Return of the Living Dead Part II
Review by Mike Finkelstein
Zombies can be funny. That's not really a new revelation, and while there are plenty of zombie comedies coming out now (Shaun of the Dead, Cooties, Zomboat!, just to name a few), the zombie horror-comedy genre has existed for a number of decades. You can point to The Return of the Living Dead as one of the first films to start that trend, marrying zombie action with over-the-top comedy. It's weird, but it's fun.
Although not a huge hit in its time, Return of the Living Dead did respectable Box office against its tiny budget, and went on to quickly become something of a cult classic. When you add in cable TV money to be gained from regular showings on the pay movie channels, that's incentive enough to get a sequel out there, and three years later the producers did just that. Return of the Living Dead Part II doesn't break new ground, either for the genre or even as a sequel, but it does provide laughs, and zombie action, making it a worthy enough successor to the film that came before.
Those that dislike this sequel point to the fact that it does, in many ways, retread the original film. It all starts with one of the Army's zombie-containing canisters, lost from a convoy as it was moved across country. That canister is found by three kids, bullies Billy (Thor Van Lingen) and Johnny (Jason Hogan) and the kid they rope into going with them, Jesse Wilson (Michael Kenworthy). Jesse flees when he senses something bad was about to go down, but Billy and Johnny break into the canister and release the zombie gas within. Quickly after that point, the dead begin to rise.
While this is going on, we find a couple of grave robbers in the nearby cemetery who suddenly notice this toxic gas rolling through. The guys, Ed Mathews (James Karen) and Joey Hazel (Thom Mathews), end up infected by the gas, just like those bullies were earlier. They find the dead rising outside, freak out, and run, but their time as zombies is coming. Meanwhile, Jesse runs home tells his sister, Lucy (Marsha Dietlein), but she ignores him. It's only when the dead start roaming their neighborhood that Lucy believes *esse and then the two of them, plus the cable guy, Tom Essex (Dana Ashbrook), are in for the fight of their life as they try to find a way to escape the town.
The original Return of the Living Dead ended on kind of a down-beat moment, seeing as how the town, and all the characters within, was nuked by the Army. This film picks up at a new town, with only a couple of actors from the previous film reappearing (as new characters). The goal, this time, seems to have been to find a way to continue the franchise after all the characters were killed, and the setting along with it. Sure, the original film ended in a way that illustrated the zombie plague wasn't really over (even after the nuke), but this film was created basically to redo the original concept, this time with a happier ending, it seems.
The trick with the zombies in this series is that they were basically unkillable. Bash in a zombie's head here and its still motors around. Cut off a limb and that limb keeps going. Every single cell of the zombie is reanimated and there was no real way to kill them, short of fire (and even then their smoke would get into the clouds and then the rain would cause a new outbreak). Here, though, the film makes one major change to the mythology: while the zombies are otherwise unkillable, they can be completely neutralized if they're electrocuted. All the cells get damaged and the zombie drops. It's an interesting idea, one that actually allows characters to survive the film, making this one of the few zombie movies of the era to truly have a happy ending.
Despite that, though, the film is much less of a comedy than its predecessor. While that film regularly threw in jokes and gags (right up until the last act more or less committed to zombie action), this film keeps the jokes more muted and, instead, actually explores what would happen if teenagers and other normal townies had to deal with a zombie outbreak. There are some jokes, a few gags, and one really date Michael Jackson reference, but this film seems to indicate that the producers in charge of the series want to do more with the zombies, and less with the humor (a trend that went to full-out horror for the third film). Either that or the "humor" they added to this film was so flat you didn't even realize it was there.
As a horror film, though, I don't really feel like this movie really works. The zombies are a tad too goofy still, the characters a little too silly, and there's still a bit of a vaudevillian air to the whole production. It's not really funny enough to be a comedy but not tense and scary enough to really be horror either. it tries to split the difference without enough creative to do either very well, leading to a blander film overall. I didn't hate the film, scene to scene, but I also found it less engaging that the (at times itself mediocre) first film.
With all that being said, the key goal of this movie was to prove there was still life left in this franchise and, I think in that regard, it does work. The film does work to build out the mythology in different ways, and more importantly it shows that there's plenty of ways to have the Army screw up and lose zombie gas in unsuspecting towns. That's fodder enough to do all kinds of world building in any direction you wanted, as seen by the third film that goes in a very different direction for its story.
On its own, though, Return of the Living Dead Part II is just a moderate time waster. It's not bad, but it's not really good either. Its just an non-challenging way to watch some zombies in a story that moves along at a decent clip. There are far worse zombie films out there but, even within its own franchise, there are better ones too.