realized to the justice of their title. The authors’ dedication shows throughout this recent interview.

How did you choose the style of your book? It’s fact-filled, but structured as oral biography, with numerous interviews.
Christian Sellers: I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanics of filmmaking and the rise and fall of a franchise. I wanted to incorporate both into a book, so when we decided to focus on “Return of the Living Dead” we knew we wanted to build some kind of narrative around how the series had progressed from one film to another over a period of twenty years. And writing a book on the franchise without the input of the cast and crew just seemed pointless to us, so we talked about the structure and agreed that it should be the filmmakers who move the story along with their anecdotes. The overall narrative was to be told in chronological order, in which we saw the franchise slowly decline in both popularity and production values over the years.

Gary Smart: We knew that the cast and crew would make this book appealing to fans. Therefore, we decided that the narrative needed to be structured around the people who were actually there. The cast and crew of the first ROTLD love the movie so we knew their stories were going to be really interesting. The interviews are the most important part of the book because they are their opinions, their recollections – some may be contrasting and biased but that’s what happens after 25 years. We never wanted this book to be a critical analysis of the franchise because we both feel that audiences take something different from these types of movies… some fans love Part 3 and some fans hate it.

Did you feel that the “Return” series needed its stature elevated before starting your project? What other factors urged you to document this history?
CS: When one writer heard that we were developing a book on “Return of the Living Dead” his response was, “Why not the Romero films?” This seems to be a common question. Another was fans complaining because we wanted to cover the making of the sequels as well. But how can we cover the rise and fall of a franchise without including all five films? The first movie definitely has a cult status, but the sequels are often dismissed, even by the fans. It wasn’t our intention to justify the quality of the films, we just wanted those who made them to have the chance to look back on the history of the series and share their stories with the world.

GS: “Return of the Living Dead” has never received the credit that it deserved. Yeah, it’s a cult classic and has a big following around the world but the franchise has never been documented properly. My biggest reason for wanting to start this project was meeting Don Calfa and Beverly Randolph in person. Both love the movie and love sharing stories with fans. Don has dedicated his life to promote the “Return of the Living Dead.” Since I met them we have become close friends.

How did you go about getting such interview sources? How did their information help shape your concept?
CS: The best advice I can give to someone who is considering writing a book is pull your resources. Who are you already in contact with? How supportive would they be? Will this book offer fans something they have not already read elsewhere? I hate reading a book about a movie that does not scratch under the surface to tell me the truth. You know when the author is avoiding getting their hands dirty and it makes for a boring read. If you know that the filmmakers you are going to approach will be open to telling the truth then this will make for better interviews. Basically, if the readers learn nothing from the book then it was pointless. When we approached the cast and crew we were honest with out intentions and they responded accordingly.

GS: Christian is an experienced interviewer, having worked on a UK horror magazine and managing his own websites, so he had already interviewed a lot of actors and directors, including Brian Yuzna. I had known Don and Beverly so there was already a connection. We started off contacting about 10 of the main cast asking them if they wanted to be involved, and they all said yes. Beverly was the key to a lot of the interviews, with her being on board meant a lot of the other cast knew that the project was credible. For me, Don and Bev shaped my approach to the book – an honest and from the heart account on what happened on the set of the movie – guts ‘n all!

Readers will also be curious how you guys got your hands on so many great photos. I remember seeing something online about a petition to gain images.
CS: I must admit I was surprised by how little support the studios and publishers offered this project. Perhaps if we had chosen a more respected franchise we may have had more luck. The fact that the rights to the series had been passed between studios and producers caused a lot of problems and the petition came as a result of studios refusing to allow us permission to use images from the films. It didn’t require any effort on their part, but they still expected money in return, despite the fact that this book could help renew interest in their products. In the end, we were able to obtain countless previously unseen images from behind the scenes, so we didn’t need the support of the studios after all.

GS: We were lucky to have so many of those photos, but it was a hard process. I do feel that studios don’t realize what they have with this franchise. The ROTLD was originally produced by Hemdale which was purchased by Orion and since then the ROTLD has gone through a number of studios being purchased as part of a bulk archive catalog of movies. It was then apparent that we had to find members of the cast and crew who had their own photos from the set. We were really lucky to find Victoria Slaymaker who was Tom Fox’s assistant. She had a huge amount of never-before-seen photos and was really happy to let us use them. Other great photos came from stills photographer Rory Flynn (Errol’s daughter) and Orion Marketing Executive Paul M. Sammon. For Parts 2-5 we also sourced photos from the cast and crew.

How influential was Dan O’Bannon’s death to your project?
CS: We had already commenced work on the research by that point and obviously Dan O’Bannon would have been an important aspect of the book, but sadly we were informed that he was very ill as we were in the early stages of developing the project. When he died we were unsure on how to proceed, and eventually decided that the book should be a testament to not only his work on ROTLD but also his legacy. Dedicating the book to his memory was not simply some cheap shot to make it appear more worthy; he was an integral part of the history of the franchise and, unlike the Academy Awards, we felt that he deserved to be recognized for his talents.

GS: We had contacted Dan a month or so before he died so he was aware of the project. However, someone like Dan got lots of requests for interviews so his response was something along the lines of “I don’t mind you doing a book,” [though] little did we know how ill he was. When he did die we did think that maybe the book wouldn’t be a great idea, however William Stout emailed me and said that this would be a great tribute to Dan and I got in touch with Dan’s widow, Diane, and she was really supportive. So Dan and his death had a big impact on the project – the impact urged us to make the best book possible as a tribute to him and his work.

Can you tell me about your first viewings of “Night” and “Return”? Were the seeds of this project planted at those times?
CS: I watched NOTLD when I was a kid, long before I ever even considered a career in writing. It was probably one of the first zombie movies I ever saw and its bleak and claustrophobic atmosphere definitely got under my skin. Later, I saw the colorized version and found it far less effective. With regards to ROTLD, I had read John Russo’s novelization many times before I saw the movie and was a little disappointed that some of the aspects were missing from the film, as is common when you read the book first. But both movies I loved when I was growing up.

GS: My first viewing of NOTLD was a lot like Christian’s. In around 1995 I purchased a color version of “Night” from Woolworths and loved it, though I had actually watched Dawn of the Dead first. I first watched ROTLD in around 1994 and absolutely LOVED it. My granddad had lent my dad a VHS copy of it and I found it in the video drawer. I was always allowed to watch horror movies from an early age and had posters of Freddy Krueger in my bedroom at the age of five so watching ROTLD at the age of 12 wasn’t a big deal. From then on I became obsessed with ROTLD and remember trying to write a letter to Don Calfa when I was about 13. The letter came back months later with a stamp saying the address was not known. I always promoted ROTLD with friends and when the internet became more accessible I would promote the movie on forums and blogs.

A few of your subjects note that producers wanted only horror comedies after the release of “Dawn of the Dead.” Do you agree with this description of “Dawn”? I see the film as independent of the horror-comedy cycle of the 1980s (which, naturally, includes Return). It seems that horror-comedy grew from grindhouse exploitation films reaching the mainstream (i.e., films like Ferrara’s “Driller Killer,” moving to Henenlotter’s “Basket Case,” a solid comic-terror piece).
CS: “Dawn of the Dead” was definitely more comedic than “Night.” After all, how serious can you take a movie where a zombie is hit in the face by a custard pie? But whilst there is definitely an EC Comics feel to the look of the film, it focuses on the breakdown of society and how we refuse to let go of the irrelevant aspects of life when facing death. I guess you could perceive it as many things: a satire, a comedy, a horror. I would not necessarily refer to it as a horror-comedy, but Romero definitely has a wicked sense of humor.

GS: I think “Dawn” is mistaken as comedy horror because George Romero filmed it in a very comic style. Savini’s makeup was also unintentionally comic, with bright red blood and green faces. So maybe it is mistaken as a comedy-horror by some. The first successful comedy-horrors were really “Re-Animator” and “Return of the Living Dead.”

It’s a treat to see you discuss at length Russo’s sequel-novel, The Return of the Living Dead, which was abandoned for O’Bannon’s comic tale. How important was Russo’s novel to your book? Was documenting it a motivation for you during the project?
CS: While I always preferred his novelization of O’Bannon’s script, Russo’s original book was another I read when I was a child. I felt it worked well as a continuation of NOTLD, but I understand why O’Bannon chose to take it in a different direction. What I liked about the first novel was that it portrayed this small community that feared of another zombie outbreak, so would destroy the remains of the recently deceased. Despite this, the local authorities still consider it sacrilege, even though they know it’s necessary. The tone of the book was closer to “Night” than “Dawn of the Dead.”

GS: I only became familiar with Russo’s original ROTLD novel a couple of years ago. I loved what he did with the movie version of the novel. Christian’s passion about the original novel really sold it for me. I love anything ROTLD related so the movie novelization is a great book for me. I still think that Russo’s original novel stands by itself as a great story and elements of it can now be seen in Russo’s comic series “Escape of the Living Dead.”

Many of your interview subjects note that Russo’s sequel was too close to the original “Night” to adapt to film, yet now it’s seems like part of an apocrypha to the original series. How do you classify this book for posterity?
CS: In some ways I would have liked to have seen the original script filmed, but back in the 1970s when it was first written. It was a worthy continuation of NOTLD, although the climax once again took place in a farmhouse. Perhaps that was another reason why O’Bannon decided to change the story.

GS: For Tom Fox the book was too much of a sequel to NOTLD and he is right, it’s in the same world, has the same rules and there are similar settings, like the farmhouse. This isn’t a bad thing – it’s good that the world of NOTLD has taken a few different directions and it’s all part of the legacy. For me the ROTLD has its own legacy and it rightly deserves it.

It seems that some horror fans are ambivalent to the ROTLD series because it’s so varied, and thus hard to identify. Would you agree?
CS: It’s definitely not the most consistent of franchises, but that was one of the things that appealed to me when writing the book. We purposely avoided adding any kind of critical analysis about the films, as we wanted the participants to give their own opinions. But obviously we have our own favorites, and there is at least one film that I can’t even bring myself to watch again.

GS: I would agree that the ROTLD series lost its way a little. It started off on a high, a successful horror-comedy with a great punk soundtrack. The sequel didn’t know what it was and went straight for comedy. Part 3 was a straight horror and four and five changed the rules of the franchise and tried to add comedy but just didn’t work. Fans have gotten confused by the series, so many either love Part 1 and/or Part 3. This made the book a difficult project – I can’t tell you the amount of times people said to me just do the book on Part 1, ignore the rest, or just do it on Parts 1-3 and ignore 4 and 5. BUT for us ALL the movies have an important place in the legacy of the ROTLD.

Do you see Brian Yuzna’s “Return of the Living Dead 3” as organic to the series? Yuzna himself has noted that he had complete freedom, as long as he used zombies.
CS: I don’t think there’s much continuity between the films, not even between the last two which were shot back-to-back. Brian Yuzna didn’t want to simply try to remake Dan O’Bannon’s movie, much like O’Bannon didn’t want to make a Romero-style film when he directed the first. Each movie has a different tone, explores different themes and only really relate to each other through the use of the Trioxin. That’s what made writing about this franchise so interesting; the first three have no real relation to each other, yet they are considered part of the same series.

GS: I wasn’t a big fan of Part 3 when I was younger. Like many ROTLD fans I felt that it didn’t stick to the style of the first film. However over the years I have come to love and respect Part 3 – it’s a great movie and does expand the series in a good way. I do think Part 3 could stand alone as a movie and it’s a shame that Yuzna didn’t continue the series as he would have taken it into an amazing direction.

According to Horror Films by James Marriott, a legal decision granted Russo the rights to use “Living Dead” in his titles, while Romero could only use “Dead.” This sounds like urban legend, and sections of your book seem to challenge the fact. Can you comment?
CS: It is our understanding from talking with John Russo that they came to more of a civilized agreement than critics would make you think. Whether or not he is keeping the truth close to his chest for legal reasons or if this has story has been somewhat embellished over the years remains to be seen, but he did state that there wasn’t much of a drama between them and the issues were more over the copyrights of “Night of the Living Dead.” But critics have to sensationalize stories; how else can they arouse the interest of their readers? But personally, I’m more fascinated by the truth, yet with some stories there can be more than one version of it. I guess it’s up to the reader to decide which one they want to believe.

GS: It’s an urban legend that’s been going ’round for years. In the book Russo himself sets the record straight, so who knows. I would like to believe that everyone we interviewed gave an honest approach to answering our questions. Romero and Russo came to a mutual agreement and went their separate ways, Romero with “Dead” and Russo with “Living Dead.”

With all your interview subjects, both the original and the Return series seem like collaborative efforts. Would you say your book goes against auteurist associations to the films – Night as Romero, and Return as O’Bannon?
CS: No movie was ever made by one person. Even John Carpenter, who would often direct, write, produce, edit and compose the music for his films. It is definitely a collaborative effort and there are many unsung roles in the film industry, yet it is the director who gets both the acclaim and the criticism if the movie succeeds or fails. O’Bannon was a major driving force behind the movie, but so was William Stout, who was responsible for much of the look of the film. And then there are the special effects, the score, the cinematography – countless other roles that contribute to the overall look and feel of a movie. I guess you could look at it as the director being the captain of a ship, but he is nothing without his crew.

GS: These movies are two separate legacies, yes they are connected. But at the end of the day NOTLD and its sequels are very much from the mind of Romero and ROTLD and its sequels very much are spawned from the creative genius of Dan O’Bannon.

In your opinion, what other films – or series – need a history written for them?
CS: Growing up in the early days of the home video boom, there are countless franchises that are worthy of the retrospective treatment: “Re-Animator,” “Sleepaway Camp,” “Psycho,” “Critters,” and “Emmanuelle.” Actually, that one should make for some interesting pictures.

GS: “Hellraiser,” “Fright Night,” “Subspecies”…”Police Academy.” There are lots of classics that deserve a book like this. As for me and Christian we have a few projects that we are working on at the moment, so it’s not the last you’ve heard from us. We may be dipping out toes back into the world of ROTLD sometime in the future.

I bet this project was a long journey. Anything else you’d like to say about it?
GS: It was a long, stressful journey but well worth it. I would like to revisit the book in the future as I know there are more stories out there hidden away. Maybe now this book is out people will want more on the ROTLD franchise. The cast and crew were amazing, their support for this project was immense and without them this book could never have been created. I was very lucky to work with someone like Christian who is very passionate about the world of horror, and we both bounce off each other with creativity. I hope fans love the book and see that it was a labor of love. We did it for them and as a lasting tribute to Dan and the cast and crew of the ROTLD franchise.

CS: As fun as it was, I’m glad it’s over.




Posted on March 30, 2011 in Interviews by
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2 Comments on "BASTARD SON OF A PRODIGAL SON: INTERVIEW ON “THE COMPLETE HISTORY OF THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD”"

  1. pat ring on Fri, 24th Jun 2011 5:53 pm 

    good job!


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  2. Matt Sorrento on Fri, 24th Jun 2011 8:19 pm 

    Many thanks, Pat — this book is definitely worth seeking out.


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