Return of the Living Dead Part 2 (Home Video Review)

Starring Michael Kenworthy, Thom Mathews, James Karen, Suzanne Snyder, Dana Ashbrook

Directed by Ken Wiederhorn

Distributed by Scream Factory

Back in the good ol’ glory days of VHS rentals, the films that wound up in my eager little hands were usually selected with little rhyme or reason. Cool cover art? Great, sold. I had less concern for continuity than I did with just seeing as much horror as I could, which is how I wound up seeing Phantasm III: Lord of the Dead (1994) before any of the others in the series. The same thing happened with Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988), another sequel seen before the original, which is vastly superior. This preface only serves to excuse some of the rose-colored tint on these nostalgia goggles, because while a recent reappraisal confirmed Part II is a pale imitation of the first go-round there are still many moments of which I am fond. Visually, director Ken Wiederhorn’s film isn’t such a slouch but in terms of character and content… it’s as rotten as its reanimated cast.

A stoned military officer driving a truck full of Trioxin barrels hits a bump and doesn’t notice when one of the canisters flies off, winding up in a drainage pipe near a burgeoning suburban community. Local wannabe-cool-kid Jesse (Michael Kenworthy) is about to be initiated into a “gang” of bullies, run by Billy (Thor Van Lingen) and Johnny (Jason Hogan), when he escapes their prank and runs to hide in the sewer. There, the boys find him… and the barrel of Trioxin. Naturally, they mess with it and rupture the seal, causing a bit of gas to leak out. Jesse warns them to call the Army number listed on the barrel, but the bullies instead trap him in a mausoleum. In that same nearby cemetery, grave robbers Ed (James Karen) and Joey (Thom Mathews) are looking to score some loot off old corpses. Unbeknownst to them, Jesse is hidden within the crypt, too, and once they open the door he finds an opportune moment to escape.

Billy and Johnny return to the barrel and manage to open it, releasing a sizeable volume of gas that seeps out over the cemetery and works its way into the soil thanks to a heavy rain. Jesse is trapped at his own home, lorded over by his babysitting sister, Lucy (Marsha Dietlein) and her cable guy love interest, Tom (Dana Ashbrook). Jesse sneaks away long enough to visit Billy, who is now ill from the Trioxin gas. He warns Jesse to keep his mouth shut about the barrel. The secret doesn’t keep long, though, since now every corpse in the cemetery has reanimated and begun shuffling toward the neighborhood. Ed & Joey make a run for it, aided by Joey’s girlfriend, Brenda (Suzanne Snyder), but they, too, are feeling the gas’ effects. Everyone left alive tries to hatch a plan for survival but the zombies are approaching in waves, with numbers too big to escape. Just like the last time this happened it’ll take military intervention to prevent a full-scale epidemic from reaching every city in the country.

On paper that plot doesn’t sound half bad; on film it is, and this is because Ken Wiederhorn is admittedly not a fan of horror. So, uh, why take the job, Ken? Like any other director, work is work and every project could be the stepping stone to something better. But this… this is not good. Now, I’ll give Ken some credit for imbuing his film with great atmosphere, courtesy of cinematographer Robert Elswit’s moody, supernatural photography. Elswit would go on to become Paul Thomas Anderson’s regular D.P., so the man knows a thing or two about shooting beautiful footage. And really, it is this film’s saving grace. Most of the zombie make-up is woefully overdone, looking less like decayed flesh and exactly like a cheap dime store mask. This was also, apparently, done at Wiederhorn’s insistence. Even the return of Tarman, or a Tarman, isn’t very thrilling since the FX work doesn’t match the character we saw in the first film. Really, why even try to redo one of the most memorable zombies from the first film? Make new shit.

These zombies also double as comedians because most of their actions are physical comedy-based and, oh, the groans you’ll bellow watching these half-brains attempt humor. It’s painful at times; not only for being unfunny but also because it’s clear if this approach was eschewed the film would’ve been all the better for it. Like, when a zombie is trying to claw his way out of the grave and all the other zombies keep stepping on his fingers and then the moment he gets clever enough to move his hand away someone steps on his head. The kind of crap that’s amusing as a teenager and intolerable as an adult.

All of the acting is terrible, too. All of it. I generally like James Karen but here, as Ed, he whines and moans and screams and blabbers to the point I was ready to see him die within the first 10 minutes; instead, he keeps that act up for the whole damn film. Seriously, there are long stretches where he has no dialogue, just a plethora of baby whining and moaning. I nearly had to shut off the film. I did like seeing Suzanne Snyder, who is always easy on the eyes. Dana Ashbrook is a nice addition, too, even if he’s a dolt.

The first half of this entry isn’t all bad, delivering the best moments and proving a wistful sensation of those halcyon days of youth gone past. Experiencing the film vicariously through Jesse is initially fun, with the youngster essentially operating independently since few parents are even seen. Once the outbreak hits and everyone groups together, and the comedy ensues en masse, that’s when this crypt trip starts to fester. Return of the Living Dead (1985) is a cult horror classic; this is a substandard sequel that, while deserving some credit for doing things differently, fails to capture the essence of what worked so well the first time around.

The 1.85:1 1080p image isn’t a massive upgrade over the old WB DVD but the additional resolution does allow for fine details in the make-up FX work to be more apparent. The colors in this film have always been a bit drab and that palette hasn’t changed much in HD. Definition never rises above average though, again, it does best the old DVD. The best aspect of the picture is the spooky atmosphere, which is conveyed well with this cleaned-up picture. Just don’t go expecting something revelatory along the lines of the release Scream Factory gave the first film.

For the first time since the VHS and Laserdisc releases, Scream Factory has restored composer J. Peter Robinson’s original score. The previous DVD featured a new score commissioned by producer Tom Fox. Truthfully, I didn’t remember the score one way or the other but it’s nice to hear it as originally intended. The English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track provides clean dialogue, no hissing, and good fidelity on the score. The constant screaming done by most of the cast is loud and does get old quickly. Scream Factory has also included the 2.0 Alternate Audio Track found on the DVD release. Subtitles are available in English SDH.

There are three audio commentary tracks – the first, with Actress Suzanne Snyder; the second, with Author Gary Smart & Filmmaker Christopher Griffiths; the third, with Writer/Director Ken Wiederhorn and Co-Star Thom Mathews.

Back to the Dead: The Effects of Return of the Living Dead Part II – Kenny Myers talks about his work on the first two films in this series, focusing on finding the balance between what he wanted to achieve and what Wiederhorn demanded. His comments are candid and unvarnished, making no bones about how he saw this film.

The Laughing Dead – Director Ken Wiederhorn talks about his career and the film’s overt comedy.

Undead Melodies – Composer J. Peter Robinson sits down for a chat regarding his score.

Interview with Troy Fromin – Catch up with the opening’s stoned squad driver.

They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at Return of the Living Dead II – This is a scathing look back at the troubled sequel, with inflammatory quotes from a number of people connected to the project. Definitely worth a watch.

Vintage Featurette – Live from the Set – This is a goofy look at the film’s production.

Vintage Interviews – Featuring a few quick words with Wiederhorn, Karen, Mathews, and Myers.

Behind the Scenes Footage – This is old camcorder footage of FX work and production outtakes.

A teaser trailer, theatrical trailer, four TV spots, Still Gallery – Special Effects Make-Up, and Still Gallery – Posters & Lobby Cards are also included.

Nowhere near as fun and fresh as the first film, II starts off decently enough before devolving into a comedy of constant errors. The story is a weak retelling of the first’s, only saved by Elswit’s strong cinematography and a blue, foggy atmosphere that screams horror. I have a soft spot for this film and that’s probably the only thing preventing me from ripping it to complete shreds. Scream Factory, though, has issued this kinda-cult classic with a loaded edition well worth acquiring… if you’re a fan.

Special Features:

  • BRAND NEW 2K REMASTER struck from an interpositive
  • NEW Audio Commentary with actress Suzanne Snyder
  • NEW Audio Commentary with Gary Smart (co-author of The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead) and filmmaker Christopher Griffiths
  • NEW Back to the Dead: The Effects of “Return of the Living Dead Part II” – including interviews with Special Make-up Effects creator Kenny Myers and Special Make-up Effects artists Andy Schoneberg and Mike Smithson
  • NEW The Laughing Dead – a new interview with writer/director Ken Wiederhorn
  • NEW Undead Melodies – an interview with composer J. Peter Robinson
  • NEW interview with actor Troy Fromin
  • Audio Commentary with writer/director Ken Wiederhorn and co-star Thor Van Lingen
  • They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD II including interviews with James Karen, Thom Matthews, Brian Peck, Kenny Myers, Susan Snyder, Michael Kenworthy and more…
  • Archival Featurette – Live from the Set
  • Archival interviews with Ken Wiederhorn, James Karen, Thom Matthews and Kenny Myers
  • Behind the Scenes footage
  • Theatrical Trailer and Teaser Trailer
  • TV Spots
  • Still Gallery of posters and stills
  • Still Gallery of Behind-the-Scenes stills from Makeup Effects artists Kenny Myers and Mike Smithson
Return of the Living Dead Part 2 (1988)
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