Released in 1985 the original The Return Of The Living Dead was arguably the sleeper horror hit of the mid eighties. Initially the brainchild of John Russo - co-writer and co-producer of George A. Romero's horror classic Night Of The Living Dead (1968) - The Return Of The Living Dead was conceived by Russo as an unofficial spin-off of Night Of The Living Dead, aided by the fact that legal wrangling's had seen Russo secure the rights to make films featuring the words "Living Dead" in the title, whilst Romero was free to make his own "official" sequels. Written and directed by sci-fi specialist Dan O'Bannon - who is best known for penning Ridley Scott's classic Alien (1979) - The Return Of The Living Dead differed wildly from previous zombie pictures, especially those directed by Romero, in that the film had something of a punk rock sensibility and much of its emphasis was placed on gorily anarchic comedy and OTT black humour.
The Return Of The Living Dead performed modestly well at the US box-office and was quickly embraced by horror fans as a cult favourite. Needless to say this was enough to ensure that the first of an eventual four sequels emerged just a few years later. Released in 1988, Return Of The Living Dead Part II would be written and directed by Ken Wiederhorn and was once again pitched to the moviegoing public as an undead opus with a heavy emphasis on eccentric black humour. Prior to writing and directing Return Of The Living Dead Part II, Ken Wiederhorn had already successfully ventured into the zombie subgenre with his atmospheric undead Nazi opus Shock Waves (1977) starring the late, great Peter Cushing. Following Shock Waves, Wiederhorn had moved onto directing teen comedy fare such as King Frat and Meatballs Part II and also made another moderately successful horror picture in the shape of the slasher thriller Eyes Of A Stranger (1981). Despite having already demonstrated a reasonable aptitude for the genre, by 1988 Wiederhorn was reportedly keen to avoid being pigeon-holed as a horror director, but was eventually persuaded to make Return Of The Living Dead Part II when his script for the picture - which he had apparently penned some time before - was green lighted for production. It has been established that initially Return Of The Living Dead Part II was intended to be a standalone zombie picture with no connections whatsoever to The Return Of The Living Dead. However the films producer Tom Fox - who also co-produced Dan O'Bannon's predecessor - was only willing to finance Wiederhorn's script on the condition that it was produced and marketed as a direct sequel to O'Bannon's film.
Distributed by Lorimar Productions, Return Of The Living Dead Part II was predictably neither as successful or anywhere near as well received as The Return Of The Living Dead. However, it did still succeed in generating a modest profit, eventually grossing just over $9,000,000 at the US box-office. This was enough to ensure that several more belated sequels eventually followed, however in truth these were really totally unrelated films which simply shared the Return Of The Living Dead moniker. 1993's Return Of The Living Dead III was directed by Brian Yuzna and was actually received quite warmly by many horror fans, but was essentially a splattery, dark, oddball mixture of romance and undead horror which bore so resemblance to the two previous films in the "series". Twelve years later a further attempt was made to capitalise on the cult popularity of the original The Return Of The Living Dead when two cheap, poorly received, generic zombie pictures Return Of The Living Dead: Necropolis and Return Of The Living Dead: Rave To The Grave were shot back to back and were eventually released directly to DVD following airings on US cable television in late 2005. Both of these instantly forgotten pictures were directed by Ellory Elkayem, who had earlier helmed the well-received B-movie homage Eight Legged Freaks (2002).
Return Of The Living Dead Part II opens with a military vehicle passing through a small, sleepy American town. The vehicle is carrying securely sealed barrels containing the deadly gas 2-4-5 Trioxin which reportedly has the effect of turning both the living and the dead alike into mindless zombies with a craving for fresh human brains. Inevitably the vehicle spills its load and shortly after the barrels of the deadly chemical are discovered by a young child Jesse Wilson and two local bullies. Ignoring Jesse's warnings the other two children meddle with the barrels and end up releasing the 2-4-5 Trioxin into the air.
The gas is soon carried in the air over a nearby cemetery where it causes the decomposed cadavers buried there to rise from their graves. The risen dead soon join with those among the living who have also breathed in the deadly gas to form a growing legion of the undead who promptly begin terrorising the town, killing people in order to feast on their brains. Together young Jesse along with his older sister Lucy, teenage cable television installation man Tom, would be grave robbers Ed and Joey and Joey's spunky girlfriend Brenda form a desperate alliance as they struggle to find a way of combating the seemingly indestructible zombies which are laying waste to the town.
Arguably the main reason for the success of the original The Return Of The Living Dead, was that of the many genre films over the years that have attempted the notoriously precarious act of balancing horror and comedy, it is one of the few to have pulled it off with any real significant degree of success. Indeed, The Return Of The Living Dead is one of the few examples of its type to achieve an overtone of genuinely amusing black humour whilst not compromising in terms of the shocks and tension which are requisite to any superior horror film. By contrast Return Of The Living Dead Part II attempts no such balancing act, director/writer Ken Wiederhorn instead pitching the film as nothing less than a full on, madcap zombie comedy. Generally dismissed by most horror fans and genre pundits alike as a weak, misjudged, lacklustre successor to O'Bannon's original, sadly is has to be said that even a little over two decades on from its original release, Return Of The Living Dead Part II in truth still stands as a rather feeble attempt to milk some cheap laughs out of the established undead formula which began with George A. Romero's classic Night Of The Living Dead.
If nothing else Wiederhorn at least makes his decidedly silly intentions clear early on, kicking Return Of The Living Dead Part II into action in earnest with a sequence in which young Jesse is menaced in a cemetery by the rising legions of the undead. As opposed to chills this sequence is unsuccessfully played squarely for clumsy slapstick effect as zombies pause to put their glasses on and accidentally trample on one another in their haste to exit the grave. Every subsequent scene of zombie mayhem Return Of The Living Dead Part II has to offer plays out in pretty much the same fashion, eschewing horror and suspense in favour of gonzo humour. While this is not necessarily a bad approach to take in itself, unfortunately Wiederhorn, whilst already established as a proficient director of both horror films and knowingly puerile comedies, doesn't seem to have any idea when it comes to combining the two together. As a result Return Of The Living Dead Part II is a film which is obviously trying so hard to raise laughs that it often comes across as desperate and for the most part just falls flat. Despite maintaining an engagingly fast, almost breathless pace once it eventually gets going, for me Return Of The Living Dead Part II soon begins to outstay its welcome as it speeds aimlessly from one lame visual gag or scene of totally overplayed and unfunny zombie slapstick to the next. An eye rolling moment in which a zombie's dismembered hand gives the films protagonists the middle finger gives you a pretty good idea of the sort of lowest common denominator humour Wiederhorn is angling for here. In fairness there is the occasional moment which does raise a chuckle, for instance a laugh out loud scene in which a decapitated zombie head vocally protests about having a screwdriver driven into its ear, but these are sadly the exception as opposed to the rule.
To give them their deserved due the cast of Return Of The Living Dead Part II do a fairly good collective job, all giving deliberately over the top, tongue in cheek performances. Fans of the original The Return Of The Living Dead will no doubt be pleased to know that veteran character actor James Karen and Thom Mathews who starred in that picture as two numbskull medical supply warehouse workers reprise their winning double act in Return Of The Living Dead Part II. This time around however, Karen and Mathews play unrelated character's with Karen portraying cynical grave robber Ed with Mathews as his reluctant young protege Joey. Karen in particular is an absolute riot as once the dead start rising from their graves he transforms from an unscrupulous robber of graves into a gibbering wreck, chewing the scenery with gleeful gusto as he frantically prays to God for forgiveness and repents for his sins. On assessment Karen's performance is probably the only genuinely funny thing about Return Of The Living Dead Part II. To his credit Mathews also does a good job of playing the straight man to Karen and Return Of The Living Dead Part II also features the bonus of some decent eye candy in the shape of Marsha Dietlin as Jesse's protective older sister Lucy and the gorgeous Suzanne Snyder - who also starred in the Chiodo brothers cult classic Killer Klowns From Outer Space the same year - as Joey's sassy girlfriend Brenda. Less welcome by contrast, is the presence of young lead Michael Kenworthy as Jesse, who seems to have come fresh off the conveyer belt off irritating child actors, however his equally youthful co-star Thor Van Lingen is markedly better as the neighbourhood bully Billy who continues terrorising Jesse even after he has wound up joining the ranks of the brain-craving undead.
One area in which Return Of The Living Dead Part II admittedly cannot be criticised too much is in terms of its excellent production values. Indeed, while the films other shortcomings are impossible to overlook, Wiederhorn and his cohorts do at least deserve credit for the fact that, if nothing else, the entirety of the films relatively modest $6,000,000 budget is up on the screen. Particularly impressive is the films cinematography courtesy of Robert Elswit, who later went on to work on a succession of major blockbusters and here achieves some excellent comic book style visuals. In particular the scene in which the zombies initially rise in the mist-swept graveyard in especially striking, resembling something straight from the page of one of the famed EC horror comics. In addition the zombie's themselves whilst deliberately cartoonish in their appearance, sport effective, imaginative makeup courtesy of veteran Del Armstrong. In fact the only technical department in which Return Of The Living Dead Part II ultimately falls short is on the gore front. Indeed, Return Of The Living Dead Part II in truth is a largely bloodless affair, with the only highlight in that regard proving to be a sow-stopping moment in which a zombie is literally cut in half at the waist by a shotgun blast only for both the upper and lower body to continue pursuing its would be victims. However, even this scene is played for cartoon effect and aside from this the gore is limited to a few very brief scenes of the undead chomping on bloody cranial matter. As such it's not really surprising to learn that by all accounts the MPAA at the time of the films original US theatrical release would actually have been willing to give Return Of The Living Dead Part II a mere PG-13 rating if its distributors Lorimar had made just a few small cuts.
All in all Return Of The Living Dead Part II, whether you choose to look upon it as a successor to the original The Return Of The Living Dead, or instead accept it purely upon its own terms, stands as a tiresome, ultimately unnecessary addition to he fairly prolific zombie movie cycle of the mid to late eighties. By 1988 the established cliche's of the zombie film had been trotted out so many times, that in fairness it probably seemed on paper that they were ripe for the full on parody or spoof treatment. However, Return Of The Living Dead Part II rather than poking fun at or sending up the zombie subgenre itself (an approach which might have worked), is instead crammed with as many obvious, childish, crude sight gags as Wiederhorn could seemingly dream up, and in all honesty most of them not only fail to amuse but also come across as pretty desperate. To be fair Return Of The Living Dead Part II does at least benefit from some good, enthusiastic performances and also boasts excellent make up work and striking comic book style photography which may be enough to interest die-hard zombie fans, but at the end of the day these efforts are pretty much in vain when in service of a script as direly unfunny as this. No doubt some of you reading this will think I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon and in all likelihood Return Of The Living Dead Part II possibly will tickle the funny bone of some viewers, but for me this is one would be comedy from beyond the grave that would probably have been better off staying there.
Return Of The Living Dead Part II is currently available on identical US region one and UK region two DVD releases from Warner Brothers. Unfortunately whilst the Warner DVD contains a fairly nice-looking 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation of the film itself, on the English language track much of the films original soundtrack has been replaced for this DVD with an inferior new score. This was apparently done because Warner's were unable to secure the rights to the films original soundtrack, however, for whatever reason the original soundtrack is actually present and correct on the DVD's French audio track which only adds further to the mystery. At any rate this has caused much annoyance to many fans of the film who feel the soundtrack alterations destroy their enjoyment of the film itself. For what it's worth however, the Warner DVD is at least available cheaply and does feature the added bonuses of the films trailer plus an audio commentary track with director/writer Ken Wiederhorn and its young star Thor Van Lingen. Nevertheless, fans of the film may still wish to hang on to their VHS editions and perhaps back them up to DVD-R as the odds of Warner's revisiting the film and issuing another DVD with the correct English soundtrack are probably pretty much non-existent. Finally it should be noted that according to DVD Compare, there is also a full screen, vanilla Spanish region free DVD release of Return Of The Living Dead Part II on the Shark label, which apparently features the original soundtrack, however there is speculation that this release may in fact be a glorified bootleg.
Return Of The Living Dead Part II (Warner - UK R2 DVD): amazon.co.uk