Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) Lorimar/Horror-Comedy RT: 89 minutes Rated R (violence, some gore, language, decaying corpses) Director: Ken Wiederhorn Screenplay: Ken Wiederhorn Music: J. Peter Robinson Cinematography: Robert Elswit Release date: January 15, 1988 (US) Cast: James Karen, Thom Matthews, Marsha Dietlein, Dana Ashbrook, Suzanne Snyder, Michael Kenworthy, Philip Bruns, Thor Van Lingen, Jason Hogan, Jonathan Terry, Mitch Pileggi. Box Office: $9.2 million (US)
Like many a sequel before and after it, Return of the Living Dead Part II doesn’t quite measure up to the original. Not even by a long shot. It’s still kind of fun if you lower your expectations. I planned on seeing this one at the movies but got sidetracked the day I planned to go (Monday Jan. 18, Martin Luther King Day) and missed my chance. Another movie took its place at the City Line Theater the following Friday and that was that. I had to wait until it came out on video in May. I wasn’t entirely impressed when I finally saw it at a friend’s house. It had much less gore which annoyed me. Why did the makers of Return of the Living Dead Part II feel the need to tone it down? It’s not like they’re going to get more kids in the theater, it’s still rated R. It makes no sense but then again, so little of Hollywood mentality makes sense.
In this follow-up to the cult 1985 horror-comedy, a suburban town finds itself beset by the walking dead after a barrel of Trioxin falls unnoticed off a military transport truck and into a river. Some kids find it and start messing with it despite the protests of Jesse (Kenworthy, The Blob) who was bullied by Billy (Van Lingen) and Johnny (Hogan) into joining their gang. They lock him in a mausoleum to keep him from telling anybody about their discovery. Naturally, they manage to cause a leak, releasing the toxic gas throughout the graveyard. You can guess what happens next, right?
James Karen and Thom Matthews return for Return of the Living Dead Part II but they don’t reprise their characters from the first movie (Frank and Freddy died, remember?). This time they play Ed and Joey, a pair of grave robbers who find themselves looting the mausoleum (releasing Jesse in the process) when the dead rise from their graves. They manage to escape the cemetery along with Joey’s girlfriend Brenda (Snyder, Weird Science) who was waiting for them in the van.
When Jesse figures out what’s going on, his older sister Lucy (Dietlein), who’s been left in charge of him in their parents’ absence, doesn’t believe his story and locks him in his bedroom. The resourceful boy manages to escape and makes it to a phone where he calls the number stenciled on the barrel. He reaches the US military but is disconnected (inadvertently by Ed and Joey’s stupidity) before he can tell them anything. It turns out the whole town (with quite a few exceptions) has been evacuated. Jesse, Lucy and cable guy Tom (Ashbrook, Twin Peaks) have to team up with Ed, Joey and Brenda if they want to live to see the next day.
Here’s my big question about Return of the Living Dead Part II. How come so many people were left behind when the military evacuated the town? Did they not knock at every door? Why don’t they announce it on TV and radio? What happened to military efficiency? It’s a huge gaping plot hole but if not for that, there wouldn’t be much of a story to tell.
My biggest problem with Return of the Living Dead Part II is that the characters played by Karen and Matthews are very annoying. Karen screams and wails WAY too much. There’s a lot of screaming and shrieking in this movie. Also, both of them are such idiots. However, Matthews does get off one of the movie’s best lines when he comments that he feels like they’ve both been here before. There are a few good lines in Return of the Living Dead Part II. Here are some of my favorites:
Brenda: “Joey, I’m not into dead guys.”
Yes, Ed and Joey once again contract a case of living death and rigor mortis.
Jesse (to zombie Billy): “That’s why you’re dead, ass wipe. No brains and a big mouth.”
Lucy (as she procures guns from her uncle’s house): “Look, they’re ugly and they’re dirty and they’re dumb and I don’t even care if they are dead. I hate ‘em, there’s no way they’re touching me!”
Zombie Head: “Get that damn screwdriver out of my head!”
Writer-director Ken Wiederhorn (Meatballs Part II) places the emphasis on the comedy in Return of the Living Dead Part II. While not a killing blow in and of itself, I think he could have upped the horror a bit. The makeup effects are good. The zombies are more comical this time. There’s even one that resembles Thriller-era Michael Jackson. The cast isn’t as awesome this time. Dietlein can’t act but she’s cute in an 80s sort of way. Kenworthy is good as the young protagonist; he’s clearly the smartest character and he’s 11 (I think). What does that say about the others?
I’ve developed an appreciation for Return of the Living Dead Part II over the years. It’s an enjoyable movie despite being the weakest entry in the trilogy (I don’t count the made-for-TV fourth and fifth movies). It’s amusing and not the least bit scary. It’s like a lesser issue of an EC comic book series. The soundtrack is still heavy on rock with songs from Anthrax (“I’m the Man” and “A.D.I./Horror of It All”) and Joe Lamont (“Flesh to Flesh”). It’s more heavy metal than punk this time around. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a significant step down from the original, that’s for sure. But it doesn’t suck which counts for a lot. At least the makers appear to be making an effort which is more than I can say for other horror movies. It’s fun in its own way. It’s watchable but hardly memorable.