Return of the Living Dead Part 2

Return of the Living Dead Part 2
Released: January 15, 1988
Directed by:  Ken Wiederhorn
Starring: James Karen, Thom Matthews, Dana Ashbrook
Availability: DVD, Amazon Instant Video, iTunes

Here we have a sequel to a movie tangentially related to the seminal zombie movie Night of the Living Dead.  Does this film have the same things to say about our consumerist society?   A word of warning, I have not seen the first Return of the Living Dead, so am not sure what may have gone over my head with this movie.

What’s it About?

A barrel falls off an army truck, landing in a river.  The next day, a tween named Jesse is terrorized by two bullies in a cemetery, uncovering the barrel, which is revealed to be full of some sort of green goo and a dead body.  The bullies lock Jesse in a mausoleum, which seems a little excessive.

Two grave robbers open the mausoleum, freeing Jesse in the process.  The bullies come back at night to investigate the barrel, opening it and releasing a green gas that envelops the nearby cemetery.  This gas apparently reanimates corpses, causing the entire cemetery to be overrun by zombies.  The two grave robbers, Ed and Joey, escape with Joey’s girlfriend, Brenda, in her van.  They team up with Jesse, his sister Lucy, Lucy’s boyfriend Tom and Dr. Mandel to escape from the zombies and try to cure Ed and Joey, who have breathed in the gas and are starting to display startling symptoms of zombieness.

Our group of heroes kill a bunch of zombies on the way to a hospital, where Dr. Mandel examines Joey and Ed.  He determines that the two men are dead men walking, and that they should leave them behind.  Brenda spirits the two men away, only to encounter an army squadron enforcing a quarantine on the town.  Ed attacks one of the soldiers, eating his brain, leaving Joey and Brenda to fend for themselves.  Joey turns, chasing after Brenda and her delicious brains.  Brenda, seeing no choice but to let him, allows Joey to eat her brain.

Meanwhile, Jesse, Lucy, Tom, and Dr. Mandel run into another army barricade.  They kill a bunch of zombies, then break into the army facility to use electricity to kill a bunch more zombies, including one dressed like Michael Jackson.  The army, with most of the zombies incapacitated, incinerate the bodies, and our remaining heroes walk off into the sunset.

Cultural Impact

Zombie movies have existed almost since the beginning of cinema history, with White Zombie starring Bela Lugasi in 1932 generally regarded as the inception of the genre.  Zombies are often used to turn the horror genre into an avenue for social commentary, with Dawn of the Dead, for example, bringing to the screen a message about the dangers of American consumerism.  If Return of the Living Dead, Part 2 has a similar message, it was lost on me.  I guess it does take a pretty strong stand against grave robbing; all three characters involved in the robbing of graves end up dead or as zombies.  The same is true of the two bully characters.

This film comes at a time when horror film sequels permeated the cinema landscape; by the time this film came out, the Halloween franchise was 4 films deep, as was The Nightmare on Elm StreetFriday the 13th had six, including one subtitled “The Final Chapter.”  If you don’t mind being spoiled, it was not the final chapter.  This is the second of five Living Dead films.  Today, most of these sequels would be VOD or direct to DVD affairs, but in the late 1980s they were still major box office draws.

This movie came out on January 15, 1988, earning $4.5 million dollars its opening weekend, good for 6th place behind Good Morning, Vietnam, Three Men and a Baby, Moonstruck, For Keeps, and Broadcast News.  It ended up earning $9 million during its entire theatrical run, against a $6 million budget.  Most of that budget presumably went toward puppetry.

Return of the Living Dead Part 2 shares its DNA with zombie movies both older and younger.  The basic elements remain unchanged; a gas or virus reanimates corpses and/or infects living people, a small group of people have to stand their ground and/or escape the horde following them.  This film plays with the genre with tongue in cheek—it is rated R, and brains do get eaten, but only a couple of actual people die.  Most of the gore is over-the-top and relegated primarily to dismembering zombies in unusual ways.  Other zombie movies with a comedic bent have come after this film, and have done it better.  Shaun of the Dead comes to mind almost immediately.  The basic building blocks of the plot are virtually identical, but the newer film trades over the top violence for smarter characterizations with actual motivation beyond killing zombies.

Three more films have been released in this franchise since 1988, though those films have little in common with the first two, save for the zombie aspect.  This particular incarnation, though, could almost certainly have been made at any time the last 20 years.  There’s a certain timelessness to the zombie genre, in that the fear of the undead has pervaded the social consciousness for as long as cinema has existed, if not longer.

Is It Any Good?

I’m not a horror movie fan in general, so keep that in mind while reading the rest of this.  With the exception of Dana Ashbrook, who later found fame on Twin Peaks, most of the actors in Return of the Living Dead Part 2 are known primarily for their roles in Return of the Living Dead Part 2.  I don’t think that’s necessarily an accident.  Horror films have had a long history of featuring primarily unknown actors early in their careers, and it usually shows.  To be fair, the material these actors were given leave much to be desired.  There’s just not much plot here, beyond “kill a bunch of zombies.”  On the other hand, the puppet effects on many of the zombies were really impressive, especially in a charming, retro way.  In particular, there’s a really gross looking skull that plays a fairly major role.  If you’re a really big comedy-horror fan, there’s some stuff in here that’s interesting to watch.  If you’re squeamish at all, you’d probably be better off skipping it.

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