Contains mild spoilers.
Knock, knock? Who's there? 14th century zombie warlocks risen from the grave seeking revenge on the decendents of those who blinded and killed us. No, that's actually the first thing they did and it's also one of the main criticisms I have with Amando de Ossorio's sequel to the moody continental Tombs of the Blind Dead; for as much as it wants to be a serious tense horror it can't help but unintentionally come across a bit amateurish and silly on more than a single occasion.
First, there's something we need to address. Remember the iconic final scenes of the first, where the blind dead knights escape the confines of their isolated ruins to arrive by train at the first populated town ready to start their world slaughter tour. It didn't happen. The ancient legend of knights found guilty of heinous crimes hung up with their eyes pecked out to deter others. Nope, all gone and all unnecessarily different; this time, we're told, they had their eyes burnt out and they weren't put on trial, they were killed by 'the angry mob'(tm). There's no narrative connection, no reuse of the location or characters. It is a sequel, in truth, in just having the same blind dead horse riding warlocks slicing, dicing and massacring another set of unfortunate European misfits.
The knight/templar/warlocks we discover again, were granted immortality (of a sort) through drinking the blood of a sacrificed virgin; though I'm convinced this was repeated, only as an excuse to reshoot the same ripping the shirt, exposing the boobs scene with a new pretty face. This time though we're in Bouzano, Portugal and this time the citizens of the town not only openly talk about the old myth but hold an annual celebration complete with knight effigies. Mayor Duncan (Fernando Sancho) who runs the town like a Mafioso boss has called in hero of the hour Jack Marlowe (Tony Kendall) to provide the fireworks for the towns festivities. On arrival he's confronted by the Major, several of his goons and his fiancée Vivian (Esperanza Roy) who it turns out is Marlowe's old flame and has secretly engineered him winning the contract as she feels there's unfinished business between them.
This turns out to be the least of their problems though. Murdo (José Canalejas), who, I believe the politically correct way of putting it, suffers from severe spinal curvature, is tormented and bullied by the towns children and adults and has decided his only course of action is to resurrect 700 year old murderers who can be his friends. Not only has he worked out what's necessary to bring the knights back but he seems quite happy to kidnap and murder a local innocent damsel (in the same boob out, knife in manner) to put it into action; his character is quite contrived and implausible, and making the only person with a physical defect the monster responsible for the shitstorm is never mind clumsy and easy, it's more than a little un-pc.
I commented that the characters in Tombs of the Blind Dead were complicated and deep with a little irrationality and European je ne sais quoi, that made them quite likable and believable. Like Mundo, the ensemble of Return of the Evil Dead all feel flat with little depth or complexity, like convenient one line caricatures brought in to play one particular horror trope. Whether it's the dastardly mayor or doting mother, their descriptor is their single role in the film dictating motivation and behaviour. They always appear obvious and trite, and the complexity of the relationships which worked so well in the first is completely absent; interactions that do take place feel amateurish, inauthentic and far too like that of a bad soap-opera.
This convenience and lack of complexity spills out into the narrative too with a story obvious from the get go lacking any confidence to be original or imaginative. Scenes that seemingly worked before are stolen and shoe-horned in and de Ossorio who has now obviously taken notice of Romero's Night of the Living Dead which came out just before or around the time Tombs was getting going, obviously desperate for material has lifted the siege of the farm house straight out without trying to hide it. It's all forced, pedestrian and uninspired.
One of the reasons the dead knights worked in Tombs was the tight claustrophobic nature of the film meant, if we're honest, that they weren't in shot a great deal and when they were there was plenty of shadow to hide them. On paper bringing the story out of the ruins and into the town has plenty to go for it but unfortunately the bright lights of the bustling town don't do the animatronics any favours.
The undead Templers always appear in one of two states. They're costumed actors, dark, menacing, lifelike and quite effective as they ride horses and throw swords about. The problem is, de Ossario is quite fond of their second form of appearance; that of quite shockingly bad and obvious wooden skeletal puppets. The main problems come, not from their wooden behaviour and appearance, though this is bad, but from moving back and forth between these and the actors often in quick succession. One minute Marlowe is fighting for his life in the market square against a well costumed foe, the next he throws some fireworks at an obvious effigy a quarter the width and depth which topples over like a scarecrow. It's jarring and so obvious to be almost insulting that the audience is supposed to not notice or care.
It's not all bad though. I won't spoil it but many of the unlikeable characters meet their end in full b-movie blood spurting glory and it flows generally quite well. Somehow de Ossorio has also managed to maintain a kind of cohesiveness, albeit with many quite questionable narrative decisions meaning you do have to suspend disbelief fairly regularly for the film to retain any credibility and not come off as an excruciating and mediocre farce. The actors do a pretty competent job too, filling the scenes between the carnage with contrived small talk, but with such average material they were never going to be in a position where they could shine.
Return of the Evil Dead isn't a bad film, it's just not that good, its fault amplified by comparison to the brilliance of its predecessor. Languid and all too obvious and easy, the film fails in all ways to rise above average and mundane, and I'm really not sure why de Ossorio didn't just make a proper sequel following the events of the first. Return of the Evil Dead fails when compared to its predecessor in every way and the lazy manner in which it's all been put together quite nearly pushes it into full bad b-movie territory. A confusing missed opportunity and all quite the disappointment, 4/10.
I was also a little unhappy in this Blue Underground transfer, especially as I came at it with high expectations after the masterful crisp and clean Tombs of the Blind Dead. I watched the uncut Spanish version included on the disc which runs about four minutes longer than the original English dub but found the picture quality quite severely lacking and several scenes had quite unnecessarily camera shake.