Monday, July 2, 2012

A Frank Review of "Return of the Living Dead Part II" (1988)

The Short Version? Return of the Living Dead Actors who should have stopped after one.
What Is It? "Horror-Comedy"
Who Is In It? Embarrassed people.
Should I See It? Not really.

After getting improved digital cable service with all the premium channels, I'm actually bothering to watch TV again after over a decade of almost exclusively relying on DVDs for home viewing. There's better than a thousand different channels on this thing, although my interest is limited to a couple dozen or so, and it made me wonder if Bruce Springsteen ever updates his song in concert to "Fifty-Seven-Hundred Channels (And Nothin' On.)" It occurred to me that I'm now old enough to talk to kids about the olden days when Houston had three broadcast networks, two local channels, and Public Television. UHF of course had limited funds that they wanted to get the most out of, and horror was big with adolescents in the '80s, so the first two Return of the Living Dead movies ran so often that I couldn't tell them apart after having skipped revisiting either flick for the whole of the nineties and most of the aughts. I bought the first film a few years ago, and it turned out to exceed my best hopes for its holding up after all these years. My memories of its first sequel remained cloudy though, so I was glad to have the chance to record a 3 a.m. broadcast with this newfangled cable box I'm seriously impressed with.

As with the first film, some guys are playing around with a barrel of Trioxin, a chemical developed by the U.S. Army that can reanimate the dead. This time though, they're kids, so it's kind of fucked up when they turn into brain-eating zombies and kill their parents. One of the kids, Jesse, recognized how crazy stupid the others were, and immediately tried to warn the authorities about what was going on. I suppose in an attempt to avoid Annoying Child Protagonist Syndrome, the filmmakers made Jesse the smartest and most capable person in the whole movie. The side effect is that everyone else comes off as a histrionic moron, which isn't quite what I'd call entertainment. It doesn't help that Jesse is an especially precocious prototype for Carl from The Walking Dead, managing to get into all sorts of trouble despite having some brains worth munching on.

Actors James Karen and Thom Mathews return for the sequel, but as slightly different characters who end up doing almost the exact same thing in a slightly different way. Their predicament in the first movie was unusual and handled relatively well, but it played itself out thoroughly. By putting the same actors through the same paces, they're extremely irritating in this iteration. Where James Karen was once like Leslie Nielsen in Airplane!, a serious actor turning in an impressive one-off comedic performance, here's he's like Leslie Nielsen in the toilet bowl of his '90s output, mugging pathetically for a paycheck. Where James Karen was the dumb young dude trying to make a decent living in a crappy field who caught a bad break, here he's a spineless dumbass talked into deeply unethical and outright criminal activity who deserves to be punished for his acting as much as his actions. They are not helped by Suzanne Snyder, the actress in the girlfriend role this time, as she screams most of her lines. Philip Bruns plays Doc Mandel, one of the few sources of effective comic relief, but he plays the whole flick like a sitcom. Acting too hard is a problem that plagued this production.

Michael Kenworthy is decent enough as Jesse, but none of the child actors in this movie were going to quite reach the bar set by Jake Lloyd. Marsha Dietlein is exactly what you'd expect from the bossy big sister in an '80s b-movie. Dana Ashbrook, best known as Bobby Briggs from Twin Peaks, is a blank slate as the movie's secondary hero (after the kid.) Where the first film's heroes were an iconic collaboration between young punk rockers and wily older conservatives with rugged film credentials, here we have massively underwhelming child non-actors, bland off-brand TV fare teens, and a doddering old fool. The result plays more like a cheap, poorly executed knock-off than a direct sequel.

I can often look at movies like this with rose-colored glasses thanks to a combination of nostalgia and a taste for idiosyncrasy. One of these days, I'll have to write a lengthy review about why I love the first Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel more than the original film, the suggestion alone liable to make some gore geeks erupt into spontaneous nose bleeds. That just won't fly with Return of the Living Dead Part II, though. I saw the flick back in the early days of my really delving into the world of horror movies, and by mingling its juices with the original, my memories of this feature were much too kind. This movie is like Bizarro Return, a distorted, retarded recreation that delivers dismissive groans where there were once laughs, clunky effects, a lame soundtrack, and watered down afternoon special "horror" in place of one of the most delightfully nihilistic works of the genre. It isn't even terrible enough to deserve infamy. It is entirely serviceable as a stale popcorn flick, even as it lowers your standards so thoroughly as franchise viewing that the third one and even Necropolis look comparatively courageous. Aside from inspiring Braindead to later offer a fantastic riff on one good but undercooked gag, there's simply no new ideas offered here. It's just a lot of dumb retreading and constant reminders that there's no good reason why you're not watching the superior, sturdy, and all too similar original.

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