Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Film Appreciation - Flesh to Flesh and Bite to Bite

Cody Hamman has a brain full of Film Appreciation for 1988's Return of the Living Dead Part II.

In a way, writer/director Ken Wiederhorn's sequel to Dan O'Bannon's 1985 classic The Return of the Living Dead was a movie ahead of its time. Today, we're very used to seeing sequels and reboots that pay direct homage to the films they're following through callbacks, similar scenes, and quoted lines of dialogue. But when Jurassic World nods to something from Jurassic Park twenty-two years later it has some weight to it, and the fact that 2015's Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens calls back to 1977's Episode IV throughout makes sense because it's trying to take the old fans back to the galaxy they loved while introducing Star Wars to a new generation. When you're doing that sort of thing just three years later, it's a bit less cute. When Wiederhorn cast Return stars James Karen and Thom Mathews in the sequel as different characters (since their characters died) and had them repeat scenarios and lines of dialogue while experiencing déjà vu, it had audiences at the time wondering "Why?" and "What the hell?" If Return of the Living Dead II had been made today, thirty-one years later, with James Karen and Thom Mathews repeating scenarios and lines of dialogue from the original film, it would make more sense and viewers would probably have more fun with it.

Karen and Mathews actually came back for Part II simply because producer Tom Fox wanted them in there whether it made sense or not. Their part 1 co-star Don Calfa did have a story idea that really would have made sense for them to come back for, because he envisioned a sequel that would pick up right at the moment where Return ended, with the zombie-infested Louisville, Kentucky being hit by a nuclear bomb... But since the events of Return were caused by military incompetence (Army-made barrels of dangerous gas were shipped to the wrong place and weren't as secure as they should have been), his idea built on that by saying that the nuke missed Louisville and all the same characters are in the same dire situation we left them in. Although Karen's character had appeared to cremate himself, Calfa explained his return by saying he had only managed to badly burn himself.

Of course, Calfa's idea did not end up being used, and instead Wiederhorn, who had made the serious Nazi zombie movie Shock Waves in 1977, was hired to make the sequel. Wiederhorn already had a zombie horror/comedy script written, so he rewrote it to fit into the Return universe and to make room for Karen and Mathews at Fox's request. While The Return of the Living Dead had been a hilarious horror/comedy in its own right, Wiederhorn's approach was to take the material even further into comedy territory, another thing that hasn't set well with all Return fans.

The events of The Return of the Living Dead are presumed to have happened in the world of Return of the Living Dead II, but they are never explicitly referenced, only vaguely alluded to. The zombie outbreak in this film is entirely separate from what O'Bannon had showed happening in Louisville, but it does start off with a military screw-up. When the Army drives truckloads of barrels full of 245 Trioxin, that zombie-making gas from the first film, through the small town of Westvale, California, a soldier driving one of the trucks is too busy rocking out on his headphones and hitting a joint to notice when the strap holding the barrels in place comes loose, allowing three barrels to go tumbling out of the back. One of them rolls over the side of a bridge and into the water below.

Following that opening sequence, we're introduced to our lead protagonist, Michael Kenworthy as preteen Jesse Wilson, whose family has just moved into a subdivision that is still being built, bringing him into contact with a pair of bullying bigger kids, Billy (Thor Van Lingen) and Johnny (Jason Hogan). Billy and Johnny seem to have accepted a disinterested Jesse into their two person club, but in fact they're just trying to get him to the cruel "initiation" stage, which involves locking him inside a large, unkempt mausoleum in the nearby cemetery.

Jesse tries his best to avoid his fate, leading the bullies on a chase that takes them into a storm drain... which just happens to be where that barrel of 245 Trioxin that fell off the bridge ended up. The boys are fascinated by this barrel that says it's property of the Army, and terrified when the face of a decomposing ghoul comes into view through the clear lid.

This is something Billy and Johnny can't resist investigating further, but first they lock Jesse in that mausoleum.

Jesse's stay in the mausoleum is disturbing but short, as other people soon arrive at the cemetery. They are Thom Mathews as Joey, as young man who has been working bagging groceries at a store and whose co-worker Ed (James Karen) has brought him out to the cemetery to show him how he makes some extra cash on the side: robbing graves. Ed steals jewelry from the corpses and cuts off some of their heads to sell to crazies who want human heads that have been buried. They're going to spend a couple hours doing this, Joey will make $100, and then he's going to hit the town with his girlfriend Brenda (Suzanne Snyder), who is sitting in their van, waiting for them.

Released from the mausoleum by the graverobbers, Jesse heads home. Lucky for him, because Billy and Johnny have soon accidentally released the 245 Trioxin from the barrel. The bullies are hit in the face by the first blast of gas, and as they stumble out of the storm drain we know what lies ahead for them, because we saw the terrible effect the gas had on the characters played by Mathews and Karen in the first movie. But it gets worse than just those two becoming zombies. The gas goes on to creep into the cemetery like a green fog, getting breathed in by Mathews and Karen all over again... and resurrecting every corpse in the cemetery once a storm hits and washes the chemical into the soil.

Making a child a lead character in horror or adventure movies can be risky, both in terms of performance and annoyance factor, but Kenworthy does a great job in this movie, and Jesse is a smart kid with a smart mouth as well as a proactive hero. When he suspects something strange is going on, he doesn't just sit at home and worry, he sneaks past his aerobicizing teenage sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlin), who is watching him while their parents are away, and goes investigating. He stops by Billy's house to see that he's quickly going downhill, then he puts on a medical mask and goggles and heads out to the storm drain so he can get the emergency number off the side of the barrel.

While in the storm drain, Jesse is confronted by a new version of The Tar Man, a popular ghoul from the first film. The Tar Man was the zombie encased in the barrel and its flesh melted down to a black goo when it hit the open air. Allan Trautman played The Tar Man of the first movie and returned to play this Tar Man. He's only in here for a few seconds, and Trautman says his work on this movie was completed in just one take.

25 minutes into the 89 minute film, the dead are rising from their graves, setting the stage for a good hour of zombie action that plays out on a larger scale than the average zombie movie. Usually characters will end up seeking shelter in one location, but these characters go on the run from the shambling corpses filling the streets of this small town, going from place to place in hopes of finding help - the police station, the hospital, a church, the Wilsons' grandfather's house, and later, when a zombie elimination plan starts to form, a meat packing plant and a power plant.

There is no help to be found, however. After getting away from The Tar Man, Jesse gets a call out to the Army, his call being forwarded to a Colonel Glover, who is overseeing the reclamation of the lost barrels. Glover is actually a returning character from the first Return, and Jonathon Terry reprises the role. Their call gets cut off quickly, but by the time the characters get out of the subdivision and into town the whole place has been evacuated. The characters we're following are the only ones remaining in the area overrun by zombies, and they can't get out of town because the Army has blocked off all exits and put the town under quarantine for "plague". There are even soldiers (including Mitch Pileggi of The X-Files and Wes Craven's Shocker) inside the quarantine zone, unsuccessfully trying to gun down the zombies.

Since Jesse's last name is Wilson, Glover refers to him as "Mr. Wilson", just as he did to Clu Gulager's unrelated character Burt Wilson in the previous film. That's just one of the many callbacks, which are usually delivered through Mathews and Karen's characters. Things like lifted dialogue - Ed telling Joey "Watch your tongue, boy, if you like this job!" - the fact that they are slowly becoming zombies themselves, Joey saying he feels like he and Ed have been through this before, Ed saying he wants to be cremated, and eventually Joey trying to eat his girlfriend's brain.

Wiederhorn's zombies do crave brains, just like O'Bannon's did, a very popular element that O'Bannon added into zombie lore. They can also talk, as established by O'Bannon, and are virtually indestructible. In the first film, the only way to really put them down was to burn them up, and that would only release more zombie-making chemicals into the air. Wiederhorn gives them a new weakness. His zombies can be re-killed with electricity. He also slowed them down. O'Bannon's zombies were runners, but Wiederhorn's are like more decayed, more comedic versions of George A. Romero ghouls. They tend to shamble slowly, they stumble and fall around. They can move faster when the occasion calls for it, but it's nothing like the speed O'Bannon's moved with.

Return of the Living Dead II may not have unique character types like part 1's group of punks and mods, but the characters here are still fun without the style gimmick. I've already praised Kenworthy and Mathews and Karen are great, as you would expect - especially Karen, as Ed breaks down into a blubbering mess when faced with the living dead. Karma for all the graverobbing he has done. Snyder does a great job conveying just how freaked out and disgusted Brenda is by everything that's going on. Lucy at first seems like she's going to be a weak link, but when the world goes crazy she actually steps up to become a good, tough heroine. She's paired with a love interest in the form of Dana Ashbrook as the very likeable Tom Essex, a cable guy who gets swept up in all this during a routine appointment at the Wilson house. Tom went to school with Lucy, a grade ahead of her, and obviously had taken notice of her before, despite never having spoken to her.

The entertainment MVP of the film might be Philip Bruns as the Wilsons' neighbor Doc Mandel, a middle-aged functioning alcoholic who has some absolutely hilarious reactions to the zombie shenanigans. The fact that the dead have crawled out of their graves barely seems to phase him, he's more concerned about the condition of his "cherry" 1959 Cadillac.

Thor Van Lingen also makes a lasting impression as the bullying Billy. He's a very unpleasant character in life who continues to be unpleasant and becomes even more dangerous in death.

I will admit that Return of the Living Dead Part II is a lesser film than its predecessor and I can understand why some fans of the first are disappointed by the second, but I have always had a special place in my heart for this sequel. It's actually the first horror movie that I ever requested be recorded off television for me. I saw that it was going to be shown on one of the movie channels late one night in, I'm assuming, 1989 and asked my mom to tape it. She did, and thus I had my first horror movie on VHS that was my very own. And I watched this movie repeatedly.

The fact that ROTLDII has a child in the lead and is full of silly comedy made it a perfect horror movie for me to be watching at that time. It is like a kids' comedy version of a zombie movie, although still with enough bad language and gross-outs to earn an R rating. Kenworthy is only eight years older than me and looks a bit younger than his age here, so I could somewhat relate to the character of Jesse and cheer him on as he took on the zombies. In 2010, I went to a convention in Indianapolis just to get Friday the 13th 2009's Jason Voorhees Derek Mears to sign my copy of the Crystal Lake Memories book, but once I was there I couldn't resist getting an autograph from a second guest, Michael Kenworthy.

Although the film works for kids (who are allowed to watch R rated horror movies), it's not so childish or kid-oriented that it's inaccessible to an adult. It strikes a perfect balance, so I can still enjoy watching the movie today just as I did back then, and consider it to be very underrated by the horror community. It's not The Return of the Living Dead, but being Return of the Living Dead Part II isn't a bad thing.

There is one issue about watching ROTLDII in present day. For reasons unknown to me, Warner Bros. botched their DVD release of it. The version of the movie that's on that DVD is not the version I had recorded off TV or later had a proper, official VHS release copy of. The problem is that the audio has been changed. The DVD version starts with a voiceover narration that was never on the movie before. Audio has been altered in one major moment between Joey and Brenda. Songs are different. And the biggest problem is, the memorable score by J. Peter Robinson, which so perfectly worked with the imagery it was paired with, has been replaced with some atrocious music that doesn't work at all. I've heard of multiple occasions when studios with the DVD rights to a property couldn't obtain the rights to songs used in an older movie or TV show, but I've never heard of a movie losing its score before. Even crazier, there are three audio tracks on the DVD - the film itself, an audio commentary by Wiederhorn and Van Lingen, and a track where the dialogue has been dubbed in French, and the French audio track still has the original score on it.

With no access to a working VCR and my remaining VHS tapes having been put away in storage, having to watch the messed up DVD version has been annoying me for years. I don't know what happened with that DVD release, but I'd really like to see a new release that puts J. Peter Robinson's music back with the English audio track.

Return of the Living Dead Part II is a really goofy flick, but its brand of goofiness totally works for me and I find it to be 89 minutes of great fun. It was an essential part of the early days of my horror fandom, and I will always have a strong appreciation for it because of that.


  1. It gives me joy to see this underrated sequel getting some love! Seriously, when I watched this as a 16 year old (through a VCD) I actually loved it more than the first.

    Now, while I do feel that the first does have every right to be superior to this sequel, I still have a place for this guilty pleasure of a sequel!

    1. Cool to hear from others who appreciate this fun sequel!

      - Cody