Following Monster Fest I took a little vacation, hence the recent lack of updates on the ‘ole blog here. Not one to pass time unwisely, I ramped up my annual October horror film viewing tradition. I always like to make an effort to get around to titles I missed along the way, or haven’t seen in ages, so I’ve taken in a fair amount of older films during the first half of the month. One fine morning last week (over breakfast no less) I found myself clicking play on instant Netflix, launching none other than Return of the Living Dead Part II. I can’t really explain what made me choose that over a number of better looking titles, but I just had an itch to see if it was as subpar as I remembered. As a point of fact, I clearly remembered the evening and circumstances surrounding my original viewing back in 1988, but could not remember much about the movie at all . . . except disappointment.
As was customary back in the 80’s this was another B-movie I caught at my beloved ramshackle mall theater. Unlike its predecessor which was unleashed in the summer months, ROTLD2 came out in the bitter cold of January (a strange time to release a horror sequel if you ask me). I didn’t see the original during its summer run, but I have to say it’s one of my fondest video watching memories of 80’s horror. It had a wicked sense of humor, great effects, and oozed a genuine love of the genre. When Part II finally arrived I was pretty psyched to see how it would top the first outing. So a fellow fan and I made our way out to the cinema in bad weather, by this time we had abandoned our bikes for cars (the end of an era), and eagerly bought our tickets. I can remember the drive, the ticket buying, and a sort of depressing exit, but I can’t remember a thing about the viewing experience itself (which is unusual for me).
Over the years I figured I had just blocked my memory out whenever the film (rarely) came up in conversation. And that’s an interesting phenomenon in and of itself. There are a great many reviled horror films from the 80’s, not to mention a great many reviled 80’s horror sequels. In most cases if you bring up the original installment of a popular series around these parts, talk inevitably leads to discussion of nadirs. Fans love to debate the lowest points as it is always enjoyable to criticize missteps. A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Halloween, Texas Chain Saw, etc., all come to mind. Yet even when we showed ROTLD at Fantasmo I don’t recall that a word was said about the sequel. Let me tell you for the most part we are a pretty critical bunch, and to let an opportunity for commentary like that slip by is certainly atypical. With this in mind, my theory heading into ROTLD2 over breakfast was that the film likely wouldn’t be catastrophically awful, but rather bland and uninspiring.
The film opens up with one of the zombie-containing canisters featured in ROTLD bouncing off of a military transport, and landing in the sewer system near both a developing suburban neighborhood and conveniently another graveyard. After that quick intro we switch to the neighborhood and our hero Jesse (Michael Kenworthy), who comes into contact with the canister during a hazing ritual by a couple of local bullies. The bullies foolishly open the canister, and the gas seeps into the graveyard setting off a chain of events more or less identical to the first film. James Karen and Thom Mathews even return as a pair of bumbling grave robbers, who meet a similar end to their doomed warehouse employees from the original. As the dead start to rise it’s up to Jesse, his sister, a cable repairman, and a hapless doctor to stop the zombie invasion before the military undertakes the nuclear option.
Watching ROTLD2 this time around I have to tell you I was surprised at my reaction. Unlike that first viewing so many years ago, I sort of enjoyed the movie. It’s not so much because it was particularly good but for two reasons. First I wasn’t going in with high expectations, quite the opposite. This film was free from the baggage of following on the heels of the best zombie movie of the 80’s. Second it was an okay way to kill 90-minutes on a morning where there was nothing particularly better to do. Sure neither of these reasons constitutes high praise, but the fact that it was both tolerable and mildly entertaining was a bit miraculous given what I was prepared to discover. The film manages to walk a fine line between goofy fun and ho hum mediocrity, with the former just edging out the latter. If there’s any tragedy here it’s that some tweaks (e.g. better effects, balanced storytelling, directorial restraint) could have put ROTLD2 into the good category.
Essentially ROTLD2 is a remake of the first film, right down to the appearance of Karen and Mathews. The problem is that all the edginess, not to mention the punk rock soundtrack, that was such an integral part of the first outing are missing here. Writer/Director Ken Wiederhorn manages to pack in many of the key events we are familiar with, but instead of leaning toward horror goes heavily toward comedy. This sort of thing can work if done correctly. Sam Raimi for example remade Evil Dead as Evil Dead II, indulging his love of Three Stooges style humor. The problem is Wiederhorn is no Sam Raimi. Many of the jokes fall flat, and Karen/Mathews in particular become caricatures of their former incarnations. In ROTLD they were funny because they were reacting to their situation in a genuine, if outrageous manner. Here they come off as Laurel and Hardy, never as real people. Worse still is the fact that Wiederhorn mistakenly believes that to see these two, and everyone else, yelling at each other a lot equals a whole lot of funny. Honestly Ricola or Halls must have had a stake in this film, as the actors must have all blown out their vocal chords by the time it was over (they make Guttenberg in Can't Stop the Music look restrained by comparison).
Given that Wiederhorn opted for a comedic approach, another element that suffers is the horror of the zombies. In the original they were gooey and genuinely frightening. Sure they had some tongue-in-cheek lines, including the constant battle cry of “brains,” but they never failed to be menacing. Here the make-up is never on that level, and most of the time the creatures end up looking like second-rate extras from the Thriller video. Wiederhorn even pays homage to Thriller in the finale, when a zombie wanders into frame dressed like Michael Jackson was in the video. Clearly the director was more strongly influenced by John Landis than Dan O’Bannon, which wouldn’t have been a problem if he could have copied Landis more successfully.
Hearing all of this might lead you to conclude that Wiederhorn was a director without merits, but prior to ROTLD2 he did have a minor classic under his belt. In 1977 he made the terrific aquatic Nazi zombie epic Shock Waves, starring the great Peter Cushing. That film played things straight, or at least as straight as things can be played where aquatic Nazi zombies are involved, and the results were outstanding. I can’t even recall a single joke being cracked. Interestingly Wiederhorn also eschewed gore in that movie as well, opting for a subtle, creepy approach (or at least as subtle as things can be when dealing with aquatic Nazi zombies). Obviously he carried over the anti-gore sentiment to ROTLD2, but unfortunately didn’t repeat the nuanced execution of everything else. Arguably Shock Waves was a fluke as Widerhorn went on to make Meatballs Part II, but that in no way tempers my recommendation.
Another problematic element, depending on your point of view, is that the protagonist this time is a pre-teen boy. This was a big trend in the 80’s thanks to E.T., and personally I’ve never cared for it. If anyone can cite an example of a situation in which it’s worked, save perhaps for The Goonies, I’d be happy to hear it. More often the child actor proves either annoying, unskilled, or both. In the case of ROTLD2 I would say unskilled is the order of the day, with leading “man” Kenworthy turning in a very unconvincing performance. On the plus side he does look like he’s having a good time, so at least he doesn't act like the whole business is an uninteresting chore (Jake Lloyd anyone?). On the flip side his nemesis Billy (Thor Van Lingen) is one of the better parts of the film. Van Lingen is a great bully, and when he becomes zombified he provides an enjoyable villain. As a side note Kenworthy actually was in the awesome remake of The Blob the same year, before disappearing into complete oblivion. Thankfully Kevin Dillon took center stage for that, so things worked out okay.
I should also mention that a couple of other 80’s faces show up here to round things out. In addition to Karen and Mathews we also have on hand Dana Ashbrook (Waxwork, Twin Peaks), Mitch Pileggi (Shocker, X-Files) and Suzanne Snyder (Weird Science, Night of the Creeps). Like everyone else they are given little to do but yell loudly, however I would say that Ashbrook comes off better than anyone as the slightly restrained cable guy. Their presence does manage to give ROTLD2 a little more weight, if for no other reason than it is an assemblage that counts as a solid time capsule of the 80’s. Furthermore even if the happenings on screen are somewhat lackluster, at least you have some familiar, reliable players to usher you through the experience.
In the final analysis while I can’t enthusiastically recommend ROTLD2, I can say that it’s not as bad as I remembered it being. It has a decent villain, Karen and Mathews are fun to watch for a while, and there are a couple (literally) of laughs. If you can for 90-minutes forget that it is supposed to be a sequel to the best zombie movie of the 80’s it’s an okay way to pass the time if you have run out of zombie movies to watch on Netflix streaming, or if you have never seen it and need to satisfy your curiosity. Probably the greatest offense committed by the film, and the reason it remains largely forgotten, is that it is indeed defiantly average. Neither a film to be celebrated, nor relentlessly mocked. I almost think it’s better to be one or the other myself, although those few unfortunate enough to have seen Meatballs Part II may disagree with me.
By the way, am I the only one who thinks the poster for ROTLD2 bears more than a passing resemblance to the poster for Fright Night?