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Junkfood Horror: Return of the Living Dead Part II

By  · Published on October 22nd, 2010

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; we punish because we care. This is the weekly FSR column that simultaneously got me thrown out of culinary school as well as film school. Every Friday I slam-bang your eye sockets with a truly terrible film only to sit back and laugh as your face melts. I will describe exactly why your visage has turned to oatmeal on the carpet while also explaining to you what it is about the bad film that makes me so happy. As if that weren’t cruel enough, I will then pair the film with a snack food with which you can assault your own metabolism while the movie assaults your neurons.

Continuing on my October theme of bad horror films, and apparently bad horror sequels though I can’t guarantee that trend will continue, I bring you a little gem from 1988 called Return of the Living Dead Part II.

What Makes It Bad?

If you haven’t seen the first Return of the Living Dead, stop reading this drek, slam your computer on the floor with a Viking yawp, and go rent it right now! Forget the fact that it was written and directed by Alien scribe Dan O’Bannon, it is one of the greatest zombie films of all time. It was suggested to me that I do the original for this column but I find it too legitimately good to qualify. As is the curse of many a sequel, and the horror genre is not immune, the sequel is nowhere near as good as the original. The characters aren’t as likable, the ending is the schlock trifecta of lazy, stupid, and dull, and because of a rights-obtaining SNAFU, the music sucks.

Most notably, the sequel sort of lazily rehashes many of the plot points from the first film without the original’s skillful writing. In other words, we get the drum of experimental gas that accidentally falls into the wrong hands, gets released into the air, falls back to the Earth as rain, and gets into the ground of a cemetery causing the reanimation of corpses. All of these things happen in the original except in ways that are far more interesting. Where the original gives us a fish-out-of-water element as the new guy at the warehouse is slowly acclimated to all the weirdness therein before we get to the barrels of nerve gas, the sequel quite literally drops the exposition into our laps (or storm drains, I suppose). Where the original took a madcap attempt at hiding evidence to get to the cloud and subsequent acid rain, the sequel just cuts to it as soon as the gas is released from the barrel. It’s like trying to enjoy the Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom while riding in a speedboat; you’ll see the same stuff, but the trip’s not as much fun.

One of the strangest elements of RotLD2 is the return of the two bumbling warehouse workers as completely different characters. Well, I say completely different, but in comparison to their characters in the original, they’re about as different as apples and…slightly larger apples. They are now bumbling grave robbers which makes them just different enough to brand them with new names and sidestep the slightly perplexing problem of their being alive now even though they died in the first one. I really enjoyed actors Thom Mathews and James Karen in the first film so their only slightly explicable return should have been a blessing disguised as a paradox, but director Ken Wiederhorn’s choice to make them even whinier than they were in the first film makes every moment they are on screen unbearable. I ended up hoping someone would remove their heads or destroy their brains before they were even zombies.

The other major difference between Return of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead 2 is that the latter is far sillier. Now, before you cry fowl (yes I said fowl, I’m craving a turkey sandwich), let me acknowledge that while the original film is great, there are few fully-functioning film scientists that would label it as deathly serious or even straight-forward horror. I completely understand that it is goofy and has a good deal of black comedy, but compared to the sequel, Return of the Living Dead is A Serbian Film.

This thing is borderline moronic. There are zombies tripping over each other with Hanna Barbara sound effects to accompany, there is a talking female zombie head that sounds like chicken-fried Gilbert Gottfried, and Thom Mathew’s transformation into zombie should gravely offend the mentally handicapped…as well as zombies! If the aim of the comedy in the original was to bridge the gap to slightly younger viewers and make the horror acceptable, than the comedy in the sequel is aimed at infants, sea turtles, or possibly the dry patches of skin on your elbows.

Why I Love It!

Like many of the other 80’s horror films, the faults of Return of the Living Dead Part 2 in no way detract from its entertainment value. Although not matching its quality, the sequel captures a similar tone and spirit to the original and for that I applaud them. The usage of the words “genetic reactification” by the v.o. actor makes the exposition machine feel more like satire than a convenient plot device. I also love the idea of zombies in a budding housing addition; all the tromping through the unfinished buildings and unoccupied cul-de-sacs providing for amazing creepiness. The ending, though hackneyed, is an absolute hoot; electrocuting an entire horde at once? Sweet!

I think what specifically makes this film so much fun to watch is the decision to include a child’s perspective of these horrific affairs. Telling horror stories with children comprising the majority, or solely occupying the status, of protagonist is a hallmark of the 1980’s that I truly love. See The Gate, Night of the Comet, Phantasm, Troll 2, and The Outing as evidence (except The Outing, don’t see that at all). There was just something about all the neon, break-dancing, and coke parties that made parents neglect their children even in the face of grave danger. I think it works for me because I was a kid who loved horror and it made these films more 1.) tangible to me and 2.) able to scare me into enormous pee puddles on the linoleum. In many ways, RotLD2 is like The Gate with Troll 2 sensibilities.

The main little kid in this film is played by Michael Kenworthy whom you may recognize from the 1988 remake of The Blob…and nothing else. I really like him in this; just so off-putting. He is convincing as a real kid, and by that I mean he’s not too influenced by acting classes not that I think he’s actually a wombat in a small child costume, but he also has some great bits of dialogue outside a child’s typical wheelhouse. The scene where he falls through the casket and talks himself down from a panic attack – remarking about how it’s only decayed matter – is awesome. Plus, I am contractually obligated to my inner child to love cinematic comic book geeks of any age.

There are some great gore effects in this film. The zombie in the basement of the hospital is my absolute favorite. The guy looks frightening enough as a zombie, but then gets literally blown in half by a shotgun blast. Normally that would be the end of said undead, but turns out this solution only doubles the problem. Now we have a prowling set of legs with just the trace remnants of a spinal chord AND a hand-walking torso that’s arguably more scary than the fully assembled zombie. I also love the scene where the girl rips off the entire lower jaw of a zombie. Practical effects forever!

Junkfood Pairing: Zombie Blood

This may be a little hard to find unless you live near a superb candy store or manage to score 30 tickets at your local skeeball facility. This green, supposedly edible concoction is not to be enjoyed lightly. I’m not saying you will become a card-carrying member of the living dead, but it is sure to have you puking up your own guts.

After puking, come back and read more Junkfood Cinema

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.