In an unprecedented move, a fan of the film started an internet campaign to get the movie released on DVD. Going beyond simple fan petitions, Michael Allred created a web page consolidating every bit of news relating to the film, and contacted many of the film's principals including the writer and director Dan O'Bannon. He went on to put O'Bannon in touch with MGM (the studio that owned the film) and work began on getting the film released on DVD. O'Bannon and others who worked on the film credited Allred and his campaign for getting the movie released on DVD.
Some of the zombie extras were paid more to eat real calf brains in the film. Dan O'Bannon didn't want the actors to do anything he wasn't willing to do and ate some raw calf brains first in front of them.
The character Ernie (Don Calfa) is thought to be a Nazi due to him sharing his name with Ernst Kaltenbrunner. There are also character details that provide an indication of his past: Ernie listens to the German Afrika Corps march song "Panzer rollen in Afrika vor" on his Walkman while he embalms bodies, carries a German Walther P38, has a picture of Eva Braun in his morgue, refers to the rainstorm coming down like "Ein Betrunken Soldat" (which means "A Drunk Soldier" in German), really knows his way around a crematorium, and seems surprised and ashamed when he learns that the dead can feel pain. Dan O'Bannon, in the DVD commentary, mentions that Ernie was intended to be an escaped Nazi in hiding.
When shooting Trash's (Linnea Quigley's) grave stone dance, she initially was completely naked and showed pubic hair, as was more the norm in the early 80's. However, producer Graham Henderson visited the shoot that day, and according to himself and others, threw a fit, yelling at Dan O'Bannon that "You can't show pubic hair on television". Dan sent Linnea away and had her completely shaved, which coincidently, Linnea herself found to be the most embarrassing part of the whole thing. Then they did another shoot, to which Graham Henderson cried out "Oh god it's even worse, you can see everything!". At this point they sent Linnea Quigley over to Bill Munz and William Stout, where they made an alginate crotch piece, resembling the bottom of a g-string and glued it on. According to Linnea, this was a bit of a problem, since every time she had to go to the bathroom, they had to remove it. Because of this, there are no shots of Linnea with a completely naked crotch area.
(at around 8 mins) The glass breaking on top of the chemical drum during the "melting tarman" scene at the beginning of the credits wasn't planned at all. It just happened to shatter due to the heat of the effects at the perfect time.
On the back of Freddy's jacket, in the theatrical version, the words "Fuck You" are displayed. After realizing that the shot could not be used in case it was ever shown on TV, a second jacket was made that says "Television Version" and can be seen in the TV version of the movie.
John A. Russo wrote a script called "The Return of the Living Dead" at the same time that George A. Romero was doing Dawn of the Dead (1978). An independent producer, Tom Fox, bought Russo's script. He set up production and gave the script to Dan O'Bannon. O'Bannon refused to direct it as it was written. He felt that it was too much of a serious attempt at making a sequel to Night of the Living Dead (1968), and did not want to "...intrude so directly on Romero's turf." It was re-written with more humor.
The part of Burt was originally offered to Leslie Nielsen who wanted too much money. Then offered to Robert Webber who hated the script. Then they tried Scott Brady who was too sick and actually died a year later. They finally went with Clu Gulager right before the first day of filming.
According to Jewel Shepard (Casey), Dan O'Bannon met her at a strip club where she worked as a stripper. He initially wanted her in the role of Trash, but she was at the time fed up with being naked. She then suggested to Dan O'Bannon that she could audition for the role of Casey - the party girl, since she liked to party.
The eye-test poster (seen most clearly after Frank and Freddy run into Burt's office after hearing the first re-animated cadaver) in Burt's office actually reads "Burt is a slave driver and a cheap son of a bitch who's going bald too haha" if you put the letters together (pause the Blu-ray at around 17:29 into the movie for a clear shot).
The two heroes of the movie are names Burt and Ernie, obviously an ironic reference to the popular Sesame Street (1969) characters, right? Wrong. Turns out Dan O'Bannon didn't know he was using the names of the two beloved children's show's puppets (from liner notes in the Collector's Edition DVD).
After the "rabid weasels" are brought into the Resurrection Funeral Home and the tarp is removed, what is actually in the bags are those motorized toy monkeys that have the cymbals. The cymbals were removed for obvious reasons.
Allan Trautman said in a DVD commentary that one of the main ingredients for the 'tar' of his costume was Methocel. Methocel is a thickening agent used in milkshakes and also one of the main ingredients for The Blob (1988).
On the DVD commentary, Dan O'Bannon claims he was surprised at how many women were in the initial audiences and said if he'd known he'd have such a large female following he would have shown Freddy (Thom Mathews) naked as well.
Unlike most movies that feature the undead, The word "Zombie" is actually said in this movie by Thom Mathews' character Freddie during his discussion with Frank in the office about how the movie Night of the Living Dead (1968) couldn't have possibly been based on a true case since it depicted, "Zombies taking over the world".
The lead pipe that Clu Gulager uses in the movie is actually made of rubber. He initially used a real pipe but the crew snuck it away from him and replaced it with a rubber one as Dan O'Bannon was worried about Clu's frequent angry and sometimes violent outbursts.
According to the recently released book 'The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead', The Simpsons (1989) creator Matt Groening came up with the tagline "They're Hungry and They're not Vegetarians" which appears in some trailers. Another tagline he came up with, "First they want to meet you, then they want to eat you", was rejected by the studio.
There are two versions of the song "Party Time" by the band "45 Grave". The band recorded the 'zombie version' of their song for the movie's soundtrack, which mentions the events of the film but is not featured in the movie itself. In the cemetery scene following Trash's dance, the band's original version of the song, which is about a 5-year-old girl beaten and raped and murdered by her own family, can be clearly heard playing instead.
Director Dan O'Bannon was originally supposed to play Frank and he wrote the part with himself in mind, but when James Karen came in to read for another part, O'Bannon was simply blown away and hired him on the spot.
The film's German title is "Verdammt, die Zombies kommen", which is roughly "Damnit, the Zombies Are Coming" and the Danish title is "Ligene er ligeglade" which is roughly "The Dead Don't Care" - playing up the comical aspect of the film.
A book entitled 'The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead' by authors Christian Sellers and Gary Smart was released in 2010. The book includes hundreds of previously unseen images, exclusive interviews with various cast and crew and charts the rise and fall of the franchise.
Clu Gulager was cast at the last minute as Burt. As a direct result of this, Gulager wasn't involved in a two week rehearsal process all the other cast members participated in and came into the movie cold.
Jewel Shepard had tremendous difficulty with her "Go choke a chicken" line because she didn't know what the phrase meant. As a direct result of this, forty-five takes were done before Shepard finally said the line right.
Linnea Quigley originally danced to the song "Nasty Girl" by Vanity during the filming of her famous cemetery striptease. "Nasty Girl" was later replaced by the song "Tonight We'll Make Love Until We Die" by Stacey Swain.
The scene where Tina falls through a broken step was done without Beverly Randolph's knowledge it was going to be done. Director Dan O'Bannon had a false step put in while she was at lunch, then told her to do a test run up the stairs. She wound up banged and bruised as a result, and also the reason why Tina didn't get up immediately and run in the scene.
(at around 19 mins) The gravestone to the left of the large one upon which Trash first performs her striptease has the name 'Archibald Leach' on it. This is the real name of the actor better known as Cary Grant.
In the scene where Frank is telling Freddy about the zombies they have in the warehouse, he mentions that the events that lead to them being there happened in 1969 and inspired the film "Night of the Living Dead", in spite of the fact that "Night of the Living Dead" was released in 1968.
The character of Tina was originally written as wearing a plastic mini-skirt. Beverly Randolph went through a variety of prissy outfits with skirts and bows and sweaters for her character, but nothing 'felt like Tina'. The white and blue outfit she wound up wearing for the movie was Miguel A. Núñez Jr.'s outfit.
Richard P. Rubinstein of Laurel Entertainment didn't want people to think this film was part of George A. Romero's "Living Dead" series. He even got an injunction to stop them from using "Living Dead" in the title. But the MPAA arbitrators ruled in favor of the movie's producers.
The Darrow Chemical Company that manufactured 2-4-5 Trioxin in the film is based on the Dow Chemical Company, which in reality manufactured a chemical defoliant in the 1960's called 2-4-5 dioxin, more commonly known as 'Agent Orange' and used to strip jungles in the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was sprayed in Vietnam and on the Gagetown Army Base in New Brunswick, Canada. It caused a lot of adverse health effects and is no longer used. To avoid being sued by the Dow Chemical Company, the makers of Return of the Living Dead created the name "Darrow", which sounds a lot like Dow when pronounced but wasn't spelled the same.
When Frank and Freddy are carrying the "rabid weasels" into the Resurrection Funeral Home (before Burt removes the tarp), Clinton Hartley, brother of assistant art director Clayton Hartley and future brother-in-law of actress Beverly Randolph, is actually under the tarp lying on the stretcher to give credibility to the weight of the body parts.
Christian Sellers and Gary Smart, the authors of The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead, returned to the franchise the same year with the feature documentary More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead.
Mark Venturini, Miguel A. Nunez Jr and Thom Matthews went on to have roles in the Friday 13th film series. Venturini as Vic Faden and Nunez as Demon in Friday 13th: A New Beginning and Matthews as Tommy Jarvis in Friday 13th Part VI: Jason Lives
John A. Russo receives story credit despite the only similarity to his original treatment being the title. His story was a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead taking place ten years later and dealing with a trio of sisters being menaced by looters on the countryside when the zombie plague mysteriously begins again.
The movie takes place in Louisville, KY. If you freeze the movie when the medical supply sign first appears, you'll see that the medical supply company is a member of the Louisville Chamber of Congress.