Day Of The Dead Vs. The Return Of The Living Dead: Which 1985 Zombie Movie Is Better?

Sherman Howard in Day of the Dead: the half-zombie in The Return of the Living Dead
(Image credit: United Film Distribution Company / Orion Pictures)

In July 1985, George A. Romero released the highly-anticipated third movie in his influential Dead franchise with the gritty and overly-serious Day of the Dead. One month later, Dan O’Bannon, the screenwriter behind Alien released the raucous, punk-infused horror-comedy, The Return of the Living Dead.

Both of these movies are amazing in their own individual way and both would go on to inspire countless zombie movies that would follow in the years to come, whether it be sequels, remakes, or entirely new stories. But, there has always been a debate between horror fans as to which is the better zombie movie, a debate we’ll settle now.

Clu Gulager, James Karen, and Thom Mathews in The Return of the Living Dead

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

The Premise 

To set up things that will come later on, we’ll start this showdown of zombie movies by breaking down the basic premise of each film before deciding which one is better.

Day Of The Dead’s Premise

Day of the Dead takes place in a world that has been decimated by the zombie outbreak (it’s mentioned that the undead outnumber the living 400,000 to 1) with what’s left of society hiding in underground facilities. Such is the case for the soldiers and scientists hunkering down, searching for a cure, and trying to survive (the zombies and each other) one day at a time.

The Return Of The Living Dead’s Premise

In The Return of the Living Dead, Frank (James Karen), the foreman of a medical supply warehouse tries to impress his coworker, Freddy (Thom Mathews), by showing him barrels that contain frozen zombies when he accidentally releases a toxic chemical that begins to reanimate the dead. In an attempt to cover up the mess, they burn the body, which further spreads the pathogen when a thunderstorm turns the gas into a chemical agent over a graveyard.

Which Movie Has The Better Premise

The idea of a zombie outbreak getting started with the smoke of a burning, reanimated corpse just as a rainstorm blows in is borderline genius, so The Return of the Living Dead gets the first point.

Tarman in The Return of the Living Dead

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

The Zombies Themselves

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to break down the meat and potatoes of both movies: the zombies themselves.

Day Of The Dead’s Zombies

The zombies in Day of the Dead are a major improvement over those in Dawn of the Dead, thanks in part to special effects legend Tom Savini having vastly improved his skills (and team) for the 1985 movie. When you can see them, the zombies look amazing, with a lot of detail and individual characteristics. Then there is Bub, (Sherman Howard), a smart zombie that proves he can be trained to carry out simple tasks like shooting a gun and understanding the concept of sarcasm.

The Return Of The Living Dead’s Zombies

The zombies in Return of the Living Dead aren’t anything to dismiss either. There’s the iconic “Tarman” zombie and the aforementioned yellow cadaver who is somehow the most terrifying and hilarious thing in the movie, and legions of the undead running the streets. There are also zombies that provide a justification for the eating of brains, as well as a ghoul who calls for more cops that they then ambush.

Which Movie Has The Better Zombies?

The problem with the zombies in Day of the Dead is that most of the movie takes place in dark underground facilities and you can’t really see the great makeup. That being said, the zombies who eat human brains to relieve the pain of being dead in The Return of the Living Dead win this round.

A jawless zombie in Day of the Dead

(Image credit: United Film Distribution Company)

The Gore And Special Effects

You can’t have a good zombie movie without buckets of fake blood and all kinds of gore and other special effects.

Day Of The Dead’s Gore And Special Effects

Although a lot of Tom Savini’s zombie makeup didn’t reach its full potential due to the lighting issues in Day of the Dead (it was filmed in an old mine), his gore and special effects work was some of the best of his career up until that point. Here are a few of the best examples: the zombie on the gurney whose guts spill out when he turns over, a zombie’s head getting cut in half by a shovel, a soldier getting his head ripped off, another soldier getting the skin ripped off his face, and then Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato) getting torn in two.

The Return Of The Living Dead’s Gore And Special Effects

Despite being a comedy, The Return of the Living Dead has some absolutely disgusting death scenes like Tarman taking a chunk out of Suicide’s (Mark Venturini) head, a zombie eating brains out of a paramedic’s head like it’s a bowl of chili, and that half-zombie mentioned up above.

Which Movie Has The Better Gore And Special Effects

There’s no comparison here — the gore and special effects in Day of the Dead are unmatched and remain that way more than 35 years later. George A. Romero has a point on the board.

Joseph Pilato being ripped apart in Day of the Dead

(Image credit: United Film Distribution Company)

The Ending

One of the most important things about it any story is its ending and how things wrap up for the heroes, villains, and in the case of these movies, the zombies…

Day Of The Dead’s Ending

George A. Romero provided for one of the most fulfilling ending sequences in Day of the Dead. With not a lot of action throughout most of the movie you keep waiting for shit to hit the fan, and it’s beautiful when that moment finally happens. Just as her despondent boyfriend Miguel (Anthony Dielo Jr.) commits suicide by opening up the facility to the undead, Sarah Bowman (Lori Cardille) and other survivors who haven’t lost their minds escape the bunker and fly away in a helicopter. Meanwhile, all the crazed soldiers are picked off one by one.

The Return Of The Living Dead’s Ending

The Return of the Living Dead ends in spectacular fashion when Frank and Freddy’s boss, Frank (Glu Gulager) informs the military about what’s happening in Louisville. Instead of sending in more troops to wipe out the thousands of zombies, Colonel Glover (Jonathan Terry) drops a nuclear bomb on the city in an attempt to wipe out the problem without losing any more men. Only it doesn’t stop the dead from rising.

Which Movie Has The Better Ending

There are few things in the world of zombie movies that are more fulfilling than hearing Captain Rhodes yell “Choke on em” as his guts are being ripped out and his lower half is being dragged away at the end of Day of the Dead. With that, we’re all tied up.

The group of punk rockers in The Return of the Living Dead

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

The Fun Factor

You want a movie to be fun, right? In this section, we’ll talk about what makes each movie “fun” and how that makes each film something you want to revisit time and time again.

Day Of The Dead’s Fun Factor

Overall, Day of the Dead is dreary and downright depressing movie. There was some hope in the first two George A. Romero zombie movies, but that’s all but gone in the third installment of the franchise. That being said, there are a handful of fun and exciting moments, including that jaw-dropping opening sequence, the mine escape sequence, and the final ambush by all the zombies.

The Return Of The Living Dead’s Fun Factor

Even though it’s technically a horror movie, The Return of the Living Dead is a fun thrill ride from beginning to end. The characters are zany and over-the-top, the soundtrack is full of great punk bands like The Cramps and T.S.O.L., and there’s this offbeat comedic element to the whole presentation. 

Which Movie Is More Fun?

George A. Romero has a lot to say with Day of the Dead, but Dan O’Bannon’s direction and his take on John Russo’s original story makes The Return of the Living Dead something you want to return to time and time again.

James Karen holding a bat in The Return of the Living Dead

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

And The Winner Is…

After going through multiple aspects of each movie, I’m shocked to say that The Return of the Living Dead is the winner here. The movie’s unique premise, different types of zombies, and fun presentation help it earn a place on the list of best zombie movies of all time. This isn’t to say Day of the Dead is a bad movie, as it’s legacy and impact on the genre say otherwise.

Both of these 1985 zombie movies are great in their own individual way, which is what makes them still so great to watch nearly 40 years later.

Philip Sledge
Content Producer

Philip grew up in Louisiana (not New Orleans) before moving to St. Louis after graduating from Louisiana State University-Shreveport. When he's not writing about movies or television, Philip can be found being chased by his three kids, telling his dogs to stop yelling at the mailman, or yelling about professional wrestling to his wife. If the stars properly align, he will talk about For Love Of The Game being the best baseball movie of all time.