Dan O’Bannon gave the cast of The Return of the Living Dead a tremendous gift: two weeks of rehearsal. Because the film hadn’t been fully cast, I filled in on those yet-to-be-cast roles during the cast’s rehearsals. What that did was bond everyone, making the relationships of the punks seem real. I think that gift from Dan is the reason I remain very good friends with the cast (we traveled all over the country together, guesting at most of the nation’s horror conventions a few years ago). The Return of the Living Dead is the only movie in which I can make that statement.
I was originally cast as the shopping cart bum. Producer Graham Henderson nixed that idea; I had enough on my plate as production designer. That’s not me in that role in the film, however (despite the IMDB credit) — it’s a real actor.
I got cast in a non-speaking role. I was the alcoholic bum sleeping on the sidewalk that the punks step over early in the film. I should have groggily raised my head during that scene but I was all about being in character. I designed my own costume:
One of the first signs that the dead are returning to life in The Return of the Living Dead is what we called the YellowMan. He was a jaundiced individual hanging inside the Uneeda Medical Supply‘s freezer (that frost inside the freezer was Christmas tree flocking). Here are some of my first attempts at his design:
In the film, the Yellow Man comes back to life and pursues Bert and Ernie. Frank joins them in capturing the Yellow Man and saws his head off. Thinking they have disabled the Yellow Man, the three stand back for a well-deserved break. The headless corpse jumps up, however, and chaos reigns until they chop up the Yellow Man into a trash bag full of wiggling pieces.
I carefully storyboarded out this entire scene. Here are my storyboards for that part of the film:
Here are my revised storyboards for this scene:
Here’s what Bill Munns’ version of the headless Yellow Man looked like:
Seriously. I couldn’t believe it. I promptly demanded a do-over.
Unfortunately, after fixing his Yellow Man work, Bill paid little attention to my boards and constructed what we needed on the wrong side, opposite to what I had boarded, destroying the scene’s visual continuity.
My first intensely negative encounter on The Return of the Living Dead with the work of make-up man Bill Munns came after he showed me his version of First Corpse, the first zombie to burst from its grave.
It seems pretty clear to me from my drawings just what I wanted the First Corpse to look like. I thought Bill was just showing me his zombie’s mechanics. That this was what he considered camera ready “finished art” was the farthest thing from my mind.
On the day of the shoot I discovered to my horror that what Bill showed me Bill thought was done. A lot of Bill’s First Corpse was perfectly pristine and clean — with few signs that this thing had just erupted from its grave. Many of the bones of its skeleton were pure, clean white. I was pissed at the lack of thinking that went into Bill’s version of the First Corpse — so angry that I didn’t even think of smearing some damn mud all over the thing. My bad.
The first of our “principal zombies” (as Dan O’Bannon referred to them) that I designed has become the most beloved zombie of The Return of the Living Dead: the Tar-Man.
I showed these drawings to Dan and he flipped.
“This is exactly the kind of approach I am looking for! Go to finish!”
So I did.
The Tar-Man presented me with an interesting problem. He was basically a profusely dripping skeleton. Putting a guy in a suit sort of contradicted what I was trying to do. I wanted to take away bulk — not add to it. I solved the problem by adding glimpses of the Tar-Man’s skeleton throughout the suit.
I also insisted on something I always insist upon when I’m designing a guy-in-a-suit monster: I demand that an actor wear the suit — not a stuntman. We hired actor and puppeteer Allan Trautman to don the suit and play the Tar-man. Alan brought that creature to life. He could move as if his bones weren’t connected. Alan invented what I call “the Tar-Man Slouch”. When fans rave to me about the Tar-Man I always bring up Alan. I tell them Alan deserves at least half the credit for bringing the Tar-Man to life.
Here’s good ol’ Tar-Man, chomping away. Our film was the first zombie movie in which zombies could run and move fast. It was also the first zombie movie in which they all had a hunger for brains. I figured to zombies loved eating brains as the endorphins being consumed relieved them from some of their pain. I congratulated Dan on this bit of brilliance with the endorphins.
“I never thought of that,” he responded, “but I’ll happily take credit for it!”
In all honesty, Bill Munns was finally starting to get it. He did a very good job with his first attempt at constructing the Tar-Man. Unfortunately for Bill, it was too late.
Before each shoot, I check with all of my department heads to make sure they’re all ready for the work to come. I walked over to Bill’s trailer to check on his readiness.
“Are you all set for tonight?” (it was a night shoot)
“I don’t know…what are we shooting?”
“Check the call sheet and your script.”
“I forgot my script.”
“I left it at home.”
“You forgot your script? Then what in the fuck were you going to do tonight?”
Each department head having a copy of the script to work from each day is so basic to film making that there was no way that Graham could defend Bill. Munns was fired and promptly replaced with the talented Kenny Myers, who beautifully finished the Tar-Man Bill had started and created some other terrific make-ups for our film.
I own several intellectual properties throughout The Return of the Living Dead, including the Tar-Man. I occasionally create new Tar-Man art for licensing purposes. Here’s one:
Here’s another I did for the great special make-up effects house KNB:
I’ve done lots more pics of Tar-Man. I find him really fun to draw. Note that most of my zombies are pretty happy zombies most of the time.
My big take-away advice from working on this film: As soon as you are hired, find out who really has the power. Usually, it’s the director — but not always.
A screenwriter friend of mine got his first chance to direct a film. The producer (who had also worked as a director on several films) reassured him.
“Don’t worry…You’re new to directing. I’ll put together a great crew for you.”
Whenever there was a conflict in vision or any other creative decision, guess who the crew went with? Not the director, but the producer — the guy that hired them. They knew where their bread was buttered. My pal was pretty much left powerless on his own film.
On The Return of the Living Dead, I was being ground up between the desires of the director (Dan O’Bannon) and the orders of the line producer (Graham Henderson). Often during the making of the film, each guy would give me directions that would directly conflict with what the other guy was demanding.
The most frustrating thing for me was not being allowed to hire who I wanted for the special effects make-up jobs. All of my earliest friends in The Biz were special effects and special make-up effects guys, guys like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin. I could have had incredible make-up guys working throughout the film.
But I was saddled with Bill Munns. He was a decent enough guy, but I was not happy with almost anything he was doing makeke-up-wise. He just didn’t seem to get it. He complained that he was not given the budget to do what I wanted. My attitude has always been, once everything has been negotiated between you and the production, you set aside all contractual terms and payments and you do the very best job possible. This did not seem to be Bill’s philosophy. I understand; if Bill was given $100 to do something, you received a creation that was worth exactly what it cost: $100. Not $125 or $150 or $200, but $100. That’s not what I expected of myself, however, or anyone who worked for me.
Why saddle me with this guy when I knew I could get someone so much better? I figured it came down to Graham owing Bill a favor for something Bill had done for Graham on another film. I ran into that same situation on Masters of the Universe, except in that case I think kickbacks were involved.
There were a few things that were not under Munns’ domain. I called my pal Rick Baker.
“Rick! Have you got any great up-and-coming guys working for you that you can spare?”
“I’ve got this really promising kid who has been doing some great work for me. I’ll let him moonlight for you. His name is Tony Gardner.”
I met with Tony. He looked like he was fourteen years old. I liked him and, especially with Rick Baker’s endorsement, wanted to give him a chance to work with us. I assigned him the task of creating the Half Corpse and the Split Dog. I sent Tony in to see our line producer, Graham Henderson. Graham uttered the classic words that struck and terrified Tony to his very core.
“You fuck up on this and I’ll see that you never work in this town again.”
Tony was good and he was fast. The producer, director and I were all there when Tony brought in his work-in-progress:
It was beautiful and extremely functional. Tony demonstrated all the moves his puppet could make. We were ecstatic.
After the demonstration, Graham called Tony into his office. The man who had previously threatened Tony’s future in film asked him a question.
“How would you like your credit to read?”
In the film, the Half Corpse was puppeteered by Tony, Brian Peck and me. Tony manipulated the arms and hands; actor Brian Peck (who played Scuzz in the film) operated her head and spoke the Half Corpse’s lines (his readings later replaced by a female); I was under the gurney making her severed spinal cord flop around and ooze spinal fluid.
Tony’s Split Dog, based upon something I found in a Carolina Biological Supply company catalogue, was just as wonderful. I ended up hiring Tony on every film I could. He went on to become one of the greatest special effects make-up guys in the history of film.
Our film rented a warehouse in Burbank, California. We built two sound stages inside the warehouse which also housed our offices. We shot in one sound stage set while another was being built at night. Then, we’d switch sound stages and begin the process again once we got all of our shots taking place in the first sound stage.
That was a brilliant decision on the part of our line producer, Graham Henderson. It meant easily checking the progress of our set workers and construction crew by just stepping outside of my office. We even temporarily redressed the art department office to become the police department in the film.
We built the mortuary interiors at our Burbank warehouse as well:
I like curved sets, as they imply more stuff is just around the curve, a “more” that you don’t have to build anywhere except in your audience’s imagination.
The Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse and the Resurrection Cemetery gates were next to each other in downtown Los Angeles’ warehouse district.
The insides of this warehouse had become an artist’s loft. We only used the exterior.
There’s almost always a little humor in my film designs. Note the skeletal guy in the second cemetery gate picture. He’s been waiting a lo-o-o-ong time for that bus.
The only thing actually behind the cemetery gates was a railroad track. In one shot (that may have been deleted or fixed later), looking just beneath the gate, I could see a moving train passing by!
This was a pretty creepy part of downtown L. A. One day, while the cameras were being set up, I was walking around the general area, examining refuse, curious as to what people who lived in the area threw away when I came upon a cardboard box about the size of a hat box. I looked closer at the box…and saw blonde hair. My first thought: A human head?
Films usually have a cop on set when you’re shooting on location. I went to ours and told him what I had found. He accompanied me back to the box. He carefully looked inside.
It was a dead long-haired cat.
Funny what working on a horror film can help you to imagine.
We needed a cemetery. Writer-director Dan O’Bannon wanted one densely crammed with headstones. We found an old olive grove in Sylmar and my crew and I turned it into the cemetery we needed (the cemetery entrance, by the way, was in a completely different part of the general Los Angeles area; it was in downtown L.A.).
We rented every tombstone that Universal Studios owned. I hoped that some of the Universal Monsters magic would rub off on us.
I also designed some special tombstones, plynths and monuments for the film. Those were being built for us by a company named Sequoia. O’Bannon especially loved my Weeping Angel design. It was beautifully sculpted by Leo Rijn (Leo and I ended up working together on a lot of projects).
We had paid Sequoia and asked them to deliver all of the pieces that we had commissioned to our olive grove.
They refused. They had just gone bankrupt. In spite of our having already paid them in full, they wouldn’t release our graveyard necessities. They were seen as company “assets” in the bankruptcy hearings.
It’s a shame, because Sequoia had several very talented artists working for them. One day, I was visiting Sequoia to see how things were going. I watched as a painter was about to age a crypt.
“How old would you like it?”
“How old would you like it? Thirty years old? Fifty years old? A hundred years old?”
“Uhhh…a hundred years old?”
“You got it.”
He took a canister with a hose and began to squirt paint on to the crypt. He began counting.
“Twenty years old…(squirt-squirt) forty…(squirt-squirt) sixty…(squirt-squirt) eighty…(squirt-squirt) one hundred.”
In less than five effortless minutes the faux marble crypt looked exactly one hundred years old.
I was astounded. I’ve often thought of apprenticing under that guy, just so I could learn his painting tricks.
We desperately needed to retrieve our cemetery pieces from Sequoia. So, I gathered art director Robert Howland, “Big Bob” Lucas and a few more of our biggest-muscled art department guys and drove over to Sequoia at midnight. We hopped their tall chain link fence and “stole” all of our stuff we had paid for, brought it all back to our cemetery set and put everything in its proper place for shooting the next day.
Dan so loved the Weeping Angel sculpture, it became the one item Dan took home as a souvenir from the film (I took some shelves; more about that later).
Afterwards, I found out that Leo Rijn had been stiffed by Sequoia. They never paid him for sculpting the Weeping Angel. I called Dan and explained the situation. He called Leo and told Leo he could take possession of the Weeping Angel sculpture. Leo picked it up from Dan’s backyard. Later, Leo rented out that sculpture to a number of films, finally earning some money from his beautiful work.
Several years later, when I was the production designer on Masters of the Universe, we were considering various construction companies to build the bulk of many of our movie’s key elements. The producers brought the representative of one prospective company in to meet us in the art department. I immediately recognized the guy as the head of Sequoia. When he saw me his face fell. Right in front of him, I took great delight in filling our producers in on how this guy had tried to screw us on The Return of the Living Dead.
You better believe that Sequoia never got the gig.
In our researching of crematoriums and mortuaries, writer-director Dan O’Bannon and I were given surprisingly generous access to their behind-closed-doors operations. At one mortuary the owner said, “You’ve never seen a corpse? Let me show ya.”
He reached over to a coffin-sized box in his office and lifted the lid. There was the body of someone’s granny.
Another owner took us down to see the retort (cremation oven).
“You’ve never seen a body when it’s burning?” He opened the door to the retort. “Take a look…”
Inside the oven I saw what looked like parts of several human beings burning.
“Uh…how many corpses are you burning in there?”
“Three. It saves time and money to do three at once. I just divvy up the ashes into three piles after they’re all burnt. The families of the deceased never know.”
As we left the different mortuaries and crematoriums, the same thing happened every single time. As we were walking to Dan’s car, an employee would come running out of the building. Making sure they weren’t seen, the employee would glance furtively around before breathlessly telling us, “I just have to tell somebody — they’re having sex with the corpses in there!”
Like I said, this wasn’t just once. This happened at every single place we visited.