When pitching your 80’s, horror comedy into to an insanely competitive genre that includes such gruesomely chucklesome classics as An American Werewolf In London, Evil Dead II, Creepshow, Re-Animator and, yes, the original Return Of The Living Dead, a balance of tone is imperative. Syncronising the alternating levels of laughs and chills could mean the difference between pulling off an impressive feat of genre busting and a laugh and scare free disaster – make it too funny and you dilute the scares, however go too far in the other direction and you’ll find there’s nothing more scary than an unfunny comedy.
A resplendent example of this are the nihilistic belly laughs of Dan O’Bannon’s punk-rock, zombie-fest Return Of The Living Dead, a doom-laden, sarcastic reworking of the scenario’s seen in the seminal works of George Romero that draws cruel humor out of its merciless treatment of its youthful, disenfranchised characters as they’re swamped by brain eating ghouls revived by a mysterious gas. To sequelize such a movie was to surely court disaster (especially considering that the first movie ended with the military solving everyone’s problems by dropping a bomb everyone in the affected area), but in 1988, filmmakers attempted to do just that with mixed results.
After another one of those troublesome barrels of Trioxin falls off the back of a military transport (the army really needs to sort out its shit when concerning its treatment of corpse reviving gas canisters), the potentially lethal item is found by a couple of Goonie-esque kids who bicker about what to do with their questionable find. Precocious moppet, Jesse, wisely suggests they call the number written on the side of the drum while metal-mouthed bully, Billy (Billy the bully? Oh please), wants to keep it hidden for some reason despite the fact it blatantly contains a squishy looking dead guy and after Jesse has gone, Billy manages to open the thing, getting a face full of Trioxin for his troubles in a case of instant karma.
As this green, toxic shit drifts across the local graveyard and revives all the bodies buried there, Ed and Joey have arrived with the latter’s girlfriend high maintenance, Brenda, in tow to indulge in a spot of grave robbing (as you do), but as they swipe the jewelry from the moldy bodies located in the local mausoleum, they also get lungfuls of the insidious compound that slowly turn them into brain craving ghouls.
As Jesse tries to get his strict older sister, a random, hunky cable repairman and the sozzled town doctor to believe his wild warnings about zombies hungrily scoffing brain matter wherever they can find it, the wave of zombies gradually expands its radius to cover the entire town with a reanimated and vengeful Billy among his number ready to continue his bullying from beyond the grave.
But if the army is powerless to halt this horde of goofy gulpers of grey matter, what hope does this crappy union have?
Well, it’s good news/bad news time, boys and ghouls and the good news is that Return Of The Living Dead Part II doesn’t even try to embarrass itself by clumsily replicating Dan O’Bannon sardonic sneer of a sense of humour; however, the bad news is that it instead embarrasses itself by deciding to go the route of some broad, silly, goof-fest that marks out this particular breed of zombies as dazed, prat-falling dopes. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if director Ken Wiederhorn had fashioned the entire tone around the jokey, Spielbergian, Amazing Fantasy style the movie weirdly seems to be aiming for, especially with such a young lead, but the movie also features a couple of scenes of graphic brain eating that firmly places it out of the reach of a younger, probably more receptive audience. As a result, we have a film that’s less of a test of the audience’s stomach and more of it’s collective patience as Wiederhorn’s idea of comedy is to have all of its characters continuously scream at each other for almost the entire movie. The return of the original movie’s double act of Thom Matthew and James Karen (playing different characters, but in almost exactly the same scenario) should have been a masterstroke, but instead everything they say and do turns out to have all the hilarious ramifications of an orphan undergoing Chinese water torture – worse yet, the addition of Susan Snyder as Matthew’s unbearably shrieky girlfriend turns out to be apealling as 90 minutes of microphone feedback. It’s a shame because all three have decent genre credentials that range from the sixth Friday the 13th to Killer Klowns From Outer Space and the rest of the cast don’t exactly help matters by being on the opposing end of the spectrum and are merely generic and cheesy horror movie white hats.
The zombies themselves suffer horribly by being the butt of the jokes as they have their fingers trodden on as the claw their way out of the grave or take frequent tumbles like a moldering Charlie Chaplin, but while its possible to make fun of your undead villains and still have them be a threat (Peter Jackson’s Braindead is a masterclass in this), these zombies prove to be as menacing as an assault by the denizens of Sesame Street, neither scary enough or funny enough to take them seriously, especially when they’re indulging in cringe inducing buffoonary. A severed head complains in a southern accent of the screwdriver stuck in her head while a zombie dressed suspiciously like Michael Jackson does a jerky dance while being electrocuted – it seems that while the bodies have been resurrected, subtlety remains very much dead…
However, a stopped clock (or even a zombified one) is right twice a day and Return Of The Living Dead Part II manages to nail a couple of cracking one liners, chiefly thanks to the relentless mugging of Phillip Bruns as the town doctor, especially when he’s examining the two dying grave robbers; “Is it cancer?” comes a panicked enquiry, to which the doc replies “If we’re lucky!” – elsewhere a chatty zombie on the radio is caught out when, asked who the President of the United States is, he confidently replies with Harry Truman.
Of course, despite all the movie’s flaws, it’s relatively redeemed somewhat by some truly impressive zombie effects (it was the 80’s after all) that sees jaws messily pulled off, faces squished and, most impressive of all, a scene where a zombie is shot gunned in half and its legs wander off while its top half vainly grab for them.
However, despite this, Return Of The Living Dead Part II fails to stagger in the same league as its genuinely classic predecessor (even its soundtrack sucks in comparison despite boasting Robert Palmer’s “Doctor Doctor”) and when it come to the all-important laughs it’ll ironically fail to make you corpse.