JOHN RUSSO'S RETURN OF
THE LIVING DEAD
Forget everything you saw in Dan
O'Bannon's movie of the same name. It all started with a far different
seed for a sequel to Night of the Living Dead. The original story
of Return of the Living Dead (that's right, not "The
Return") was originally conceived by Night alumni John A.
Russo, Russel W. Streiner and Ricci Valentine (Rudy Ricci’s pseudonym).
Five years later, Russo had his second novel and a prospective movie.
However, perhaps he should have been called his latest The Retread of
the Living Dead.
The first pressing of the Return of the
Living Dead novel was by Dale Books in the U.S. (ISBN: 0-89559-062-X)
in Sept. 1978, a month before the novel of George Romero's Dawn of the
A generic painting of a girl running with large zombie face in backdrop
served as a fittingly uninspired cover. The back cover builds the story up
more than it should: "…soon the entire country is filled with death
and terror as corpses rise from their graves in search of human flesh to
eat! No one is safe from these super-strong creatures and it seems
as though a whole country could die in a bath of blood and horror! This
sequel has all the terror, suspense and gore that made the first story a
classic." A 1979 pressing from the British publisher, Hamlyn (ISBN:
0-600-37632-X) yielded two pressings. The first has yellow title and
photos of actors made up as zombies on the back; the second, for the
Australian market, has a waxy corpse head in a trenchcoat (this photo
would later re-surface in an alternate angle on the film version novel
Taking place ten years after the events in
the original story, nothing else in it could be noted in relation to the
film version except a character named Bert.
The 176-page novel begins with one of many excerpts from Russo's precursor
Night of the Living Dead novel. Russo rehashes the entire prologue,
a reflection on death and dying changing the first line to "Dawn is a
time of rebirth" – possibly a reference Dawn of the Dead
which was in the works by George Romero at the time.
Bert Miller is driving his pickup in the first scene with his three
daughters, Sue Ellen, Karen and Ann inside. They are well-dressed and
speeding towards a farmhouse with cars lined and parked outside. Karen,
his youngest daughter, is 8 months pregnant. In the Dorsey family
farmhouse a congregation is mourning the death of a 9-year old girl who
died of rheumatic fever. Reverend Michaels pounds a spike through her
skull after reading a prayer. Just then, a boy storms into the service and
informs them excitedly that the bus has wrecked nearby. He claims they all
Again, Russo rehashes a substantial section from his Night novel,
this time the Civil Defense broadcast. He must have taken Oscar Wilde’s
quote "self-plagiarism is style" literally. Sheriff Conan
McClellan also returns and is a main character. Hearing the radio report,
he has rookie Deputy Greene drive him out to the scene of the accident.
Bert and his daughters as well as others have been carrying the 34 corpses
of the bus tragedy; 13 have been spiked through the head by members of the
congregation. When the members order everyone to flee as the authorities
arrive, McClellan remarks that the spikes are to stop the dead from rising
again as they did once before a decade earlier in this same area, rural
western Pennsylvania. reporters arrive a short while later, and Russo
retreads another excerpt, this time the Civil Defense broadcast covering
the Venus space probe.
After drinking in a bar later that night and getting harassed by a drunk
who believes the dead will and are returning due to the TV coverage the
tragedy has gotten, McClellan and Greene attempt to rescue a woman being
raped nearby in a park after hearing screams. Greene is fatally injured
while attacking one of the two assailants who are shot, the woman is dead
of a broken neck and McClellan calls the morgue.
Just past midnight Mr. O'Neil is the embalmer in his funeral parlor and is
preparing Greene's body. The raped woman is in the embalming room when she
revives and stabs Mr. O'Neil with various instruments, gnawing on his
corpse. The other bodies, including Greene and a middle-aged black man
Bert finishes watching reports that the dead may be rising again and
watches McClellan deny the rumors even after the funeral murders. Michaels
claims in a phone interview that this is the work of the Devil. This
excites Bert who alerts his daughters, still traumatized by the tragedy.
He explains that they were young when the first crisis happened and he
sent them away with their sheltering aunt. Laws prohibited the public
rehash of the event so it has become urban legend.
Russo inserts the identical radio broadcast here from Night urging
citizens to stay in their homes behind locked doors. Near dusk, Bert has
fallen asleep, exhausted after boarding the house. Sue Ellen chooses to
run away from the fight, leaving carefully without a sound, walking out
along the highway towards Willard. Upstairs, Karen and Ann hear something
getting in the door a while later...thinking it is Sue coming back. They
go down and see their father has been partially devoured by three ghouls
who have managed to get in. Just then, the ghouls are killed and two
officers appear introducing themselves as Trooper John Carter and Wade
Connely. A man named Deputy Flack and a girl appears named Angel. With
them are two 'prisoners' and...Sue Ellen! Now unconscious, and bruised.
The men claim she was being attacked when they found her. Billy, Sue's
boyfriend arrives on his motorbike at this point and they take Sue
Flack and Carter defend the house from more ghouls before they take a rest
inside the Miller house. There, the TV News is on and McClellan is
speaking about how this crisis is worse than the first one. Flack
threatens Billy's life at knifepoint, Angel finds a family safe she is
determined to open, and the men refuse to bring Karen to a hospital due to
her labor pains which have just started. Upstairs, Sue awakes at which
point she reveals she was raped by Flack, who overhears this conversation
and confesses. He then holds everyone at gunpoint announcing they will
become zombie feed (three or four times). While Wade is out in the lawn
firing at the gathering zombies, Angel is silently attacked by a ghoul in
Bert's room. It even eats her breasts. No one hears her struggle over the
Billy and the captured men are tied up in the living room when the men
decide to leave in the truck and patrol car. Carter goes into the room to
look for Angel and sees her attacker and her corpse. He decides to leave
her to revive and to not tell the others she is up there. A shot is
hastily fired by Carter into one of the prisoners so that he may die and
revive to feast on his partner, while the men take Billy, Ann and Sue
Ellen on their next trip to the Kingsley estate. Along the way, numerous
zombies are run down and shot, and Billy's used as zombie feed in one
situation when he is thrown off the truck.
We learn that the prisoners were real officers, Carl Martinelli and
Dave Benton, who were captured while trying to help Angel who acted like
she needed assistance. Their clothes were switched so that they looked
like the looting rednecks. Carl had been shot but not fatally; he proceeds
to get up and free his partner after which they find weapons, kill Angel
and the bedroom zombie. They even deliver Karen's baby upstairs. Karen
dies at the moment of her son's birth and Dave drives a spike through her
skull. When the men leave, they encounter a few zombies until they find
refuge near a generator.
The next morning, a gang of teenagers
armed with bows and arrows find them and demand they give up their
weapons. They let them go and they make their way three miles further to a
farmhouse. A gunshot from one of its windows suddenly kills Carl. Dave
pleads with the gunmen to stop as he pleads that he is carrying a Karen
Miller's crying infant. The people inside let him in and we see it is the
Dorsey family. There we assume the gunman was Henry Dorsey's idiot son.
Dave needs to feed the kid fast, so Henry agrees to let him take his ‘56
Chevy to the nearby gas station for milk. Mrs. Dorsey agrees to watch the
A few miles away, Wade speeds out of control and wrecks the patrol car
killing himself instantly. The Miller girls are taken uninjured to the
truck by Flack and Carter en route to the Kingsley estate after Wade is
shot in the head by Carter. Dave hears on the radio how carcinogens may be
responsible for activating dead cells before arriving at the abandoned gas
station. He takes bags of food back and he and the family begin fighting
off zombies with the rifles. Dave borrows the car again to reach the
Kingsley estate, but is only given an ax and knife since Henry did not
have an extra rifle.
Back at the Miller house, the teen looters have been arrested by the
McClellan posse. Around noon, Dave passes the part where Wade wrecked his
car and fears for the Miller girls. He is chilled by his own bloodied
uniform on Wade.
Gordon and Elvira Kingsley had made their fortune in the local mine
industry and had a ten-year old son named Rodney. Now they were all bound
and tied to furniture in their own living room. Their guards had been shot
by Flack and Carter and their entry made easy because of their uniforms.
The maid and butler let them in before they were killed. Now they were
searching the place for valuables. Rev. Michaels continued on TV in the
living room preaching his belief that the crisis was Judgement Day. When
Dave arrives, he encounters the zombified guards, and witnesses Flack take
the family outside and feed them to the converging ghouls. A moment later,
Flack's skull is split in two with Dave's ax in a surprise attack. Finding
Carter in a bedroom, Dave blasts him with Flack's gun and he falls out a
window. In another room, he finds the naked bound bodies of the
Millers--alive. He explains what happened about the baby, and urges them
to stay while he gets help. He encounters figures in the road, one of
which he runs into accidentally, and in minutes there are slugs all over
the car. Our hero, like Ben in Night of the Living Dead, is killed.
McClellan's posse is at the Kingsleys a while later, and he rescues the
girls. When they head to find the baby in the Dorsey house, they find the
house was ravaged at some point by the living dead and the family is
presumed dead. Upstairs, they find the sleeping infant. End of tale.
There were additional pressings in June
1985 starting with volume six of the French ‘Gore’ series from Fleuve
Noir (ISBN: 2-265-03027-9). Night had been volume one, and there
would be another novel called Return of the Living Dead directly
tied-in to the film so the French retitled the original story Le Reveil
des Morts Vivants or ‘The Awakening of the Living Dead’.
The cover painting is dominated by a poorly drawn rotted skull on
the left with a man driving a spike into a corpse on the right. More
impressive was the 192 page German pressing, Untot (literally ‘Undead’)
published in January 1990 by Goldmann (#8071, ISBN: 3-442-08071-1). This
belated printing’s cover featured uncredited Michael Whelan art from
1980 of a walking corpse wrapped in a body bag. Ironically there are what
look like two biohazard drums in the composition, reminiscent of the tanks
in the filmed version. The last pressing in 1996 was by a short-lived
Canadian company Ravenmor [part of Commonwealth Publishing] (ISBN:
Russo quickly adapted his own work into a
104-page screenplay a year later with a co-writing credit to Rudy Ricci.
The beginning is very much the same with a short conversation between
Karen and Ann about the baby on the way. Titles were to be during their
truck ride to the farmhouse. McClellan and Greene are already in the
patrol car when they get word about the accident over the police radio.
And they happen to be only ten minutes from where it occurred. The
congregation has been spiking the bodies in a wooded area where Bert even
recites Reverend Michaels prayer when that scene cuts to the officers
walking toward the accident. There is fleshed out dialogue in the bar TV
scene with the reporter. The scene is the same as the novel's also. The
struggle in the park afterwards ends with a close-up of the assailant
dying, his face through the windshield of the car. That fades into the
County Morgue sign. At one point, an arm dangling under a sheet on a slab
twitches. Fade into the neon O'Neil's Funeral Home sign where Greene's
prepared corpse begins to blink while O'Neil is distracted by a pet cat.
His demise is the same as well with his screams segueing into the screams
of the morgue watchmen as they witness the living dead rise. Then we have
a cut to Bert's TV. When Sue leaves, we see her through the viewpoint of
three zombies in the cornfield in the distance. They appear to be auto
accident victims. The rest reads pretty much the same except for the safe
that Angel wanted to open. She is killed the same and ignored by Carter.
Dave rescues Gordon Kingsley from being zombie feed and his bound family
and the girls though spread eagle are not naked. The McClellan posse does
arrive shortly afterwards so Dave's tragic death is tossed for a happier
ending resulting in all of the gang's discovery of the infant. The last
shot is a slow zoom on the baby's eyes freeze framed with an odd light
inside them, as eerie music fades up.