Welcome to Script to Pieces, a recurring feature at Wicked Horror where we look at the best, most interesting and at times most unbelievable horror movies that never happened. Sometimes these will be productions that never came together at all, other times, they will be original incarnations that were completely different from what we wound up with. Each should be fascinating in its own way, because the stories of movies that never see the light of day can sometimes be even more interesting than the stories of those that do.
Return of the Living Dead already has horror star power behind it, being directed by Alien co-writer Dan O’Bannon. But there was a time when it was nearly helmed by none other than Texas Chain Saw Massacre director Tobe Hooper. Having just helmed The Funhouse for Universal, he was looking to be set up with another big horror effort and was approached by producer Tom Fox and original Night of the Living Dead co-writer John Russo.
Originally, Return of the Living Dead was going to be a very, very different beast. It has its origins in a novel written by Russo that features none of the characters or plot points that would make it into the eventual finished film. Instead, his book was a direct sequel to Night of the Living Dead, clearly set within that same world without any traces of satire or sendup.
When Tobe Hooper agreed to take on the project, John Russo began work on a script and they made the decision to try to do the film in 3D, as that was very popular at the time between the Friday the 13th, Jaws and Amityville franchises. After a script was completed by Russo, Rudy Ricci and Russell Streiner (who played Johnny in Night of the Living Dead) Dan O’Bannon was brought in to do extensive rewrites on the script.
That’s when the project began turning into what we now know as Return of the Living Dead. O’Bannon started injecting a lot more wit and humor and by the time he was done, just about all that remained of the original idea was the title. O’Bannon felt, somewhat wisely, that the original incarnation of the script “impede[ed] on Romero’s territory.” When he was given the go-ahead to take it in a different direction, that was what he did.
Tobe Hooper, however, still remained attached for a while. The fundamental changes being made at the script level slowed the movie down, though, and when that happened, Hooper stepped away from the project to go make Lifeforce.
Once Hooper left, O’Bannon, who was already working vigorously on the script, simply stepped into the role of director as well.
It’s interesting to think about what a Tobe Hooper version of Return of the Living Dead would look like. In the ‘80s, his movies were kind of a mixed bag, but the idea of this film seems so in line with everything he was doing right at the time. It’s not just funny, it’s completely over-the-top. I think you can draw a lot of parallels between Return of the Living Dead and Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
Some of that might just be a happy accident, though. It’s hard not to think that a lot of what makes Return of the Living Dead work is O’Bannon’s clear vision for exactly what that movie should be and his ability to follow that through. The success of that film isn’t just in the writing. O’Bannon brought together a great cast and created an energetic, punk rock zombie masterpiece. It remains one of the best of its era and has earned a place on the Mt. Rushmore of zombie features.
Tobe Hooper went on to direct Lifeforce, Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and Invaders from Mars during this time, each to varying degrees of success. None of them have quite the staying power of Return, though I appreciate the growing cult following for Lifeforce and rediscovery of how great Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 really is.
It’s hard to say if directing Return of the Living Dead would have changed Hooper’s career trajectory in any significant way. Ultimately, I don’t think it would have. In this instance, I think the landscape of horror would look relatively the same whether he’d ended up doing it or not.