Jul 4, 2020


Like all other horror franchises, Return of the Living Dead eventually lost its way, succumbing to straight-to-Sci-Fi-Channel sequel oblivion stocked with actors you’ve never heard of (and Peter Coyote) and with budgets so low that they made even Night of the Living Dead feel opulent. Some folks who profess to be horror fans don’t actually know there are a total of five films in this franchise. I don’t blame them. After the classic original film, which I consider to be the quintessential example of how to make a horror-comedy, the trajectory of the ensuing sequels were tonally all over the place, vying sometimes for a straightforward horror experience, and sometimes vying for extreme, unmatched, unprecedented stupidity. Return of the Living Dead 2, the only sequel to be financed and distributed by a major studio (Warner Bros.), is desperate to achieve the same magic tonal balancing act as its predecessor but isn’t nearly as successful.

Return of the Living Dead was very much a product of the ‘80s, filled with a bevy of absolutely delightful special effects and make-up, an inspired punk soundtrack, and a gleefully unrestrained Dan O’Bannon, who strived to push both genres to their breaking points. The teenage faction of the main cast were additionally punked out: mohawks, big hair, neon and pastel colors, leather, chains – you name it. It was very ‘80s, but a different kind of ‘80s.

The sequel wisely chose to eschew this particular punky approach (as it would have seemed even more derivative) in favor of another series of ‘80s tropes: the plucky boy hero, aerobics, and Michael Jackson. What results is a movie that feels more like its own entity rather than something sequalizing something else; Return of the Living Dead 2 is part and parcel with many other horror flicks with this sort of tone that pervaded theaters back during this magical decade. Titles like Night of the Creeps, Night of the Comet, The BlobNeon Maniacs, and more offer a very playful tone juxtaposed against creepy imagery, with all kinds of fun violence to boot. I genuinely believe that Return of the Living Dead 2’s reputation would be far more celebrated had it been released under a different title. Compared to its predecessor, it’s not nearly as fun, funny, vicious, or by default, original. But it’s not a totally dismissible effort, either. (That wouldn’t start until Return of the Living Dead 4: Necropolis.) Much of the humor still works, the entire cast is game (including Twin Peaks’ Dana Ashbrook and my longtime childhood crush, Suzanne Snyder), and the gore gags, though somewhat neutered when compared to the original, are still pretty icky/gooey for a mainstream studio release.

In an odd bit of stunt casting and surreal humor, James Karen and Thom Matthews (the doomed warehouse workers from the previous film who most certainly did not survive their encounters with the undead), appear as different characters: Burke and Hare-ish grave robbers who can’t quite put a finger on why their new zombie perils feels so…familiar. It’s a weird gag and sort of groan-inducing in its unsubtlety, but it’s still a delight to have them, and frankly is a joke that should have kept going well into the series.

Return of the Living Dead 2 is an example of a very middle-of-the-road sequel. It harps on all the high points of its predecessor without mastering any of them, but it’s still worthy of attention. I’d even go as far as to call it a highlight of the ‘80s, if you can put aside its lineage and look at it as a standalone brain-munching romp.

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