(This is the next in a series of reviews of movies from the 70s and 80s, part of a small collection of horror and science fiction movies on videotape that I bought at a flea market before Christmas, some of which I haven’t seen since they first came out)
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2 is one that, when I first mentioned that I’d be reviewing it to Scott, he was most enthusiastic about it, having loved it. I was less sanguine, having had some bad memories about the first time I watched it.
If you have not seen the first RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985), then I hate you and wish you were eaten by weasels. So avoid Deggsy’s wrath and see it! It is surely in everyone’s Top Ten Horror Movies of the Eighties. When I first heard about a sequel, I was revved up and ready to be first in line, the way I was for THE BLOB and CHILD’S PLAY and other decent movies from 1988.
I left the theatre with my revving motors soaked in disappointment. I remember having two issues with it at the time: that they had gone for a more openly comic tone than the first one (which had its own moments of comedy, but was mostly forced down once the zombies rose), and that the lead character was a pre-teen, which felt like a trend at the time (with movies like THE MONSTER SQUAD and THE GOONIES) to take advantage of the new PG-13 rating.
(Okay, there was also no nudity in the second movie as there was in the first. Three reasons)
With hindsight, I began wondering if I had been taking it too seriously. Fanboys are thin-skinned – it comes from chronic bullying and teasing over what we love – and so we can react harshly over some things. Now me, I’ve been known to have a sense of fun over other things; I’d rather watch Adam West’s Batman than Christian Bale’s. Maybe I’ll come back to this and garner an appreciation for it (I certainly did for the soundtrack, which like the first movie was a decent collection from the likes of Anthrax, Julian Cope and Zodiac Mindwarp).
The movie starts with a military truck driving through the rain, the truck loaded with cannisters familiar to anyone who’s seen the the first movie (no mention is made of the events of it, however, including the fact that the Army nuked central Louisville, Kentucky and killing thousands to destroy the zombies there). The solider driving the truck is wearing Walkman headphones (of course) and so never hears when a cannister falls out when the truck hits a bump (of course) and falls into the sewer of a local town (of course).
The next day, our protagonist Jesse (Michael Kenworthy, who coincidentally appeared in another film I’ve recently reviewed, THE BLOB), a typical comic-book loving kid getting menaced by two older assholes, Billy (Thor Van Lingen) and Johnny (Jason Hogan). But after he bribes them with a Spider-Man comic, they agree to let him in their club, their clubhouse being in a crypt in the town’s cemetary.
Jesse loses his nerve and flees their wrath by hiding in an open storm drain. The bullies are in pursuit, but get distracted by the cannister, which contains a decomposed body within. Still, they do lock Jesse in the crypt so he can’t do the right thing and call the emergency number on the side of the barrel. I’m beginning to think trying to get on these assholes’ good side is a waste of time, Jesse. However, they do get what’s coming to them later when they fuck about with the cannister and get jets of green gas in their faces, gas which drifts down to the adjacent cemetery…
Later, said cemetery is visited by three adults: Ed (James Karen), his assistant Joey (Thom Matthews, both from the first movie but playing different characters), and Joey’s girlfriend Brenda (Suzanne Snyder, WEIRD SCIENCE). Brenda is weirded out at being there, and with good reason: Ed is a graverobber, breaking into crypts and stealing jewellery and body parts for various cults and nutjobs (an idea which deserves its own movie, in my humble opinion), and Joey is there to earn a little extra money. While Brenda waits in the van, Ed and Joey break into a crypt – the one where Jesse was held, allowing him to race home.
Billy and Johnny have grown sick as a result of exposure to the gas, and valiantly Jesse tries to help them by getting the number off the cannister – having to avoid his older sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlin) and the cable guy Tom (Dana Ashbrook, who later played Bobby Briggs on TWIN PEAKS) along the way – but when he returns to the storm drain, he gets not only the number, but a reanimated zombie from the cannister! And the gas has soaked into the graveyard and brought the corpses there to life, to the shock of Jesse and the graverobbing duo. All eventually make their way back to Jesse’s neighbourhood, with the zombies in pursuit…
Well, much of what I hated about the first time I saw the movie remains true, and a few others ave surfaced. The comedy here is broader, though the visual jokes work better than the lame attempt at funny dialogue (my favourites being the zombies who stop their attack on their victims when someone switches on an exercise tape with a pert spandex-clad cutie, and a zombie who has to put on her glasses before she can see where she is).
The sequel is a sequel in name only, even with the inclusion of the military man from the first movie looking for the cannisters. The zombies are still after brains, but are less the frenzied dead from the first movie (the first time we see fast zombies on film?) and more the shamblers of Romero’s films, coupled with a slapstick mentality that dilutes any sense of horror (and pacing). And the military’s response is different here: in the first, the Army nuked a city, here, however, once they receive Jesse’s call they evacuate the population and quarantine it (in record time, and still somehow managing to miss out on our cast of survivors).
Speaking of the cast, they’re all shades of dumb, annoying, shrill and/or useless. Now, I know this is nothing new for horror movies, but it’s a let-down from the characters of the first film, who, once the zombie threat became known, cooperated with each other and conceived of several decent ideas (even if none worked out). Director/writer Ken Wiederhorn, who started out on the Peter Cushing Nazi Zombie film SHOCK WAVES (1977) and later directed a number of episodes of FREDDY’S NIGHTMARES allegedly hated the horror genre, and based on what we got, it showed.
Now, I could go on about how terrible this was. But it wasn’t. In fact, I enjoyed it, more than I expected. Certainly the effects employed, all practical, were remarkable, especially when compared with the CGI-heavy offerings today. A nice addition to the cast is the senile doctor neighbour (Philip Bruns), who provides nice comic timing and a pleasing insouciance to what’s going on around him), and there are a few surprising faces appearing, including future X-FILES cast member Mitch Pileggi, and a cameo from the legendary Forrest J Ackerman as a zombie who died due to malpractice on the doctor’s part! And I enjoyed hearing the soundtrack again, and glad that I was watching the version on VHS, as I’ve heard that due to copyright reasons, the DVD version has an altered, and inferior soundtrack (the same problem that the first movie faced).
So… RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 2 is inferior to the first movie. I knew that 25 years ago. But, compared with so many truly terrible zombie films I’ve seen since my days watching it for the first time, it’s a gem. The trailer is below (watch it, and you’ll see how, interestingly enough, they’ve made it seem like a straightforward horror movie, showing none of the comic elements until the very end).
Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Plot: 2 out of 5 stars
Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 4 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Deggsy. The D is silent. ‘Eggsy’, got it?