The Return of the Living Dead was, in its teeny-tiny way, a watershed moment in horror cinema: besides being the first really successful zombie movie made in America in the 1980s, it was also - as near as I can tell - the first of the great modern horror-comedies: preceding Evil Dead II by two years, Braindead/Dead Alive by seven, and the rise of the "funny slasher" movement by over a decade. It did not pioneer the use of hard rock in horror movies, but it arguably perfected the practice. And it marked two great firsts in zombie lore: it introduced the notion that zombies need to eat brains, and it presented its zombies as intelligent, rational beings that retained much of their personality after death (intelligent zombies predate RotLD, of course, but to my knowledge there is no precursor to the scene where a young male tries to manipulate his girlfriend into becoming lunch by using his knowledge of their relationship).
In the sequel-mad '80s, a follow-up was quite inevitable, and given the general mercenary scuzziness of the horror industry, it was probably just as inevitable that John Russo and Dan O'Bannon, the two men most responsible for making RotLD so damn good, would have nothing to do with it. As it turned out, the film that emerged in 1988 as Return of the Living Dead, Part II wasn't even meant to be such; writer-director Ken Wiederhorn had an independent zombie script that had been sitting around for a while, and Tom Fox, producer of the first movie, offered to finance Wiederhorn if he'd make the necessary changes to turn his project into a Living Dead picture. At the time, Wiederhorn was an under-employed workaday filmmaker, whose primary qualification for the job - or indeed, any filmmaking job - was his debut, 1977's Shock Waves, famous as the better underwater Nazi zombie movie. I've not seen that film, nor any of Wiederhorn's other work (although the fart-contest movie King Frat seems like it might have a melancholy tenderness about it), so I can't say that he was or wasn't actually qualified. But certainly, the evidence of RotLD, Part II suggests that he wasn't. It's a stunningly disappointing film; yes, it is even possible to be disappointed by a horror sequel from the 1980s, when it seems to be doing so many of the same things that made the first one great. It fails, in that it does them all poorly.
Horror-comedy is a tough bitch to do right: though there are several good-to-excellent examples of the form stretching back into the 1930s at least, there are far more awful misfires. Looking at the ones that work, it becomes very obvious what the key is: the best horror-comedies take both their horror and their comedy very seriously. The bad ones have a marked tendency to treat the horror indifferently, a bloody afterthought to the jokes; even worse are the ones that don't bother to make certain the comedy works in the first place. RotLD, Part II manages to get both of those wrong: Wiederhorn goes out of his way to strip the horrifying moments of any seriousness or depth, while staging virtually all of the humor as this awful, broad Ritz Brothers-style slapstick farce, where most of the jokes involve the fact that sometimes, people run around fast.
There are a few gags that work, though I can only recall one right now: an old woman zombie pats about, looking like all the other zombies trying to crawl out of their graves, but it turns out that she's looking for her glasses. Now that I type that out, I can't figure out what about it seemed amusing to me at the time.
You can't really connect the plots of the two films, so it's best not to try: a military truck is carrying barrels of 245 Trioxin from someplace to another place, and one falls fall out. The next day, it's discovered by three kids: Billy (Thor Van Lingen), a bully; his lieutenant, Johnny (Jason Hogan); and Jesse (Michael Kenworthy), who has been shanghaied into joining their secret club that meets in the graveyard. I don't know that bullying, or secret clubs, works exactly that way, but long story short, Jesse is trapped in a mausoleum, where he is found by the affable grave-robbers Ed (James Karen) and Joey (Thom Mathews), while Billy and Johnny crack open the barrel, and the results are pretty much the same as in the first film: anyone who breathes the gas gets very sick indeed, a convenient rainstorm drives the substance into the ground, and bodies start popping up like weeds. Angry, carnivorous weeds. Our collection of heroes include not only Jesse, Ed, and Joey, but also Joey's girlfriend Brenda (Suzanne Snyder), Jesse's sister Lucy (Marsha Diettein), and the cable guy who was a couple years ahead of Lucy at school, Tom (Dana Ashbrook, who actually managed to escape from this wreck and find hisself in the cast of Twin Peaks).
Our main character is a pre-adolescent boy. I could spend a lot of energy typing, and never come up with a clearer explanation of why RotLD, Part II doesn't work. Kids in horror - at least, kids in corporate American horror after the 1970s - are damn near impossible, because there's so plainly no chance that they're ever going to die. And for the kid to be the protagonist, that just makes it even worse. To say nothing of the fact that Jesse (like most '80s horror heroes, he must have an androgynous name) is a particularly darling, tow-headed moppet of a child. He's sassy and adult (why, he swears! and ogles his sister doing aerobics!), but sweet and fragile (he's scared of graveyards! he wants to call the military for help!). Also, wretched. He's completely fucking wretched. I hope that Mr. Kenworthy, now 36 years old and retired from acting, does not stumble 'pon this review and take offense if I declare that, through no fault of his own, I wanted to throw the character he played into a deep well, and then fill it with acid and piranhas. Which would, incidentally, be a better movie than Revenge of the Living Dead, Part II.
Because, in addition to having a death-proof hero, the film doesn't even try to be a good zombie horror picture. The film very nearly escaped with a PG-13 rating, and that's back in the days when the MPAA was actually vaguely concerned about keeping violence in the right ratings categories; and as we all know, one of the primary reasons to make or to watch a zombie picture is for the rivers of gore associated with the genre. I do not here mean to be prurient; it is no different than going into a musical expecting songs. RotLD, Part II is far from the most squeamish new-style zombie film I've seen, but it's plain that Wiederhorn didn't have much interest in zombie mayhem. A clear example of this is the cameo scene of Tarman (Allan Trautman), the iconic zombie from the first movie; the scene is blocked without grace and not worked well into the story whatsoever.
There's something altogether shoddy about the film, that suggests that the filmmakers didn't really want to be involved with it. This is true from the very beginning: the exposition is narrated over the opening credits, which starts things off on an incredibly cheap note: you don't notice how much you expect music over the credits, until you see them, in a perfectly bland font, with somebody reciting a wall of text. Cheapness will be our friend throughout: the zombie make-up, though accomplished, has been lit and framed in a way to emphasise its artifice - by the way, in one of the few genuinely horrifying moments in the film, I learned only while watching the opening credits that the director of photography was Robert Elswit, who does not here suggest in any way the Oscar-winning genius he'd become - while the music sounds like a mix tape of Casio keyboard presets. But I shouldn't bring up the music; the soundtrack available on the current DVD is a replacement for the original score, which was made unavailable do to some not-clearly-defined rights issues. Still, you see the movie that you can, and the present score is abysmal beyond my ability to describe it.
It all comes back to the humor: Wiederhorn & Co. weren't looking to make a serious (read: "good") horror movie at all. This was supposed to be goofy and silly, and hence things like the in-joke about Karen and Mathews essentially reprising their characters from the first film, the disembodied wisecracking head, the running from place to place, the slipshod, logic-deprived screenplay (beginning with the very opening: why is this most toxic of substances transported in an open jeep? Because it's in the script, is why), and worst of all, the fucking kid in the middle of it. Except that good comedy is just as serious as good horror, and the filmmakers were too busy firing at the broad side of a barn with anti-tank guns to ever bother noticing that their film was as unfunny as it was unscary. RotLD, Part II is completely without distinction; only the relative scarcity of American zombie movies in 1988 lends any credibility to its tepid retreading of ground covered better by the first movie.
Reviews in this series
The Return of the Living Dead (O'Bannon, 1985)
Return of the Living Dead, Part II (Wiederhorn, 1988)
Return of the Living Dead III (Yuzna, 1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (Elkayem, 2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (Elkayem, 2005)