October Horrorshow: Return of the Living Dead Part II

The Return of the Living Dead, the Dan O’Bannon film from 1985, is my favorite zombie flick. It was the product of a messy divorce between George Romero and screenwriter John A. Russo. Their creative split meant Romero went one way with his Dead films, and Russo, another.

O’Bannon, working from a story by Russo, upended many of the rules by which zombies operate, as established in Romero’s films. It was O’Bannon who gave zombies a particular taste for brains, and also made them impossible to kill, short of total incineration. No vicious attacks to the head will stop O’Bannon’s zombies, putting characters who appear in this series in greater danger.

He also used humor effectively, employing the absurd to lighten the mood. It was effective, and made his movie fun.

A few years later saw Return of the Living Dead Part II. Both O’Bannon and Russo were nowhere to be seen for this production. This entry was written and directed by Ken Wiederhorn, whose only other directorial effort of note is Meatballs II. That flick has an alien in it.

In Part II, a military convoy is transporting some 55-gallon drums containing zombies in a state of hibernation. An opening voiceover explains that these are corpses that were exposed to something called 245 Trioxin, a chemical that causes genetic ‘reactification[sic]’ of dead flesh. It’s a pretty solid sign that one is about to see a shitty movie when the opening voiceover mangles the English language.

One of the barrels falls off the back of a truck and ends up nestled in a storm drain near an old cemetery and a new suburban housing development.

The main character in this flick is Jesse Wilson (Michael Kenworthy), a grade-school kid who is friends with a couple other kids who treat him like dirt. Some kid stuff happens here and there and Jesse’s bullies manage to breach the drum holding the zombie. The drum releases a cloud of green gas that drifts over the cemetery and awakens the dead.

Meanwhile, the other central characters are doing some grave robbing in the cemetery, cracking open crypts and looting the corpses therein. They are Ed and Joey (James Karen and Thom Matthews), whom viewers familiar with O’Bannon’s film will recognize for their starring roles in that production. They’re not reprising the same characters, however. Ed and Joey are completely new, although their bizarre mentor/protégé relationship is the same. Also like the first film, they are slowly turning into zombies after their exposure to the gas.

They manage to escape the clutches of the zombies, now emerged from their graves and hungry for brains. They make their way over to the housing development where Jesse is trying to warn others of the danger. A couple more characters are thrown into the mix, including Philip Bruns, who also had a prominent role in the previous film. I guess Clu Gulager didn’t feel like making an appearance. Too bad. But now that all the pieces are in place, and all the homages to the previous film have been gotten through, the movie can move on to its conclusion.

That makes it sound as if I was wishing this film would just end. That’s a fair assessment. Part II isn’t just lacking in comparison to the previous film. It’s also lacking in comparison to other horror films. Much of the life O’Bannon and company brought to the title is gone. But not all of it.

The zombies aren’t as satisfying, and that’s because the absurd and morbid humor of the previous film has been replaced with some light slapstick and sight gags. Sure, the zombies can be humorous, but just about all the sophistication of the previous film is gone. It did have me chuckling here and there, though.

This film only rarely breaks away from being 1980s straight to video quality. From the god-awful synthesizer soundtrack to the cheesy jokes, the wonderful pedigree established by O’Bannon is wasted. I hate to sound so harsh, but it feels like this film was made with little regard to whether or not it would be any good. It’s a cash grab. It’s far from the worst I’ve seen, but this flick ensured the series would never live up to its potential. Alien: Resurrection is a better movie than Return of the Living Dead Part II.