Dan O’Bannon, Alien screenwriter and co-conceiver, may now only vaguely register in the minds of contemporary Blu-ray jockeys as a name that appears on screen in every one of the franchise’s sequels and spin-offs, his co-writer credit guaranteed in perpetuity. Before the first Alien, O’Bannon was broke and couch-hopping when a planned, Alejandro Jodorowsky-directed adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune went bust. Thus his most profound life experience between midwife/jack-of-all-trades duties on Dark Star, John Carpenter’s debut feature, and Alien, a macabre, anti-Star Wars space slasher that jumpstarted more than half a dozen major Hollywood careers (including those of Ridley Scott and Sigourney Weaver), must have been one of bitter disillusionment and uncertainty. In interviews, a tone of amused cynicism always quietly undercuts the delivery of a veteran industry creative who’s mastered his innate awkwardness to become a natural extemporizer, fearless in his ability to deliver highly detailed and confident criticism, especially concerning his own work.
Having directed only two features on his own, the instrumental effects of a mind like O’Bannon’s (he passed away in 2009 after a 30-year bout with Crohn’s disease) on genre culture can be difficult to gauge. His contributions to films like Alien, Total Recall, Dead & Buried, Lifeforce, Blue Thunder, Heavy Metal magazine, and other projects, seem indivisible from those of other writers, directors, editors, and designers. The mark of a true collaborator is often elusive, not a mark at all but a change in the weather. As Slavko Vorkapich revolutionized American montage in the 1930s at MGM, as William Cameron Menzies radically reimagined movie-production design across four decades, O’Bannon’s lasting effect on horror and sci-fi from the 1970s onward has less to do with isolated achievements and more to do with his influence on the style, tone, and atmosphere of countless films and graphic media, as well as fostering a connection between traditional craft and the demands of the pop-culture moment. If you think of moments in sci-fi and horror that are fantastically—perhaps erotically—grotesque, yet also very funny (call it “spastic splatstick”), think of O’Bannon. When you watch Alien and detect the barest outlines of Val Lewton’s “horror is what you don’t see” showmanship, think of O’Bannon. He would also honor—as George A. Romero would in his own work, but in a different mode—Howard Hawks in The Return of the Living Dead.
In a sampling from a directing career 44 years across and almost as many pictures deep, Hawks would give us Mike, Julie, Holly, Lindy, Sean, Pockets, Dallas, Kurt, Brandy, Chips, Dorothy, Lorelei, Piggy, Jim, Boone, Zeb, Chance, Dude, Colorado, Feathers, Stumpy, Irish, Monk, Winocki, Matt, Marlowe, Norris, Canino, Steve, Eddie, Slim, Cricket, Gerard, Geoff, Kid, MacPherson, Bonnie, and Joe. (“Who’s Joe?” began the deluge.) In a single film, O’Bannon gave us Burt, Frank, Ernie, Freddy, Tina, Chuck, Casey, Spider, Scuz, Trash, Suicide, and—most memorably—a lumbering, giant carnivore known only as the Tarman. It’s not the nickname-to-character ratio that counts, however, but the way O’Bannon manages to take rough sketches in a script and turn them into vivid, unique characters on screen. Fans of the film will easily recall, years or decades after seeing it, luscious scream queen Linnea Quigley spontaneously stripping in the middle of a cemetery, the witless medical-supply warehouse employees battling a bifurcated dog and an orange, nude corpse, the decomposed half-woman who explains the dead’s hunger for brains (“It huuurts to be dead!”), as well as many other moments.
O’Bannon’s first movie memory was Hawks’s The Thing From Another World, and it’s easy to point out the Thing-like aspects of The Return of the Living Dead, from the James Arness-like Tarman to the “get ready to open that door” sequence (which here is used twice), but there’s an even more pronounced influence by Bringing Up Baby; no other horror film has made the scramble for survival into as unlimited an opportunity for slapstick and manic commentary on an unwinnable battle. O’Bannon adapted a book by John A. Russo, co-writer of Romero’s first Dead film, by throwing out the entire plot and starting from scratch. (You’ll note that none of Romero’s subsequent Dead films use the word “Living” in their title, nor do they couple, narratively, with the plot of that 1968 cannibal-zombie progenitor.) His masterstroke among masterstrokes is in writing dead characters who are far more intelligent, resourceful, and articulate than the living, who by contrast are almost to a man a lot of oafish, crude, scheming, harebrained slobs. Tarman displays a flair for solving engineering puzzles by using a chain and winch to bust a tasty victim out of the storage locker in which she’s hiding; the risen dead quickly set up an ingenious system for luring emergency vehicles into their clutches, the better to keep their smorgasbord from running out.