The two heroes of the movie are names Burt and Ernie, obviously an ironic reference to the popular Sesame Street 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).
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).
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.
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. 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, and did not want to "...intrude so directly on Romero's turf." It was re-written with more humor.
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.
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.
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 Producer visited the set during the strip scene featuring Linnea Quigley (Trash) and were shocked that her shaved-bare pubis was visible. They insisted that it be covered. They had already shot the dance on top of the crypt, so those scenes are uncovered. For the remaining portions of her pre-zombie scenes, she can be seen angling her hips away from the camera or standing behind a gravestone or wearing a loose vest-like cover. In later scenes, she wore a crotch-covering, flesh-colored cast prosthetic. This information is from the commentary from Director Dan O'Bannon on the DVD.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
According to the recently released book, 'The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead'. The Simpsons 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.
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 couldn't have possibly been based on a true case since it depicted, "Zombies taking over the world".
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.
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.
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.
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.