RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD 2 - DVD review

The movie's high points are its makeup and special effects. The movie's low points are almost everything else.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

"Return of the Living Dead Part II" should not be confused with its predecessor, "The Return of the Living Dead," or with its sequel, "Return of the Living Dead 3," or with its U.S. promotional title, "Revenge of the Living Dead." Nor should it be mistaken for any of the George Romero zombie classics, the original 1968 "Night of the Living Dead" or its 1990 remake or the 1978 "Dawn of the Dead" or its 2004 remake or the 1985 "Day of the Dead." Nor, needless to say, should it be confounded with the 2004 parody, "Shaun of the Dead," or with any other movie title having variations on the words "Night," "Day, "Dawn," "Return of," "Living," or, especially, "Dead."

Now, aren't you glad I cleared all that up for you?

"Return of the Living Dead Part II," from 1988, is, in fact, writer/director Ken Wiederhorn's follow-up to the successful combination of laughs and frights, "The Return of the Living Dead," from 1985. If you liked the way the first movie spoofed the whole cult-movie zombie boom, then "Part II" is more, a lot more, of the same. If you think as I did, however, that zombie movies are their own best send-ups and don't need any further satirizing, "Part II" can seem to be stretching the point beyond recognition.

You may recall that in the first movie a secret government chemical was accidentally spilled near a graveyard, and it brought the dead back to life, the zombies first terrorizing a group of horny teenagers using the burial ground to party and then terrorizing a nearby town. In the sequel, we have the same chemical accidentally spilled near a graveyard and bringing back the dead, who terrorize a nearby town. Even two of the same actors reappear in the sequel, James Karen and Thom Matthews, albeit as different characters, with one saying tongue-in-cheek to the other, "It's like we've been here before." Yep. And, unfortunately, once was enough.

This time everything is done for laughs, although the movie still earns a deserved R rating for blood and gore. As always, it's never made clear just how all these dead folks in their various states of decomposition can claw their way up through six feet of dirt. And it's unclear how most of them haven't already passed into dust, considering the years they've been buried. And it's unclear how they can talk without any vocal chords. And it's unclear why they all have a sudden craving to eat human brains once they're re-animated. And it's unclear how they manage in their feeble state (a gentle push can knock them over) to bite right through a human skull with one chomp and pull the brains out. I guess we just have to keep remembering this is a comedy, and anything goes.

Be that as it may, the dead do rise again and go on the warpath, so to speak, thanks to the U.S. Army's incompetence in spilling another barrel of their secret chemical Tri-Oxyn 245 (or 245 Trioxyn, whatever) into a river, where it floats downstream to a cemetery, there to be released by a group of kids playing around the place. The Army describes the chemical as a "catalyst in genetic reactivation." Yeah, it brings back the dead.

The star of the movie this time is a youngster, twelve-year-old Michael Kenworthy, who plays the only rational person in the story, a boy named Jesse Wilson. Jesse is with an older boy, Billy (Thor Van Lingen), who opens the drum of undeadly chemical. Since Billy is a troublemaker and a bully and Jesse is sweetheart, you can be sure that justice is eventually served.

The zombies, as usual, are rather awkward, lumbering, stupid creatures, perhaps looking to eat brains to regain some of the common sense they lost while they were in their crypts. Joining them in the irrational-behavior department are a number of teens and adults who are meant to spoof the various stereotypes commonly found in these kinds of pictures. There are, for instance, a pair of young men (Thom Matthews and Dana Ashbrook) who are handsome, dashing heroes; a pair of young women (Suzanne Snyder and Marsha Dietlein) who are beautiful, shrieking airheads; a few parents who are so seldom seen they almost don't exist; and a couple of adults (James Karen and Philip Bruns) who are basically idiots.

There is a good deal of screaming and shouting going on, while all the characters run around a lot and act absurdly. The movie's high points are its makeup and special effects. The movie's low points are almost everything else. There are some comedy scenes that, I swear, would make Larry, Moe, and Curly blush with embarrassment. But there is a severed hand making a rude gesture that is bound to get a laugh. So, all is not lost.

Trivia: Look for Forrest J. Ackerman, "Mr. Sci-fi," as one of the anonymous zombies. Ackerman, the creator and editor of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazine, is one of the world's leading authorities on horror movies and enjoys doing bit parts in b-grade monster flicks. You can't miss him; he's the distinguished-looking zombie with the mustache.

Video:
This disc is another good example of the work Warner Bros. transfer engineers have been doing lately. The screen is anamorphic (measuring a ratio approximately 1.77:1 across my standard-screen HD television), and the bit rate is high; the result is probably as good an image as could be made of the film, short of high definition.

The print that was used appears to have been in pretty good condition or was cleaned up considerably because it shows no age marks, scratches, or excessive grain. What light grain is present is evidently a condition of the original film stock and adds to the film's texture. Colors are pretty good, too, with especially strong black levels, although I have to admit things get a little overly dark on occasion; and definition is above average. In all, nicely done video.

Audio:
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack is nothing much to talk about. The background music is rendered somewhat hard and edgy, with limited surround ambience and only a hint of deep bass. In terms of response, the frequencies seem a tad dull at the high end and the dynamics are pretty tame. The midrange fares best, reproducing clear, clean dialogue. The front-channel stereo spread is moderate. And played back in Dolby Pro Logic, I noticed some crowd noise communicated to the rear speakers, but it's not a lot.

Extras:
There is not much to talk about in terms of extras, either. There is, of course, an audio commentary, this one with writer/director Ken Wiederhorn and costar Thor Van Lingen, but the few minutes of it I listened to, although informative, were rather dry and matter-of-fact. The only other bonus items are a widescreen theatrical trailer and twenty-three scene selections. English and French are provided as spoken languages, with English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.

Parting Shots:
I'm no authority on the undead, but I'd say from having seen most of the major zombie movies of the last thirty or forty years that if you want to watch some serious stuff, go with any of the Romero things or maybe "28 Days Later"; if you feel the need to watch a "Living Dead" movie, go with the first one; and if you are driven to watch a recent parody-tribute, check out "Shaun of the Dead." As for "Return of the Living Dead Part II," it's just the same old silliness, Wiederhorn showing us little that wasn't included in the previous, better film. If you've seen one "Return of the Living Dead," maybe you've seen 'em all.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
6
Extras
3
Film Value
4