Home Video Hovel: Return of the Living Dead Part II, by Alexander Miller
In the mold of its predecessor, Return of the Living Dead Part II is a sometimes scary, occasionally silly zombie outing that succeeds in delivering a few jumps and a few bursts of genuine laughter along the way. While some (not all) of the chuckles were at the expense of the film itself Return of the Living Dead Part II is a good time because it doesn’t take itself too seriously, maintaining the same spirit of the first entry while crafting an original narrative in the process. While sci-fi writer Dan O’Bannon’s melded the zombie genre with campy humor, gore, and a referential self-awareness with Return of the Living Dead, Ken Wiederhorn (Shock Waves, Eyes of a Stranger) takes the reins for its follow up as a writer and director who would take the franchise in a new direction by shedding the faux punk veneer and urban backdrop in favor of what looks like a marriage of a Spielbergian California suburb and the kind of New England you’d expect from a Stephen King adaptation.
From the outset, it feels as if Part II is going for a more coming-of-age-as-springboard-for-horror avenue as we’re introduced to Jesse Wilson, a precocious youngster who finds himself palling around with some neighborhood kids. After a misguided initiation at a cemetery, these three find a derelict container in a sewer pipe. Of course, that container contains Trioxin, the very same chemical that set off the zombie outbreak in Return of the Living Dead (and, according to that movie, it’s also responsible for the walking corpses in Romero’s Night of the Living Dead). It also contains one of the zombies from the previous outbreaks. Of course, these containers are shoddily manufactured and easily bust open, unleashing yet another fog of toxic gas and a brain-thirsty zombie. When the herculean beast utters out the now iconic “Brains!” we know we’re in for some more corpsey shenanigans. The focus shifts from Jesse’s narrative to the more amusing pair of dunderheads who provide comic relief. They arrive in the form of the reunited James Karen and Thom Mathews, who were the leads of the first film. This time around the two likable dopes are making their way by plundering graves instead of working in a medical supply warehouse. Karen and Matthews are genuinely hilarious. These two actors have a natural chemistry and brilliant comedic timing.
Return of the Living Dead Part II treads some familiar territory from the first film—an outbreak occurs in much the same vein, recurring cast members are doomed to similar fates, the zombies incessantly call out for brains—but Wiederhorn’s script has some more developed characters and settings with an emphasis on slapstick humor. Some gags work better than others while a few are downright stupid it makes for a thoroughly compelling outing that handles itself with a level of repose that makes this maligned sequel, is in some ways superior to the original.
It seems like the consensus is that the first of the series is the best of the lot. It reset the bar for brain-eating hordes of the undead and grimy practical special effects but its legion of obnoxious counterfeit punks and ancillary supporting players veer from wearisome to annoying. These chumps exist solely to be fed on and, even by genre standards, they are chum for the marauding army of cranium chompers. No wonder they’re so hungry. These idiots’ brains wouldn’t satiate the appetite of a novice zombie.
As a side note, the depiction of the characters in Return of the Living Dead is pretty transparent. I know the film isn’t known for its cultural commentary but the essence of punk culture is prevalent in the overall tone of the series. Its spirit is a rebellious revision of zombie lore, replete with pierced corpses sporting mohawks, leather jackets, and studded belts among graffiti-tagged tombstones. It seems odd that a film would cozy up to the punk aesthetic, flaunt it as the poster image while having little to no knowledge or regard for what it stands for. These chuckleheads make Archie from Repo Man look like a genius, and merchandise from Hot Topic look “edgy.”
Return of the Living Dead Part II is not without its numbskullery but it adds to the film’s comedic tenor. The slapstick humor and jokey segues are integrated with more tact in this outing. There are enough chomped heads and brain eating to quench the thirst of any gorehound. There might not be as much arterial spray as the first but Part II is not without some superlative makeup and effects with plenty of gross-out moments. Standout bits include a talking severed head with a goofy Southern accent, a girlfriend pleading with her recently turned boyfriend bellowing out “I’m not into dead guys!” and a severed hand flipping the bird.
Another thing I’ve noticed is the overwhelming amount of negative criticism that surrounds this picture. And one of the most vapid and consistent criticisms levied against Return of the Living Dead Part II is that it’s not on par with O’Bannon’s first feature, and when the story overlaps with the first film, its blamed for being unoriginal and derivative. Well, instead of judging a movie for what it’s not, I’m going to go ahead and say that Return of the Living Dead Part II might not be the best zombie movie, yet it’s an incredibly fun one that deserves some reappraisal.
As far as the Blu-Ray is concerned, Shout/Scream Factory has proved once again a premier acumen for restoring and presenting overlooked cult/horror films with more than a modicum of bonus materials. Return of the Living Dead Part II is loaded with multiple audio commentaries, interviews, and documentaries. This is a definitive release with killer artwork and a crisp 2K restoration.