Is "Return of the Living Dead Part II" a Misunderstood Masterpiece?
Updated: Jan 10, 2022
Editor's note: Return of the Living Dead Part II has long been a source of contention between contributing writer Luke Worle and myself. I'm pretty sure he wrote this review to spite me.
Let's be fair: In the halls of great cinema, it's unlikely that Return of the Living Dead Part II would be given any merit whatsoever. This is precisely why this overlooked gem needs further introduction.
Let's start with the zombie apocalypse explosion of the mid '80s. The late great George A. Romero obviously created and steered the zombie films into new heights of terror, incorporating a satirical whim within the rough edge of survival horror. The very great Day Of The Dead, released in 1985 (which is probably one of the craziest wellspring years in horror film history, if you look at the list of classics released that year!) basically took a very grim tone to the zombie enterprise. In doing so, it sucked the fun out of zombie movies, leaving in its wake acidic social commentary, a lovable zombie named Bub whom McDonald's could never market in their Happy Meals, and the infamous Captain Rhodes, who needs no further introduction (or does, if you haven't seen this classic film). Day of the Dead is my second-favorite movie of all time, so it will get a well-earned spotlight review in the near future. (Update: Here it is.)
While Day of the Dead has proven staying power and in fact has grown in reputation through the years, it's fair to say that it isn't exactly a fun film to watch. The dark theme of man coping with the dog-eat-dog mechanisms of survival in a run-down world, makes for a compelling but joyless parade through a blistering underbelly of fire and brimstone. Which is why Return of the Living Dead Part II was dreamed up. That, and to make a couple million bucks.
Originally marketed as ''The Goonies with zombies'' by the fat cats at the studio, I first saw this 1988 cult classic on New York City's WPIX TV a year after its very brief theatrical run. In fact, it felt like a royal party with my brother, sister and mother deciding to all sit around our patched up, ugly '70s sofa and give its televised debut a go. The plot essentially picks up after 1985's Return of the Living Dead (another reason why 1985 was a killer year for horror films!) but does so with a loose attachment, likely because everybody seemingly dies at the end of Return of the Living Dead.
Essentially, the neighborhood kids (most of whom are written with the grace of a cardboard cutout being sheared to form with rusty scissors) find the zombie reanimation chemical compound Trioxin 245, which naturally ends up in their hands.
I have to be upfront about the carelessly far-fetched and negligently plotted introduction to the chemical drums. These tools of Ragnarok are very loosely stored in the back of a military jeep, with a haphazard strap, tentatively clinging to life (no pun intended) as it parades its way through rain slicked roads in the dead of night (pun intended). Captain Rhodes would have at least ensured proper storage protocol in spite of his mad-as-a-hornet temper. So, you have the tools of apocalyptic destruction stored in the care of a pot-smoking military school dropout, driving with headphones blaring. I don't get it either, but let's digress. It's still awesome because it's the set up for the movie, and adds a level of plausibility in spite of itself. So, the drums fall in glorious '80s cinematic slow motion and land in the river bed, floating inexplicably into a deep cavern.
Fast-forward as our hero, twelve year old Jesse Wilson (of no relation to the Wilson sisters of '80s music legends Heart) and his frenemies discover the canisters through their ritualistic bullying/hazing in the nearby graveyard. Jesse hauls butt as the bullies press the barrel's magic green button with the blue light. We then hear that eerie beep progress to a terrifying crescendo and eureka: That green gas death cloud envelops Jesse's persecuting bullies as he scrambles to relative safety in his family's unfinished housing complex. Later at night (of course), Jesse makes it back, only to have a visitation with Return of the Living Dead's iconic Tarman.
Tarman in this film is just as frightening, but more goofball than sinister, simply because he doesn't eat brains like in the preceding film. Perhaps he's lost his taste for them and has decided to become a vegan rebel. Either way, it's our first heart-stirring scary moment. Pushing Tarman back into the marsh, Jesse runs away again, this time after seeing a skeletal hand rise up from the soil. This scene truly scared me as a kid, and the film weaves that tentative balance between horror and comedy quite well. How the studio thought this was going to plausibly be “The Goonies with zombies” is beyond me.
Jesse's obnoxious and domineering sister punishes him for his outlandish livin' dead stories and locks him in his room. Meanwhile, the local cable repairman shows up. He's the convenient '80s plot device of being the Valley High big man on campus. This high school heartthrob looks like he's almost thirty, but he's played by Dana Ashbrook of the great '80s film Waxwork, so all is forgiven. (A lot of '80s movies had teens who looked like they could border on retirement.) Anyhow, we meet a host of likable, obnoxious characters, including grave robbers played by the great James Karen and the underrated Thom Matthews. Thom was the former roommate of George Clooney, and star of the subsequent year's classic Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Both actors re-purpose their characters in a way from the previous film, however this time it's more ham than t-bone. It works... kinda.
Thom Matthew's character Joey has the high-maintenance girlfriend from hell, who artfully complicates their dire situation through her incessant bug-eyed running and screaming, signaling all zombies in a 500-yard radius. I can't say any of us were rooting for her survival, but I digress. They all meet the easygoing, “walking on a cloud of Valium” Doc Mandell (played by the late Phil Bruns), who spends his scenes with an overwrought obliviousness. It is suggested to the viewer that he finished medical school at the bottom of his class and found a way to order a bogus degree long before the days of the Internet. Nonetheless, he was always my favorite character, as his goofball hi-jinx were far preferred to the shrill screaming of Joey's girlfriend.
Anyhow, this motley crew gather in a beautiful cherry-red Cadillac and spend a single night trying to evade zombies and not-so-friendly fire from the local army.
I hear you asking, “What in the good quest for worthwhile '80s era cinema makes this film so much fun?” Well, Return of the Living Dead Part II revels in its simplicity, frivolous plot turns and anything-goes narrative. While it is the low-rent answer to its older sibling, the indisputably great Return of the Living Dead, this flick begs for serious re-consideration as a fun, borderline cult film. The movie is lovable camp that manages to unify humor, terror and a few great gags in the mix into its almost direct-to-video DNA. I personally love it, to the passive-aggressive chagrin of a few of my more high-minded cinephile friends. It showcases some great practical effects, including a talking disembodied head that has no love for screwdrivers, and a walking hand that tries to strangle people who make it angry.
The original theatrical and VHS film score is quite good though dated, and the performances are generally quite well-acted. The actors' spirit of fun is obvious, as they genuinely thought they were participating in the making of what was supposed to be the greatest zombie film in history. (I'm kidding of course.) It was done to make a buck, and while it made back its budget with about three million in revenue and holds a sterling zero percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it has achieved its greatest merit as being a personal nostalgic favorite. My sister still quotes the immortal line, ''Get that damn screwdriver out of my head!'' How could you possibly go wrong with screenwriting like that?
In truth, Return of the Living Dead Part II is a silly, brainless film, but one that is a very determined and shameless romp through the cheese factory of '80s excess. We even get a Michael Jackson zombie cameo towards the end! It's a horrifying film for all the wrong reasons to the uninitiated and unimpressed, but it's one of the reasons I love the 1980s. For ninety minutes of raw escapism, it doesn't get much better then this, especially with the in-jokes referencing the superior first film. You might consider hunting for this film in a local antique store; you should procure the VHS copy, which retains the original score. The 2004 DVD release unwisely uses an alternate score, which completely hampers the '80s synth soundtrack from which the film benefits. Stick to the VHS, if you can find it. I can't imagine there's been high demand, so go to your usual perusing locales and “dig it up.”
We all need that one silly, uncultured, unenlightened and almost embarrassing pseudo-gem in our VHS treasure trove that we sneak out once in a while under the cloak of darkness. While the other classic films in our collection may look on disapprovingly, we know that we are doing the right thing in giving the underdog a chance to enrapture us once again, with cornball charm. To the brainless and shameless, Return of the Living Dead Part II may just be one of those films.
Verdict: 3 Trioxin 245 barrels out of 5.
UPDATE: Read Luke's memorial to James Karen here.