The Return of the Living Dead Series: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you had to choose your favorite horror-comedy, which movie would you pick? Personally, I love the original Return of the Living Dead (1985). The entire movie from start to finish is gory, over-the-top, and — most of all — fun! 

I have fond memories of watching the first RotLD when I was a kid, though the movie had been out for over a decade at that point. But the very first movie in the Return of the Living Dead series I ever watched was Return of the Living Dead 3

After watching the third movie, I soon found myself going back and watching parts 1 and 2. I loved them. They quickly became — and remain — my favorite entries in the RotLD series.

How could I not love this? | Image via MovieStillsDB

However, in case you didn’t know, the series didn’t stop with Part 3, which was released in 1993. When 2005 rolled around, two brand new RotLD movies hit DVD shelves everywhere in the form of Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis and Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave.

I saw parts 4 and 5 when they were released (straight to DVD, and for good reason). I was a teenager at the time and thought they were pretty cool. Do they hold up? Well, both movies are…interesting…to say the least. 

How do ANY of the Return of the Living Dead movies really hold up upon re-watching? If you remove your nostalgia goggles and watch them through the eyes of an adult “seen it all” horror fan, do these films still party as hard as they used to?

Today, I’m going to take a look at all five of the Return of the Living Dead movies and give you my thoughts on each one. I re-watched the entire series last week, and my opinions have changed slightly since I was a little baby horror fan.

Just for fun, I’m going to compare and contrast how some of my thoughts have changed since first watching these hilarious horror classics. 

In case you haven’t figured it out yet: SPOILERS AHEAD!

The Good Years: The Return of the Living Dead and Part II

I’ve already made it clear that the original RotLD and Part II are my favorites in the series. But I didn’t get a chance to explain why they’re far superior to any of the later sequels. 

For me, the biggest difference between these two movies and the rest is the humor. RotLD 3 has almost no laugh-out-loud moments, while Necropolis and Rave to the Grave try TOO hard (but more on that later). 

The Original

The original Return of the Living Dead starts with a notice that, “The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations,” which only amplifies the over-the-top silliness.

When the first scene transitions from the notice, the movie goes to two goofballs, named Freddy and Frank, who are working late at Uneeda Medical Supply when things go horribly wrong. 

Freddy tells Frank that the government accidentally sent a couple of canisters filled with 245-Trioxin, a chemical compound that brings the dead back to life. Frank then tells Freddy he knows where the canisters are kept and he wants to show him. 

Here’s where things take a quick turn to crazy town. While messing around with the 245-Trioxin container, they knock something loose and get hit with gas, which leads to them getting infected. But the gas is a slow burn and doesn’t immediately bring the healthy living back to life. 

The split dogs and corpse in the cooler at Uneeda Medical Supply are a different story.

holding down the reanimated corpse in The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
This is the turning point when stuff gets “real.” | Image via MovieStillsDB

They come back almost immediately. What happens for the next half of the movie is one of my favorite freakouts of all time. Freddy and Frank spend the rest of their time alive, and some of the time dead, anxiously moaning and groaning about their situation to the point where it’s funny. You can’t help but laugh when Freddy starts sobbing hysterically while tying a loose (but very lively) arm up in a bag. 

After a trip to the crematorium next door, their plan to burn the evidence (with help from their boss, Burt, and the mortician, Ernie) ends up releasing the 245-Trioxin into the air… where it’s abruptly pulled back down thanks to a rainstorm — right on top of the cemetery!

While all of this is going on, the story follows these wholesome kids: 

return of the living dead punks

Most of the kids have very unique personalities with some funny catchphrases. For example, I’ll always remember Trash asking, “Do you ever wonder about all the different ways of dying? You know, violently?” The other kids have ridiculous names like Scuz, Suicide, and Spider, with some normal names mixed in like Chuck, Casey, and Tina. 

Tina is waiting for Freddy to get off work, so all of the kids decide to break into a graveyard with NO FUTURE spray-painted on the front. How appropriate. The graveyard just so happens to be the same place where the 245-Trioxin rain is hitting the graves underneath. 

Suddenly, the metaphorical party starts and RotLD does a great job of nailing the sound of fun, 1980’s chaos.

The music and sound effects make this movie a real joy. It’s impossible to stop smiling while you’re listening to “Partytime” by 45 Grave and watching moldy corpses popping out of the ground. 

return of the living dead cemetery zombies
Can you hear the music just by looking at this? I can! | Image via MovieStillsDB

Eventually Freddy, Frank, Burt, and Ernie meet up with the remaining kids after Tina has her first encounter with the Tar Man (still a mind-blowing practical effect, 35 years later!). The goal is to make it out of the situation alive, but people are still dropping like flies.

Before long, Freddy turns and delivers one of his brilliant lines to Tina about just wanting to eat her delicious brains. Tina’s so selfish, right? I hadn’t watched the original in over a decade and that scene still had me laughing out loud.

Things keep escalating as the zombies take out the paramedics and cops that show up to assess the situation, after a zombie lets them know over the radio that they should, “send more paramedics.” 

The movie finally closes when the group gets desperate enough to call the number stenciled on the side of the 245-Trioxin container. Their action alerts the military to the location of the barrels. The government’s solution? Blast the whole town and kill all of the survivors and zombies still in the city. It’s not the happiest ending around, but when you’ve just experienced the wacky journey that is RotLD, you won’t care. 

Another notable fact is that the original Return of the Living Dead is what sparked the lore that zombies eat brains, as opposed to human flesh. When I was young, I didn’t know that fun fact, or much else about zombies.

As a kid, I appreciated the music and cool effects in Return of the Living Dead, and that much is still true. Now that I’m older, I’ve only gained a deeper appreciation for this excellent movie. 

Part II

Return of the Living Dead Part II is a great follow-up to the original. This movie was released in 1988 and contains more of the same fun from the first movie.

Even some of the actors return for a second role. Specifically, Freddy (Thom Matthews) and Frank (James Karen) from the first movie appear as Joey and Ed and end up suffering an almost identical fate with a slightly different starting point. 

return of the living dead part ii Ed
Not again! | Image via MovieStillsDB

RotLD Part II takes place after the first movie when one of the 245-Trioxin containers lands in a river and floats into a sewer hole. A kid named Jesse gets chased down into the sewers by a couple of bullies led by a pre-teen named Billy. They discover the canister and, of course, they start messing with it. 

Eventually, Billy and his pal open the container, which leads to them getting hit with the gas. The release of the gas brings the dead back to life within the nearby cemetery. At the time of the event, Jesse is locked in a mausoleum and discovered by Ed and Joey, who are would-be grave robbers. Jesse escapes and as the gas spreads deeper into the cemetery, Ed and Joey get infected, much like the first movie. 

All of the main characters left standing meet up as things escalate. Billy ends up biting his mother and becomes one of the overarching zombie villains. He mercilessly stalks and bullies Jesse even after he’s completely turned — further playing with a terrifying idea brought forth in the original film: The RotLD zombies are intelligent

There are plenty of funny highlights in the movie. The zombies all talk, though most of them only scream for “brrrrraaaaaains.” But, once you see a bunch of zombies cruising down the street in a car yelling about brains, you can’t help but laugh. 

return of the living dead ii brenda and joey
Longing for a taste of spicy brains… | Image via MovieStillsDB

I also really love how they did another scene where Joey ends up eating his girlfriend. In this instance, he tells her he’d like to eat her “spicy” brains. Classic. 

Overall, these two movies are very similar; but that’s okay! When you nail a formula — the Final Destination series comes to mind — sometimes you have to stick with it for a while.

I remember laughing and absolutely loving these movies when I was young, and not much as changed in that regard.

The Bad Years: RotLD Part 3

Return of the Living Dead Part 3 holds a special place in my heart, even if it’s not a particularly good entry in the series.

When I was about 11 years old I would spend the night at my aunt’s house. She had a large, random collection of movies that I would browse. Most of her VHS tapes were missing their cases and all I had for information was the on the little title sticker on the top of the tape. 

At that point, I was already into Night of the Living Dead, Jason’s hack-and-slash adventures at Camp Crystal Lake, and I spent much my free time reading horror books for kids (Goosebumps, etc.). When I found my aunt’s VHS copy of Return of the Living Dead 3, I was intrigued. 

My first experience with this movie was mostly terror and confusion. At the time, I’d never seen such amazing makeup jobs in a horror film. Going from the effects in Night of the Living Dead to THIS was a HUGE leap and didn’t just blow my mind as a kid — it completely disintegrated it!

The first zombie in the containment room was downright disturbing. Everything from the dead smokey eyes to the pale stretched skin to the bulging tendons really gave me chills. 

There were other notable makeup effects that caught my attention when I was a kid, but even more so as an adult. The stretched-neck zombie is one worth pointing out. He thinks that he’s going to get freaky with Julie (the main character), but she clearly isn’t having it. Watching his head scream on top of his spinal column, which is about three feet out of his neck, is a real treat! 

Speaking of Julie, it’s time to talk about where things get weird.

If you’re not familiar, a teen named Curt decides to bring back his girlfriend that he accidentally killed in a motorcycle accident. 

This was them before the accident: 

Curt and Julie looking normal in return of the living dead 3

But Curt’s dad works in a lab that’s experimenting with that pesky Trioxin. Curt and Julie see them bring the first zombie back, which sparks Curt’s “brilliant” idea when Julie later dies. 

Eventually, Julie looks like this: 

zombie julie in return of the living dead 3
“The pain keeps the hunger away.” Such a bummer. Poor Julie. | Image via MovieStillsDB

She’s able to contain her zombie rage towards Curt, but only if she self-mutilates and occasionally chomps down on another character. Actions that lead, unsurprisingly, to a small-scale zombie outbreak. 

The lab with the Trioxin contains the outbreak and brings all of the zombies back to the lab, including Julie, Riverman, and all of the other “main” zombie characters introduced. 

It all leads up to Curt releasing all of the zombies from their cages and eventually getting bitten. I wish I knew why he was hanging out at the lab where his dad is making bioweapons. But, anyway, the movie ends on another sad note: Julie and Curt go into an incinerator and peace out, leaving everyone else to deal with the mess they created. 

As a kid, I thought this was disgusting yet pretty cool. As an adult, and plenty of experiences with the first 2 films, I can appreciate the makeup and special fx, but there’s something missing from this movie: The humor is gone without a trace.

The whole movie is pretty serious and dark. There’s very little playful banter between characters. It’s all doom and gloom, all the time.  

I think if this movie was called something else it would be a little more tolerable — maybe even good — but, as a Return of the Living Dead movie? It’s bad. 

The Ugly Years: Necropolis and Rave to the Grave 

In 2005, Ellory Elkayem directed two Return of the Living Dead movies: Necropolis and, its direct sequel, Rave to the Grave. Both movies went straight to DVD, and I had my first encounter with both of these films in my mid-teens. 

Back then, I thought both films were fun and very similar to the first two movies in terms of humor.

Looking back on it now, I was sort of right. They’re definitely funnier than Return of the Living Dead 3, at least! But they tried almost a little TOO hard to mimic the originals.

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against callbacks. But I don’t think that having an almost obsessive number of callbacks to two movies that are far superior is a good look.

If anything, loudly calling back to the originals only shined a glaring spotlight on how unoriginal these films are — and how they failed to meet the standards of the movies they so desperately tried to pay homage to.

sad tar man rip-off in return of the living dead necropolis
My screenshot doesn’t do this justice. To really get the full “effect,” watch it in HD. Woof.

For instance, at the end of Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave, their version of Tar Man is holding up a sign in an attempt to get to the rave. In the dark, he looked cool. But, when they tried to milk the iconic character for all he was worth and showed him again (at length!) in broad daylight, the result was ugly.

It was ugly in that you could see the seamlines and imperfections all over the costume the actor was wearing, and it was “ugly” because it was one of many moments that highlighted the movie’s desire to coast on rekindled nostalgia rather than making any effort to create a genuine film. It was sloppy, much like the movies’ plots.

Honestly, I’m not sure if they were going for the “retro” style, or if they just ran out of funding. Based on some of the high-quality visual effects during some parts of the movies, I’m going to guess that they ran out of money and just ran with it because the films were just a quick “cash grab” and they no longer cared if they were good

Necropolis

I thought the storyline for Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis was strange as a teen, and not much has changed since then. The main characters Julian and Cody make it to Rave to the Grave, along with Julian’s seemingly evil uncle, Charlie. 

In Necropolis, Julian, Cody, and a group of friends go to a research facility where Uncle Charlie works to save one of their friends. Things go wrong, as they do, and most of the kids become zombie food as the undead flood the halls, and the wacky characters go through over-the-top situations along the way. 

zombie baby in return of the living dead necropolis
“Over-the-top situations” like a room full of zombie babies!

The part that weirded me out most as a teen was when Julian finds out that his mom and dad didn’t die in an accident, they were brought back to the lab and turned into bioweapons. So, Julian decides he wants to set his mom and dad free after he finds them.

Keep in mind, at this point, his mom has tubes running from the top of her head to her spine instead of hair. My wife pointed out that she looks like the Borg Queen from Star Trek. And yet Julian’s STILL gung-ho to bring her back home!

What in the world was he thinking?! As a teen, I thought that was dumb. As an adult, I understand longing to reconnect with a lost loved one… but not when they’re clearly a super zombie.

I think Nemesis in Resident Evil 3 is cool, but I wouldn’t bring him home to be my mom, y’know? That really is just plain stupid. And it’s difficult to connect or care about what happens to characters who are too stupid to live.

zombie dad in return of the living dead necropolis
Julian’s zombie dad.

Well, things go from bad to worse when evil Uncle Charlie sets Julian’s parents free. I couldn’t help but notice how they look like weird, live-action versions of Tyrant and Nemesis from the Resident Evil video games. Even though the characters are probably just cash-grabbin’ knock-offs (the RE games were very popular with the “younger” audience the films were clearly trying to target), they’re still pretty cool to see in action. Props! 

Necropolis has a subdued conclusion which is used to transition to the fifth, and final, installment…

Rave to the Grave

Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave follows Jullian and Cody (the high school kids from Necropolis) in college. Uncle Charlie ends up getting murdered, and the boys find his hidden can of Trioxin in the attic. 

Next, Cody does the obvious thing and extracts the Trioxin and turns it into a party drug that he can sell for some extra cash. Julian doesn’t like this idea, but not because he knows Trioxin turns people (like his parents!) into zombies. He doesn’t like the idea because “drugs are bad.”

Both kids seem completely oblivious to everything that happened to them in the last movie! Why even include them? If they’re going to be clueless all over again, they may as well have created fresh characters!

return of the living dead rave to the grave zombie becky
In addition to Julian, Cody, and Uncle Charlie, the character “Becky” (left) returns from Necropolis in Rave to the Grave. She, too, has no memory of the previous movie… which probably plays a part in why she ends up as a zombie.

I’m sure you can guess how this ill-advised fifth edition to the series plays out: Big rave, kids are tripping, then the zombie gorefest begins.

I enjoyed most of the special FX and makeup in this movie, but there are some sections that were clearly underbudgeted

I do enjoy both of these movies, as an adult, as “so bad they’re almost good” no-brainer movies to watch after work. They’re good sources for “cringe” laughs. But, they belong in the “ugly” years because of some of the blatantly obvious problems with several of their effects.

On top of that, the sequels make zero sense in terms of storytelling. Silly or not, surely the kids would know that messing around with mysterious substances resulted in the dead coming back once before, right? The previous zombie outbreaks — even the ones from the 1980s! — were mentioned in both of these films! How could the characters not know?

zombie news alert
Both Necropolis and Rave to the Grave have TV and radio news segments talking about zombie-related incidents!

Saying the film is a “comedy” doesn’t excuse it from ignoring its own lore. Creating characters who’re TOO stupid (or have inexplicable amnesia) just for the sake of a laugh isn’t funny: It’s irritating.

Fortunately, there are enough genuinely humorous moments (in the rare instances where the films tried to branch out and do their own things), that they’re overall enjoyable. If you don’t think too much. Or at all. (Sometimes we all need movies that require zero thought processes…)

Actually, the movies so disjointed, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they were both submitted as two unique ideas and the publisher said “We’ll take these two! Make one a sequel to the other!” 

Should We RETURN to Return of the Living Dead?

As a kid, I adored all five of these films. As an adult, I still adore two of them and “like” the other three. If you haven’t watched them, you should! If you have watched them, watch them again.

Do I think the Return of the Living Dead series should be remade? Hell no.

Do I think they should do more sequels to Return of the Living Dead and extend the series further? Maybe. But I’m leaning towards “no” on that as well.

The fourth and fifth movies found themselves in a trap that’s hard to avoid when working within a known series. The temptation to pay cringe-worthy “homage” to the first entries is far too strong and usually ends badly.

I’m afraid that adding new editions to the Return of the Living Dead series is going to result in more rehashes of what’s already been done. And, let’s face it, no one’s going to top the original.

What I would like to see is more fun original zombie movies! There have been a few of them over the years that really shined — Dead Snow, Cabin in the Woods, Shaun of the Dead, etc. — because they did their own thing within the horror-comedy zombie niche.

If you make a cool, original, zombie movie… Let us know!

As for the Return of the Living Dead series: What do you think? Which one’s your favorite? And when was the last time you watched them? Let me know in the comments below!

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