Judge Patrick Bromley doesn't find anything wrong with this zombie sequel that burial in a deserted graveyard at midnight wouldn't cure.
Just when you thought it was safe to be dead.
Regardless of the title, Return of the Living Dead, Part II isn't so much a sequel as it is a remake of Dan O'Bannon's Return of the Living Dead—which itself wasn't really a sequel to George Romero's Living Dead trilogy, but rather an '80s-era offshoot of those zombie classics (read: gore, nudity, and punk rock). Return of the Living Dead was anarchic and subversive, infused with O'Bannon's devilish spirit and an infectious sense of fun. This unnecessary sequel, though, plays like the work of someone who saw O'Bannon's film and wanted to (essentially) recreate it without having the first clue as to how to go about doing it.
As far as plot goes, the movie provides business as usual for the series, giving us a couple of canisters of green gas that somehow wind up busted, releasing the toxin over a cemetery and resurrecting the dead, who then go about seeking the brains of the living for sustenance (a conceit that, as far as I'm aware, has never been ably explained in any zombie movie). The only real change to Part II is that it takes place in suburbia, which you would think would provide the film with endless opportunity for both comedy and satire. You might even be right—no doubt the opportunities are there, but Return of the Living Dead, Part II fails to take advantage of any of them.
Taking a page from the Evil Dead 2 book of sequelizing, Return of the Living Dead, Part II repeats the events of the first film without acknowledging it, and recycles characters from the first film without recognizing their prior fates. (The comparisons to Evil Dead 2 end there, though, as Sam Raimi's film succeeds in ways Return of the Living Dead, Part II can only wish for.) Thom Mathews (Friday the 13th, Part VI: Jason Lives) and James Karen (Tobe Hooper's Invaders From Mars) all but reprise their roles from the original Return of the Living Dead, though their names and occupations have been changed (they're now grave diggers instead of morgue attendants). It's a cheap stunt that adds nothing to the film but familiarity, allowing the filmmakers to skip over characterization in favor of more bug-eyed shouting. O'Bannon's film gave the two actors characters to play, allowing them to be terrifically funny and even providing beats of pathos (it never ceases to amaze me how effective Karen's scene in the crematorium is, especially considering the tone of the material surrounding it). This "sequel," though, requires practically nothing of Mathews and Karen except shrillness—their combined dialogue consists of very little more than screaming "AAAAAAAAHHHH!" every fifteen seconds or so.
The other performers in the film can't catch a break, either—they're screaming right alongside Karen and Mathews, and they're not even doing it as well. Only Dana Ashbrook (Twin Peaks) strays from the herd as the film's resident "hero," Tom, but he's so wimpy and ineffective he doesn't even register; at least the screamers make their presence known. That the ultimate fate of the film rests in the hands of its child lead actor, Michael Kenworthy (Chuck Russell's The Blob), is a signal of its unavoidable doom. Unless they're prodigies of Haley Joel Osment proportions, child actors are generally unable to carry a film—especially C-grade child actors like Kenworthy.
There's a deliberate attempt in Part II to go much broader with the humor, which means we get dismembered heads talking in funny voices and zombies (who, as a result of the film's lack of imagination, owe a great deal to Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video) pausing to watch an exercise tape. Don't confuse the latter sequence with the kind of savage satire found in Romero's Dawn of the Dead (in which zombies, slaves to consumerism even in death, flock to the local shopping mall); Return of the Living Dead, Part II is less interested in social statements than it is in lame gags. This comes despite the fact that the movie's director, Ken Weiderhorn (Meatballs, Part II), makes mention on the disc's commentary that he believes audiences find the mixing of comedy and horror to be the kiss of death for a film. He's quite wrong—look at John Landis's An American Werewolf in London, or the latter installments of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead trilogy, or Peter Jackson's Dead Alive, or the even more recent Shaun of the Dead (need I go on?) for proof. Weiderhorn's problem isn't that he's mixing comedy and horror; it's that he's doing both unsuccessfully.
Fans of the film (and, like any other '80s horror film, this movie no doubt has a cult following) will be disappointed by the DVD put out by Warner Bros., who've really botched this one. For no explainable reason, a good deal of the original music has been either altered or removed altogether. It's not a case of "director's cut" tinkering; Wiederhorn admits on his commentary track that he only became aware of the changes after looking up the movie on the Internet Movie Database and is hearing them for the first time as it plays. The only possible explanation would be that Warner Bros. had a tough time getting a hold of all of the music rights, but that theory flies out the window once you click over to the French audio track and hear (ta-da!) the film's original soundtrack, with all the right music in all the right places. These changes alone are reason enough not to buy the disc—heck, fans practically rioted in the streets when changes were made to the Star Wars trilogy, and those were actually made by the director.
The video presentation of the movie fares slightly better, though it, too, is not without its share of grievous errors. Though the film is enhanced for 16 x 9 playback, it's presented in a "matted" widescreen format with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, which crops off picture information from the top and bottom of the screen. It's as though Warner Bros. has determined that the market simply wants a widescreen disc, regardless of whether or not it's in the original aspect ratio—which is wrong in the same way providing only a full frame version of a widescreen film is wrong. Beyond this glaring miscalculation, the transfer has its problems, but is definitely the best presentation we've seen yet.
In addition to the film's original theatrical trailer, the only extra on the disc is a feature-length commentary by writer/director Ken Wiederhorn and costar Thor Van Lingen, who has a relatively small role as bully Billy Crowley. (The participants were recorded separately.) The commentary is the best thing about the disc (and that includes the movie), contrasting two very different personalities and perspectives on the movie. Van Lingen is a lot of fun to listen to, not only because he's got a great memory for detail regarding the movie's production and history, but because he's got a sense of humor about the whole thing, too. That Return of the Living Dead, Part II is his only film credit even adds to the value of his talk, as it removes him from any Hollywood pretense—it has a real "listen to this story about the time I got to be in a movie" feel to it. Wiederhorn, on the other hand, has an altogether different take on the film—not that he sees it as a failure, just that he's unable to view it lightheartedly. Name-dropping the likes of Hitchcock and Truffaut doesn't go far when discussing Return of the Living Dead, Part II. Wiederhorn's own admission that he doesn't particularly have any interest in horror films may help to explain the film's failure on that level, just as his sober and humorless personality on the track may help to explain why the film (which Wiederhorn wrote) isn't very funny, either. The commentary does have the advantage of retrospect, however, which allows Wiederhorn the perspective to look back, see the film's shortcomings, and discuss what (or who) may have been responsible. Though at times he seems a bit defensive of his original intentions and how they relate to the finished film, his contributions to the commentary track are satisfying—alternately fascinating and pretentious.
Let's see: cropped image…wrong music…gosh, even if you like this movie (which is where you and I will have to part ways), this disc is a letdown. As mainstream zombie films go, Return of the Living Dead, Part II belongs at the bottom of the heap. Go ahead and re-bury it. Again.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Audio Commentary Featuring Writer-Director Ken Wiederhorn and Actor Thor Van Lingen
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