Movies that claim to be “based on a true story” seek an audience’s trust which movies with no claim to real events have already gained. These movies mark the discourse of past events and enter the ongoing record of collective memory. Generations have understood the life of Hollywood star Joan Crawford according to Mommie Dearest (1981), where scenes of unholy child-rearing stick in the head of pop memory. “That was amazing,” people say after watching Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough), “and you know, old India was really like that.”
The Return of the Living Dead (1985, Dan O’Bannon) is a zombie comedy, and its first gag is a solemn title card: “The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.” It’s July 3, 1984, at 5:30PM. Frank, a managerial pencil-pusher at a medical supply warehouse, is showing the ropes to Freddy, an eager young 1980’s punk. In the walk-in freezer where “fresh cadavers” are kept for Army ballistics tests, Frank lets Freddy in on a secret. “Did you ever see that movie the Night of the Living Dead?” Sure, Freddy has seen it, and so has most of the audience. But, Frank asks, “Did you know that movie was based on a true case?”
Though Night of the Living Dead was released in 1968, Frank explains that back in 1969 at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh the Army accidentally spilled a secret chemical, 245-Trioxin, designed “to spray on marijuana or something.” The stuff leaked down to the morgue, causing “all the dead bodies to jump around as though it was alive.” Freddy is incredulous. Frank is grave. “I’ve never been more serious in my life.” Neither has writer/director Dan O’Bannon. Frank says that the original writer/director, George A. Romero, had planned to make a movie about the accident, but because the Army threatened to “sue his ass off,” Romero “changed all the facts around.” Because of a “typical Army fuck-up,” the undead bodies were shipped to Uneeda Medical Supply for storage. Frank asks with a mischievous roll of his eyes, “Wanna see ‘em?”
Soon the 245-Trioxin is re-released into the air, and Uneeda Medical Supply is next to a graveyard. The dead of Louisville come alive, again, some corpses arguably Civil War marauders and backwoods bootleggers. Burt Wilson interrupts his July 4th weekend to come back and save his small-business from the zombie apocalypse. Played by career actor Clu Gulager like a Wild West sheriff in a Members Only jacket, Burt is a Reaganomics frontier suburbanite, a grizzle-jowled back-slapper trying to lead a simple middle-class life in the legitimate business of trafficking body parts. Because of an Army snafu, he is now stuck to save the world. Referencing O’Bannon’s source material, Burt brainstorms, “in that movie they destroyed the brain to kill ‘em, is that right?” But “how do you kill something that’s already dead?” “How do I know?” Burt shouts at Freddy. Frank chimes in desperately, “It’s not a bad question Burt!” When a pickaxe through the skull fails to kill the zombie, Freddy is stupefied by the faulty gospel, and despairs, “did the movie lie?”
George Romero inaugurated the catechism of post-1960s zombie law. Night of the Living Dead shows how the zombie virus spreads and how zombies are properly killed. According to Dan O’Bannon, Romero told only half the truth. A zombie bite will surely turn a survivor into an undead cop or jock boyfriend, but nothing can kill it. Each tactic used by the surviving humans to destroy the zombies only proliferates the life of the dead. When the zombies are incinerated, the contaminated fumes infect the rain which causes buried stiffs to bloom.
245-Trioxin is a failed drug of immortality, where the brain is deathless and hungry but the body putrefies. Humans have created the chemical to destroy humankind, not unlike nuclear bombs. Freddy wears a “Domo Arigato” wife-beater with a picture of the Rising Sun like an A-bomb blast. Movies in the 80’s often embraced the device of nuclear paranoia. In Back to the Future (1985, Robert Zemeckis), plutonium fuels the time machine, and is only purchased from Libyan terrorists. Miracle Mile (1988, Steve De Jarnatt) depicts an oncoming nuclear holocaust as the setting for an all-American love story.
President Reagan had cast the specter of nuclear brinksmanship as a morning breakfast cereal laced with razor blades. 80’s youth were depressed and silly and violent, like Freddy’s punk friends, whose names are “Suicide,” “Scuz” and “Trash,” which Dan O’Bannon has already informed the audience are real names. The kids are bored, jobless and hang out in the graveyard. Before the zombies eat them, the kids get a chance to bear both body and soul. Trash is an androgynous coke-spindled chick who tempts her friends, “Do you ever fantasize about being killed?” Spider advises, “Try not to think about dying so much.” Trash dreams for “a bunch old men to get around me and start biting and eating me alive.” The thought triggers a striptease, and Trash shows pink. “Lets get some light over here! Trash is taking off her clothes again!” Indeed the events are true. Suicide, decked in black leather with a chain pierced across his face from ear to lip, wants to be taken seriously. “Nobody understands me… Fuck you all! I got something say. You think this is a fuckin’ costume? This is a way of life!” As Trash tries to blow him on the gravestone, Suicide roars, “show some fucking respect for the dead, will ya?”
As part of its Dan O’Bannon film series, Brooklyn Academy of Music screened a double-feature of Foster’s Release, an early 1970s student film starring O’Bannon as a deranged ex-con, and Dark Star, a sci-fi satire where O’Bannon is credited as actor, film editor and production designer. These movies show traces of how O’Bannon subverts and sublimates genre principles in The Return of the Living Dead. As Foster’s Release is a familiar thriller, and nails the conventions of a cute babysitter trapped in the house with a psycho, Living Dead enjoys the anticipated bullet points of the zombie genre. Dark Star is out to buck expectation. Though plotted according to old sci-fi, the main characters are sloppy and jaded misfits, the spaceship Lieutenant plays a bottle organ, Man surfs the Universe, and the title song is a country-western ballad about Benson, Arizona. Likewise, Living Dead makes a new joke of an old zombie flick, where each scene is noted for the record by hour, date, and time zone, up to the moment when Louisville, KY is bombed off the earth.
The Return of the Living Dead joins a select roster of movies that toy with the “true story” conceit. The Coen brothers open Fargo (1996): “THIS IS A TRUE STORY… At the request of the survivors, the names have been changed. Out of respect for the dead, the rest has been told exactly as it occurred.” Shock jock Howard Stern plays the character Howard Stern in the biopic, Private Parts (1997, Betty Thomas), and Stern DJs his own life. The Informant! (2009, Steven Soderbergh) subjects the audience to a cranky confession that “while this motion picture is based on real events, certain incidents and characters are composites, and dialogue has been dramatized. So there.” Sometimes the skewering of veracity is richly unintentional, like Saturday Night Fever (1977, John Badham), where the bare truth of Bay Ridge disco civilization is inspired by a magazine article which over twenty years later the author, Nik Cohn, admitted was made up.
Yet there is small precedent for a fictional movie to tell a true-story based on a story told originally as fiction. The romantic comedy Rumor Has It (2005, Rob Reiner), starring Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Costner, insinuates that the character is related to the real-life woman who inspired Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols). Rob Reiner also helmed This is Spinal Tap (1984), a behind-the-scenes documentary which follows the downfall of an aging heavy metal rock band. If given the chance, Spinal Tap would have gladly contributed to the garage punk soundtrack of Living Dead, along with The Cramps’ “Surfin’ Dead” and The Damned’s “Dead Beat Dance.”
The true events given movie life by O’Bannon reveal what Night of the Living Dead covered-up. That was the 1960’s, when Nixon was president and times were a lie. It is now the 1980’s, and the truth can finally be told. In future archives, The Return of the Living can be researched as a sequel, a Wikileak, a farce, a re-animator of movie lore. Perhaps the idea is that movies based on a true story are part of a zombie genre, and that the public memory is an undead being that lives on to eat brains.
Andy McCarthy blogs at The Shine Box
Return of the Living Dead is playing as a part of the series “Shock Value: Dan O’Bannon” at BAM on Tuesday July 19 at 4:30, 6:50, and 9:15.