RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD: PART II (1988)
In 2002, I became highly interested in viewing the entire George Romero ‘Dead’ Trilogy after coming across the Night of the Living Dead remake (directed by special effects wizard, Tom Savini) on cable one day. I traveled far and abroad (from the mall to Walmart) searching for this film on VHS or DVD, unfortunately to no avail. As all hope was lost, I decided to rummage through the bargain bin of a now-defunct local department store and, wouldn’t you know, I found myself a DVD with a title ending in “of the Living Dead”. No, it wasn’t the film I was looking for - it was, however, Dan O’Bannon’s homage/unofficial sequel to Romero’s film, The Return of the Living Dead. Needless to say, it was some sort of progress and when I got home and popped it in the DVD player, I was not disappointed.
It’s nine years later and here I am writing a review of it’s sequel Return of the Living Dead: Part II, which was directed by Ken Wiederhorn and released by Lorimar Productions. Yes, you may recognize that name from television - it’s the same company that produced such gems as Full House and Step by Step in the early to mid 1990s. I have a rule in my household, the less Patrick Duffy on my TV - the better. So fuck Lorimar Productions.
This movie basically serves as a sequel, reboot and parody to the original film. It completely ignores the events of ROTLD while subtly acknowledging the film itself through it’s two returning actors - James Karen and Thom Matthews (who I used to think was a young Michael Rappaport for the longest time.) Although, if you’ve seen the original film then you already know that both Karen and Matthews’ characters (Frank and Freddy) are the ones who initially release the toxin which resurrect the corpses of the living dead, and subsequently die due to their misdoings. So, how can deceased characters make a comeback in a sequel (that isn’t a prequel), you ask? It’s quite simple. They don’t. James Karen now plays Ed, an experienced grave robber who is in the midst of teaching his apprentice Joey (Thom Matthews), the ins and outs of stealing from corpses. Trailing alongside the duo (for whatever reason) is Brenda (Suzanne Synder), Joey’s love interest.
While they’re looting jewelry off of dead bodies, a few little boys (one of them eerily resembling Skut Farkus from A Christmas Story) decide to fuck around the same exact cemetery that they’re grave robbing in. Jesse, one of the film’s protagonists, serves as the voice of reason between the three boys and tells Skut and his toadie that they should fuck off and just ignore the barrel of toxic gas. To literally no one’s surprise, they ignore Jesse’s advice and as a result, the stray barrel of Trioxin is cracked open, thus releasing poisonous gas into the atmosphere.
Mimicking the original - both Thom Matthews and James Karen become infected alongside Skut and his toadie, but because Matthews and Karen are recognizable stars their ailment took longer to turn them into zombies. Jesse, meanwhile, remains clean thanks to being bound within a Mausoleum and eventually meets up with his sister and her boyfriend. Unsurprisingly, both characters happen to be the blandest ones throughout the entire movie. They also come across a doctor (Phillip Bruns as Doc Mandel), whose consistent goal over the course of the film is to just be absolutely shitfaced. He happens to be my favorite character in the sequel.
Now, the question is…how does Return of the Living Dead: Part II stack up against the original? And the answer is simple - it’s good, but it’s not that good. Unlike the first movie, this one is definitely lighthearted and more-so comical than scary (which the original was aiming to be.) They poke fun at zombie culture (to the point where they have a Michael Jackson look-a-like corpse dressed in Thriller garb) and do so shamelessly, which really works for the film. On many accounts, this is the definition of a bad 80s horror film - but it knows that, it accepts it and it enjoys having that stigma surrounding it. Some of the lines are absolutely cringe worthy and could put a Roger Corman screenplay to shame, but at the same time you’re laughing out loud at them. Matthews’ character Joey, shortly after converting to a zombie, has a brief discussion with his girlfriend as to why she should let him eat her brains. And succeeds by simply saying that they smell “spicy!” I mean, what the fuck kind of film is this where one of the only two female leads takes a seat and says “Okay, you can eat my brains, I guess. You said they smell spicy, so sure, go ahead and fucking eat them”!?!?!? It’s inane. What’s even more ridiculous is how easy it is to munch on somebody’s brains if you’re a zombie. Your teeth must turn to fucking metal once you’re dead because all they have to do is bite into the top of someone’s skull to have a bite to eat. I know that I’ve tried to bite into someone’s head before and that shit hurt. Maybe everybody had mushy baby-heads back in the 80s, I don’t know.
Also, these zombies aren’t the type who mindlessly stumble around from the 30 to 90 minute mark. They actually seem to be coherent and self sufficient when they choose to be. I’m pretty sure at one point there’s one driving a Jeep, with at least four of them tucked into the back. I guess my question is - why are they so retarded at some points and at others, they can drive after you and hold conversations with you? If it were strictly for the sake of comedy, that’d be reasonable, but there are some parts where their amount of intellect just doesn’t jive. But this film is about as smart as Corky from Life Goes On, so I suppose I can’t be too hard on it.
The biggest question I had was “Why is it they die in this movie but couldn’t in the last?” In ROTLD they used just about every method imaginable to try and stop the zombies. In this one, they make a few ill-fated attempts before discovering that electricity is the only way to kill them. So let me get this straight…you can decapitate one of these fuckers and they will talk back to you in a Southern accent, you can burn one into ashes and have it float around in the wind after you..but if you place an electric chord in a puddle that they just so happen to be standing in, then that will do the trick!? Granted, I haven’t seen any of the three sequels to follow this one and I have no idea if the zombies have some sort of secret origin where electricity is their kryptonite, but I’m calling bullshit on this one and Ken Wiederhorn should be forced to explain himself.
In the end, I found Return of the Living Dead: Part II to be enjoyable, 1980s horror fluff which just so happened to piss me off over all the continuity issues, but fuck it. It’s definitely a unique horror sequel, so good for Wiederhorn (what a shitty name) on doing something that no other film (horror or otherwise) has done before or after it. Now, for the Horror genre specifically I have two sets of five-star rankings: one is for the genre itself (I’m not a fan of comparing this film with the likes of Goodfellas) and one for movies in general (in terms of filmmaking/acting/whatever), which I believe is a fair approach to rating movies. Because this is a sequel that doesn’t necessarily suck and somehow manages to parody a parody, it earns my respect. And the fact that they brought back the two fan favorite characters of the first film (who died) without giving two shits, also deserves kudos. However, some of the dialogue in this movie is just too douchey to listen to more than once and that kind of kills the rewatchability of it for me. On top of that, the acting isn’t great either but it is forgivable given the type of film this is. As long as you enjoy Return of the Living Dead: Part II for what it is and don’t go into it expecting some sort of Romero-esque underlying social commentary, you’ll walk away from it somewhat pleased.
Horror Genre: ★★★/★★★★★