The upcoming 30th anniversary of Tarman and his voracious appetite for brains was recently celebrated by Scream Factory in their Collector's Edition Blu-ray release of The Return of the Living Dead. While the special Blu-ray was featured at San Diego Comic-Con, I had the honor of sitting down with cast members Thom Mathews and John Philbin to look back at the making of the beloved movie, including their experiences working with Dan O'Bannon, the extensive rehearsal period, visits to the set by George Clooney and Eric Stoltz, and much more.
When you guys were making this movie, did you have any idea that it would go on to have this kind of legacy and dedicated fanbase?
John Philbin: We were just happy to get a job because there was a strike and it was hot and it was the summer. All the people liked Dan O'Bannon, though. All the agents and all the people involved were saying, "Hey, Dan O'Bannon is interesting, and he's doing this thing. If you can, you should try to get in it."
Thom Mathews: The process from when I first auditioned and actually even got it was nine months because there was a legal issue with the name, and it went into litigation a little bit. They called me back, next think you know they're pairing me up with Beverly [Randolph] and doing readings and stuff like that, so it was a long process.
Were you fans of zombie movies or Night of the Living Dead in particular before you came onto the project?
John Philbin: I liked Night of the Living Dead. It scared the shit out of me. Black and white, it was almost too scary for me. I was young and I was a fan of monster movies and horror movies growing up. All I did was watch Frankenstein and look at the TV guide for when the horror movies were on. If it said "horror" next to it, I was there—House on Haunted Hill, The Haunting. I love horror movies, but I didn't know what this [The Return of the Living Dead] was. I didn't know it was a horror comedy zombedy movie. I didn't know what it was.
One of the reasons The Return of the Living Dead stands out 30 years later is because the cast had such great chemistry. Did you rehearse a lot together before filming or did you all just click really well?
Thom Mathews: We did. We actually rehearsed two weeks before we started principal photography.
John Philbin: It was the longest rehearsal I'd ever done for a film.
Thom Mathews: Especially for a low-budget movie like that. That was Dan's idea, and it was great concept. Clu [Gulager] wasn't there because he hadn't been hired yet, but everyone else was.
John Philbin: Yeah, all the kids had to bond and read many times with each other. He [Dan] was in the audition process, we went over things. The audition process, not for you Thom, because he wanted you right off the bat, but for me and the other kids, we had to rehearse a lot. The shoot was going to be quick, and he wanted us to know what we were doing. In the audition process we had to do a lot of chemical mix-ups with other people, match-ups. It took a long time to get the right chemistry between the right people, and I think that's Dan's taking his time with the casting, so once we got on the set, we had that kind of thing that can live.
Thom, you worked with James Karen a lot in the film and both of you brought that great, almost slapstick comedy aspect to the movie. Was that something that you guys came up with together?
Thom Mathews: Well, it was. We took the script and Dan, to his credit—because a lot of writers don't do that, they want you to stick to the words—he would let us improvise. It was truly a collaboration. That's the great thing about that movie, that everyone had a piece to say and it was never a "no." Everything was considered, and it was really a great experience.
There were a lot of younger faces in that cast, but you also had people like Clu Gulager, Don Calfa, and James Karen on board with decades of experience between them. What was it like working with those guys?
John Philbin: They were hysterical. I was so jealous when I saw all the work he [Thom] got to do, because if I wasn't in the scene, I wasn't on the set. I basically just got to work with the kids, Tarman, Clu for a little while, but never Jimmy and never Don, so I didn't know what was going on. I just knew the kids. I was just bonded with the kids. I was amazed when I saw it, what was going on all those days I was off not working.
Thom Mathews: You found out when you saw the movie?
John Philbin: I found out when I saw the movie. I was amazed. I had no idea. It was amazing.
When you first saw the movie, was it with an audience in a theater? What do you remember from that first time?
Thom Mathews: The t-shirt I was wearing was from this clothing manufacturer, Visage. I was doing some modeling with them. I invited them out [to the screening], because I was really proud of the movie. I was kind to them, had their T-shirt on, invited them. They were not happy with me.
John Philbin: "Sponsors dropped me today."
Thom Mathews: That's a big international company. I never worked for them again.
A lot of the movie takes place at night. Were those night shoots fun or were they a grueling grind?
John Philbin: [To Thom] Did you have to be there at night? Was it night for you?
Thom Mathews: It wasn't, no.
John Philbin: Because it was night for me the whole time.
Thom Mathews: They had me inside at nighttime, so my stuff was inside at nighttime during the day. The studio was in Burbank, where we shot a lot of it.
John Philbin: I was jealous of you for that, too.
John Philbin: Let me tell you what it was like for the other kids. When we went into the night–
Thom Mathews: And the rain.
John Philbin: Thank you, I don't have to say it. You've got the PA [production assistant] who's working for free, up all night pissed, but their one job is to wet the entire cast down with a cold hose before every take at night. We're like, "This is-. What the-?" Running in the rain was actually a relief from the cold, wet spray-down.
As a cast, did you do anything for fun on set or off set when you had the time?
Thom Mathews: Well, like John said, I was mostly with the older guys. For me, we had a lot of makeup time. I had a lot of makeup time in the chair with Jimmy Karen—just hanging out with him and listening to his stories from Broadway and one of his good friends was Jason Robards.
John Philbin: Who came to the set. It was a pretty big deal.
Thom Mathews: Eric Stoltz came to the set, John brought him. I think I brought George once.
John Philbin: You did bring George Clooney to the set.
Thom Mathews: We were roommates at the time, so he came to the set a couple times. We met in acting class. It was fun.
John Philbin: Another thing I was jealous about—my group of people weren't fun. We were together and miserable, always bickering. When I had a chance to get away from 'em, I was like, "I'm outta here!" Unlike Brian Peck [who played Scuz], who loved the process of filmmaking and was on the set whether he was on the call sheet or not. He was there trying to help, which is hysterical. As it turns out, great. Good on him.
Thom Mathews: He still has a lot of props. His place is just packed full of them, it's like a museum.
The physicality for a lot of people in the film is really intense. Did you enjoy going through the wringer and getting down and dirty, especially you, Thom, since you transformed into a zombie?
Thom Mathews: Yeah, that was a lot of fun, going from being an innocent kid into the zombie was a great transition for an actor just to be able to do that. That slow process of dying, it was a great part.
John Philbin: Young actors want to do physical stuff. Acting is physical.
Thom Mathews: Physical and technical. There's a lot of technicality to it. There are so many things you had to do physically to hide. Like the yellow [zombie] who was on the ground, I had to literally grab the box that was full of the foam popcorn, to grab it with my elbow as I was falling so it would cover the wires that make the corpse's face move and stuff like that. And you have to hit your mark, of course, and trying to be real at the same time. A lot of technicalities in that.
What was it like being around the zombies on set? Dan incorporated so many memorable and more intelligent zombies in this movie, so your characters had tougher opponents compared to other zombie movies.
John Philbin: Tarman was the main zombie that I got to interact with, and that was petrifying and very physical. It was an opportunity to be afraid and possibly be in a situation of violence, which is exciting for an actor. As Tarman, Allan Trautman was so freaky and weird and great that he helped that process a lot. Outside, I was just running from one wet place to another as fast as I could to get away from zombies. And again, when I saw it on the screen, the zombies coming out and the zombies everywhere, I was amazed. I had no idea what was going on when I wasn't running from one doorway to another doorway. Because they weren't necessarily in my face in my part.
You kept them at a safe distance.
John Philbin: Oh, yeah. Off-camera, we didn't mix with the zombies. I didn't, anyway. We kept separate.
When you look back on making this film, is there a memorable moment or scene that stands out?
Thom Mathews: One of my favorite scenes is the half-corpse, the way that was shot, the spine jumping back and forth, and the fact that she was having a conversation. And you actually understood why they were going for the brains and it totally made sense. That's one of my favorite scenes in the movie.
John Philbin: And for me, it was Tarman, definitely, when we got to work with Tarman
Thom, you eventually came back to this universe in Return of the Living Dead Part II. Did you come back because you had so much fun on the first one?
Thom Mathews: I went back because The Return of the Living Dead was such a huge hit in Japan that when they were trying to get financing for Part II, the Japanese requested that Jimmy Karen and I came back in whatever form, almost as the same characters, in Part II. That's the only reason why we came back, because we were requested from the Japanese, because they weren't going to give them the money for the film. It was a huge success in Japan, Part I.
When you look back at making The Return of the Living Dead, what are you the most proud of?
Thom Mathews: Just the overall experience. How it was a community, and like I said before, the collaboration between the director and the actors, and just the give and take that everyone did. The fact that Dan was open to it and wanted to make the movie more precise, and the fact that he had us rehearse, because that really fine tuned it. Because there's some wide shots where everyone's talking, the timing of that has to be seamless, and it was. Just everything. It was a great experience. I really appreciate it more the more I work later on. That experience was really special. Didn't know it at the time.
John Philbin: I would say looking back on it, and it's only because the movie's become such a cult thing and we're talking about it 30 years later. We go to these horror conventions around the country, and we meet fans that, really, the movie impacted their lives. They really enjoyed it. So we have to see it again sometimes to do panels. I think I'm most proud of that we all played it straight. We all were schooled to do it, not knowing what the results and the tone were going to be ultimately. I didn't, anyway, so we're all playing our own personal straight thing, and that, combined with everybody else's style, turned into an interesting, watchable movie.
Dan casted that way. He labored over all the casting. The fact that he was mix and matching you guys extensively says a lot about his talent. And the pop culture of the movie as well—whenever you think of a zombie now, you think about them eating brains because of that movie.