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Untold Tales of Hollywood #97

Film #19: Spawn of the Dead (1985)
Screenplay by William Stout

It seemed like every crew member on The Return of the Living Dead had written a sequel to Dan O’Bannon‘s directorial debut, myself included. I won’t recount the plot or show the zombie designs I did for my story, however, as I still would really like to make this film! I don’t want my original elements lifted and used in another film before I get a chance to use them.

I followed the same rules that made The Return of the Living Dead so special, beginning with what Dan O’Bannon called “Principle Corpses”. Each zombie design was unique, interesting and colorful; no George Romero-style zombies.

Toward the end of the making of The Return of the Living Dead there was an attempted coup. Thinking I was on board with the coup, I was told that the film was going to be taken away from Dan O’Bannon.

“He’s gone over budget. We can get him on that.”

I was deeply offended by this attempt to wrest away the movie from its creator. I immediately went to Dan and reported what was going on behind his back.

“Thank you, Bill. I knew you were on my side.”

Ron Cobb told me that Dan tended to see things in black and white terms.

“You’re either Dan’s good friend or his great enemy. There are no shades of gray in Dan’s world.”

The morning of the coup attempt Dan came in prepared.

“Before we begin,” Dan stated, “My accountant is here. I am writing a check for $100,000 to cover our film’s budgetary overruns.”

The opposing side had suddenly lost their key pawn in this power struggle. Their opposition melted away; they had nothing to stand on. Dan was still the movie’s director and we proceeded to finish the film.

Producer Tom Fox (1935–2004) asked me to be the production designer for a TROTLD sequel. I read the script he gave me. I was appalled. Two thirds of it were a direct rip-off of Dan’s screenplay. Tom mistakenly thought that the success of TROTLD was due solely to its “Living Dead” title. He didn’t realize that it was the originality of Dan’s script and story that made TROTLD so special.

I told Fox in no uncertain terms that not only I would not be designing the film but that I would sue him if he used the zombies I owned and created from the first film, particularly the Tar-Man.

I confronted the writer in regards to his plagiarism. His reply was total bullshit.

“Dan’s film is so great, yet I feel not enough people got to see The Return of the Living Dead, so I kept as many elements from the first film as possible in the script so that the public would come to realize what a genius Dan is.”

So, you’re celebrating the originality of Dan and his works by stealing from him?

Wow.

A few sequels to The Return of the Living Dead were made. I haven’t seen any of them. Our little ($1.5 million) original film has turned into a gigantic cult film. Whenever a screening is announced in Los Angeles, it sells out within minutes. The cast and I were guests at various horror conventions, traveling together to a couple of dozen shows over the course of a year or so. We discovered that for some people, The Return of the Living Dead was their all-time favorite film.

Initially, there was only one promotional appearance for The Return of the Living Dead. Dan and I were guests at RiverCon in Louisville, Kentucky. It made a kind of crazy sense, as our film was set in Kentucky. The smoke, fires and explosions at the end of the film was actual Louisville news footage from a chemical disaster the city had suffered years previously.

On the way back to Los Angeles I got to meet Dan’s parents (on our stopover at the St. Louis airport, as I recall). Another piece of the puzzle that is Dan O’Bannon was revealed to me by Dan just before I met his mom and dad. When Dan was growing up, he told me his parents ran a roadside attraction that contained fake freaks.

Some of the folks we met at RiverCon went on to create WonderFest, one of my all-time favorite conventions, a Louisville show I attend every year. Each year I’m in Louisville, I usually get approached by a local TROTLD fan who whispers to me that he knows where where we shot every scene in Louisville. I don’t have the heart to tell him that we never left the L. A. area during the making of our movie and that most of the film was shot inside a Burbank, California warehouse.

One year WonderFest celebrated an anniversary of The Return of the Living Dead. Among the invited guests were Linnea Quigley, James Karen and myself. Just before I got up on stage for a TROTLD panel I was approached by the moderator, my great ol’ pal and talented artist-writer Frank Dietz.

“Bill,” he confided, “We’re going to pull a trick on Linnea. Jimmy is going to pretend that you shot the entire film in Louisville. Are you in?”

“I am definitely in.”

I took my place at the onstage panel table. We began discussing the making of the film.

At one point, James Karen said, “You know, I think for me, the best experience I had was shooting the film here in Louisville.”

Linnea looked confused and stunned.

I joined in.

“Yes; the folks here were so friendly and helpful during the making of our film.”

Linnea looked as if she had just entered The Twilight Zone. Jimmy expanded upon our lie.

“I think my favorite person here was the mayor.”

“Yes,” I added, “He was a great guy. He helped us so much.”

Jimmy took our fib into the stratosphere.

“He was truly remarkable. He had a hollow wooden leg which he filled with the finest Kentucky bourbon. He’d ask you if you wanted a shot. If you said ‘Yes’, he would do a handstand and let you fill your glass from the spigot in his wooden leg.”

“He was so generous,” I added.

“And incredibly kind,” Linnea chimed in. She was now convinced that we had made the film in Louisville, that she had met the mayor and had tasted the bourbon from his hollow leg. She began to innocently add her own false memories to the conversation.

We eventually let her in on the fact that we were joking.

“Oh my God,” she said. “I thought I was losing my mind.”

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