With RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, Dan O’Bannon created one of the best zombie movies of the 1980s, with sharp writing and frenetic direction, a black comedy with one wicked sense of humor. As often happens with horror sequels, O’Bannon had no involvement in the next entry of the franchise, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II. In his place, Ken Wiederhorn would both write and direct. To the regret of fans of the first film, Wiederhorn’s end product is a much lighter piece that strives for broad comedy at the expense of horror. The resulting film is almost unwatchable.
PART II begins with a truck accidentally dropping a barrel of the first film’s zombie reagent Trioxin off the back of his truck. When two bullies chase neighborhood child Jesse into a huge drainage pie, the three discover the barrel. Of course, one of them ends up opening it, and there’s a zombie problem. But there are plenty of problems for the viewers as well.
A list of the protagonists is the first indication of trouble: 10 year old Jesse, his annoying, aerobicizing sister, a young cable guy who’s got the hots for her, and a drunk doctor. Why Wiederhorn decided to go with this group is beyond me, but it doesn’t work. James Karen and Thom Mathews return for the sequel, and given their great interplay in the first film, this could have provided great comedic possibilities, if they were playing the same characters. In this film, they play two bumbling grave robbers who occasionally spout lines of dialogue from the first film. Bad enough that this attempt to establish a link between the two movies serves only to confuse, but it’s worse that the two men just aren’t funny here. That’s not their fault, though. No, the blame falls squarely on Wiederhorn. His script forces them to replay their fates from the first film, all the while feeding them dialogue that is uninspired and just not funny. Even the inclusion of cutie Suzanne Snyder from WEIRD SCIENCE can’t save the flick.
In fact, Wiederhorn’s major sin is how he relies so much on broad comedy, and does nothing to horrify. O’Bannon’s script is loaded with humor, but it’s black comedy; it goes for laughs, yet the film remains dark, and frightening underneath the guffaws. Wiederhorn seems to forget that his film is a horror movie at all. He relies instead on a slew of lame elements, such as the doctor’s constant search for his drink, a dancing zombie dressed up as Michael Jackson from the “Thriller” video, and a zombie head that bites fingers, then cracks bad jokes. If any of the film’s material were actually funny, it might have had a chance at being a decent film. As it stands, with every joke falling flat, the film fails not only as a sequel to O’Bannon’s far superior work, but as a horror film in general.
Wiederhorn acknowledges the inherent problems of the film’s comedy in the disc’s major special feature, an audio commentary. This track doesn’t function so well, as Wiederhorn and its other participant, Thor van Lingen, were recorded separately. Though his part in the film is small, van Lingen probably speaks for about 3/4 of it. His comments bear no relation to Wiederhorn’s end of the discussion at all, so the whole affair is disjointed. Sure, it delivers the occasional good nugget, such as how van Lingen got the role, and how the director developed the script for a writing course (it was originally unrelated to O’Bannon’s movie, until the producer had him change it into a sequel). But the schizophrenic approach leads to a lack of coherence. I would have preferred it had the two men recorded it together.
The most interesting thing about the whole RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II disc is the music. Vast chunks of the score have been replaced with alternate tracks, much to Wiederhorn’s confusion and displeasure. But that’s only on the English language track; watch the film in French, and you get the original music (and aren’t you upset that Thor van Lingen doesn’t do a French commentary?).
If Dan O’Bannon had directed a sequel to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, I can guarantee it would’ve been intelligent, dark, humorous, and entertaining. Left instead with Ken Wiederhorn’s broad zombie comedy, PART II is a slapstick waste of celluloid. Do yourself a favor and stick with the original.