31 Screams in October, Vol. 4, #21: Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Posted: October 21, 2018 in Movie Review

21. Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

Director: Ken Wiederborn

Starring; James Karen, Thom Mathews, Dana Ashbrook, Marsha Dietlein, Philip Bruns, Michael Kenworthy

Any time you have a winning formula on your hands, you’ve gotta have a sequel. Them’s the rules… I didn’t make it up. It’s usually not a great idea, but it happens all the time whether we’ve asked for it or not. Usually these things come to pass while establishing some continuity… some sort of connection with what came before. This is especially true of the horror genre. Sure, that continuity gets screwed up six ways from Sunday before the end, but at least there’s some conscious effort at first. Then there’s this franchise. Once “Return of the Living Dead” became a series, continuity was given the middle finger.

Returning from the first film are actors James Karen and Thom Mathews, albeit as entirely different characters in an entirely different setting. This time, they’re a couple of dopey grave robbers named Ed (Karen) and Joey (Mathews), with Joey’s ditzy redhead girlfriend Brenda (Suzanne Snyder) in tow, endlessly complaining about how creepy cemeteries are. But these clowns aren’t the main focus of the film. As annoying as Brenda can get, perhaps we should have hoped that they would be.

The true main character of “Return of the Living Dead Part II” is a young boy named Jesse (Michael Kenworthy). He’s doing his best to keep local bullies Billy (Thor Van Lingen) and Johnny (Jason Hogan) from making an example of him. Jesse gets chased down into the sewers, where the kids stumble across barrels like those from the first film. Billy messes around with one which causes the gas inside to be released. Jesse has run away before this happens, so he’s safe… for now. Billy we know for sure is going to become a zombie. Johnny’s fate is a little more up in the air, as he disappears from the movie all-together soon afterwards. The gas, now airborn, affects everything in the vicinity. Because it is also raining, this allows the gas to creep into the ground beneath the cemetery, re-animating all the buried corpses.

Like their counterparts from the previous film, Ed and Joey are both affected by the gas. Brenda drives the both of them to the hospital, where the doctor almost faints after examining Joey. He has all the vital readings of a corpse, as does Ed. The other half of the story is that of Jesse, his teenage sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlin) and her boyfriend Tom (Dana Ashbrook). Lucy is supposed to be babysitting Jesse, is upset with him for sneaking out of the house against orders, and understandably finds Jesse’s explanation ludicrous. But Jesse’s story soon proves accurate when the zombies show up and Jesse, Lucy and Tom have to fight their way out of the house.

The two groups merge into one, with Jesse able to use his small stature to the group’s advantage, as he’s able to crawl into spaces too small for anyone else. Once Ed and Joey both die and re-animate, the group splits up again. Brenda then flees into a church where, cornered, she allows Joey to eat her brains because they love each other. It sounds stupid, yes, and it feels stupid just to write that sentence but, you know, comedy. Jesse and the zombified Billy have one last confrontation before the end, which is a decidedly less apocalyptic conclusion than in the first “Return of the Living Dead.”

I actually loved “Return of the Living Dead Part II” the first time I saw it many years ago. I like it considerably less now after seeing the first film. “Part II” lacks several things which made the first film so good. The punk rock soundtrack is replaced by something a bit more generic. The violence is so toned down that I’m not even sure why this movie is R-rated. The cast of characters are also far less interesting than in Part I. One plus is the aesthetically pleasing poster, which continues to be one of my favorite horror movie posters of all-time

Amazingly, there are still three other “Return of the Living Dead” films, none of which have any connection to Parts I and II. The third is essentially a love story with the female lead as a pseudo-zombie. Parts IV and V are directly connected to each other, but so cheaply made that the less spoken about them, the better. As for “Part II,” its legacy in no way matches that of the original, although I’d argue that there is still at least some entertainment value to be had. Just remember to keep your threshold for stupidity at a high level.

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