Director/Screenplay – Ken Wiederhorn, Producer – Tom Fox, Photography – Robert Elswit, Music – J. Peter Robinson, Music Supervisor – David Chackler, Special Effects – Geno Crum, Terry Frazee & Gene Grigg, Makeup Effects – Kenny Myers, Art Direction – Dale Allan Pelton. Production Company – Greenfox Productions
James Karen (Ed), Thom Matthews (Joey), Michael Kenworthy (Jesse Wilson), Dana Ashbrook (Tom Essex), Marsha Dietlein (Lucy Wilson), Suzanne Snyder (Brenda), Brian Peck (Doc Mandel), Thor Van Lingen (Billy), Jason Hogan (Johnny)
Two canisters of zombifying gas fall from the back of a military convoy as it passes through the town of Westvale and roll down into a drainage culvert near the town’s graveyard. There two bullies initiating a young kid into their gang accidentally open one of the canisters and become infected. The gas spreads through the graveyard and soon the town is overrun as the dead start coming back to life, seeking the brains of the living.
Return of the Living Dead (1985) was a spinoff of George Romero’s groundbreaking classic Night of the Living Dead (1968), which came about due to a complicated split of copyright on the story rights among its creators (follow the film’s link for more details). Return of the Living Dead, which was the directorial debut of genre screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, came with a cheerful punk cynicism and tongue firmly planted in cheek. It proved to be one of horror’s freshest injections of originality in its year. However, this sequel is witlessly conceived on all counts. When a film ends up posing as a sequel to a film (Return of the Living Dead) that was in itself posing as a real-life sequel to another film (Night of the Living Dead), you know that the genre has reached a point of creative impoverishment.
Return of the Living Dead Part II exists at almost opposing extremes to Dan O’Bannon’s aggressively cynical sense of black humour. When the film has to count among its highlights gags about everybody in a car screaming as they toss a severed hand between them like it were a hot potato, you realise just how far down into the barrel this one is reaching. The lowbrow nature of the exercise is surely indicated by the supposedly atmospheric resurrection scene – where Dan O’Bannon overlaid the scene with loud and nasty punk music and Linnea Quigley dancing naked on a grave, Return of the Living Dead Part II offers canned music and lame gags with a zombie old lady struggling to put her glasses on and one zombie repeatedly getting stepped on as it tries to get out of the grave. There are times that the film feels only one step above Three Stooges yocks. Few zombie films of the 1980s have such cheesy looking makeup – the single best effect here is a zombie that gets its torso blown off with a shotgun, although this only leads to another lame gag with the legs stumbling around trying to find the rest of the body.
James Karen and Thom Mathews reprise their roles from the first film where they were a likeable duo. Now Thom Mathews is played as a lunkhead, while James Karen spends the whole of the film gibbering in a craven performance that becomes incredibly annoying. The jocularity and humour between the two seems very forced. Mathews gets a line “It’s a feeling I’ve got. Like we’ve been here before. You, me, them,” but it is too cutely self-referential. Moreover, the two of them end up repeating the roles all over again scene for scene – dying while still alive, rigor mortis diagnoses, even down to a repeat of the scene where Thom Matthews chases his girlfriend around a chapel begging for her brains. The dismal failure of Return of the Living Dead Part II is that it has ended up in the hands of a director, Ken Wiederhorn, who is simply not adept at comedy.
Ken Wiederhorn did make at least one good zombie film – the Nazi zombie effort Shock Waves (1977). Wiederhorn’s other genre films are the uninspired likes of the slasher Eyes of a Stranger (1981), the summer camp/alien visitor film Meatballs Part II (1984) and the psycho-thriller A House in the Hills (1993).
The Return of the Living Dead series was subsequently continued with Brian Yuzna’s much better Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993) and followed up during the zombie revival of the 00s with Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis (2005) and Return of the Living Dead 5: Rave to the Grave (2005).