Monday, 16 September 2013

Return of the Living Dead Part II - review

1988 (USA)

Contains mild spoilers.

I argued Return of the Living Dead was the perfect mix of comedy and zombie horror. It was full of farce and jokes, yes, but at heart it was still dark, gory and menacingly thoughtful. My first thought after watching director Ken Wiederhorn's sequel was what happened to the horror? I'd acknowledged the BBFC (15) rating on the box, but still wasn't quite prepared for just how tempered down the production would be and how obvious it would be at targeting the teenage audience. Dialogue is expletive free, make-up, effects and animatronics are comparable to what you'd see on a ghost ride at the carnival, and I could count the number of genuinely gory scenes on one hand; I've even read that it was only the scene from the hospital that stopped it from receiving PG-13 in the US, from the MPAA. In truth I couldn't help but think it had all the atmosphere and pacing of an early Spielberg film, with a cast of feisty children like that of The Goonies crossed with Home Alone, rather than anything Romero or Russo would have put their name too. This isn't to say it's all bad; quite the contrary, but it isn't Return of the Living Dead as we thought we knew it.

The Army are not good at logistics. Yet again they managed to lose a barrel of 245 Trioxin, a military reanimate compound, and yet again they've managed to put something incredibly dangerous in the hands of exactly the sort of people they wanted to avoid. Careless isn't the word. Jesse Wilson (Michael Kenworthy), is our child star. He's been brought to the cemetery for a reluctant initiation into the local gang but changing his mind at the last moment he breaks for it hiding in the best and convenient of traditions, exactly where the barrel is. Searching him out from his hiding spot the two bully-goons that brought Jesse here, do what all good bully-goons do and ignore all the warning signs, tamper with the locks and open up it. Cue green toxic reanimating gas, a close proximity graveyard and mausoleum complete with comedy grave-robbing duo Joey (Thom Mathews) and Ed (James Karen), back to reprieve their roles and lines from the first, and we're off on another ground zero z adventure yet again. Toxic rain falls, the dead pull themselves out of their graves and those caught up start screaming and running for their lives.

For Return of the Living Dead Part II, heritage is serious business. Scenes are lifted, story arches are repeated and the same jokes are retold; though this time it's all done with less emphasis on risqué black humour and more on keeping the Saturday night family-TV crowd entertained. Never is this more obvious that in the Michael Jackson Thriller-esque dead rising from the graves opener and whether it's zombies putting their glasses on, or comically stepping on each one-another's heads, it's slap-stick comedy central and I honestly don't think I'd have much problem letting my eight year watching it all.

This humour and desire to present itself as a teen-comedy and not a controversial horror is pervasive. The undead are well made up and even more over the top than those of its predecessor, but it's all so over the top it becomes comic-book and a bit goofy. There are a few sinking the teeth in scenes, with blood and gratuitous, if fleeting, gore, but they almost feel out of place and a bit too staged; even the zombies low resonating guttural call for brainssss has been replaced with higher pitched more jovial utterances as it was all a tad too dark.

The zombies do start off slow, shuffling and true to tradition but the narrative soon tires of this letting them run about, talk, smell and even drive 4 by 4s out scouting the streets for brains. It's stupid and a farce but it works with a narrative that never tries to be anything above banal or quite frankly average. Return of the Living Dead Part II as said, likes to play constant respect and homage to its origin and the undead are still total reanimates capable of being shot in the head and decapitated with severed limbs allowed to scurry about in true Evil Dead tradition, and the only way to destroy them for good is fire (and now electricity). This self referral, and cross film coherence is all good but for some reason Wiederhorn felt the need to go further, pulling out many of iconic narrative sequences, spitting them back almost verbatim and sanitised. All the edginess that made them what they were is missing and this, as stated epitomises the films problems.

As a light airy family horror comedy Return of the Living Dead Part II isn't so bad. The humour is goofy, the story reasonably coherent and it's all presented in an exaggerated harmless way that's constantly pleasing to the eye. The problem is, I didn't want a sequel so tempered. I wanted and expected another gritty horror, comedy farce full of disturbing and shocking ideas and scenes. If you want something you could watch with your kids, albeit with a couple of quick fast-forwards, I can see the appeal, it's just not the sequel I was hoping for. Return of the Living Dead Jnr gets 5/10.


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