It’s October, which means that the shops have quickly been filled up with everything Halloween related. It’s been that way since the middle of September in most places so it’s no wonder I’m starting to think that it’s closer than it actually is. It’s no doubt the reason that I was really excited for this week’s TBT film. In order to get into the spirit of the whole thing I decided to marathon the first and second films in the Return of the Living Dead series. I’ve never seen the second one before but the first is such an iconic comedy horror film that I figured it probably had some positives. After all, Return of the Living Dead was the first film to introduce audiences to the idea of zombies looking for tasty tasty “BRAAAAIIINS” instead of just eating the whole human. It was a funny, silly, and utterly camp horror film full of slightly dodgy special effects that has, rightly, become a classic. So, you’d expect there to be a little something to get excited about with a sequel. Although, let’s be honest, horror sequels aren’t exactly the greatest of films. With the exception of the Leprechaun series which only got better with every films, most horror franchises rapidly decline after the first one.
I guess Return of the Living Dead Part II had a lot to live up to after the first one. Which is probably why it’s basically just a carbon copy. A fact that is only made more obvious by having both James Karen and Thom Mathews return to play the same roles as they did in the first one but with different names. In the first one, the pair play two guys working at a medical supply warehouse. They come across a mysterious canister lost by the US army that hides a zombie and the toxic gas that brings the dead back to life. Being on the front line causes both men to be poisoned by the gas before turning into zombies themselves. The pair both die before the credits role. Karen’s character choses to kill himself before he can kill whilst Mathews tries to eat his girlfriend’s brain before being blown up with everyone else.
But, cut to 3 years later and the pair have been brought back to life with different names and occupations. This time they are grave robbers who happen to be stuck in a mausoleum when the undead start to rise. At least this time they aren’t responsible for releasing the deadly gas. This honour goes to a trio of young boys who stumble across the canister in a sewer pipe. They are, however, first in line to get a poisoning along with one of the boys so, once again, it seems that their fate is sealed. The rest of the story follows along quite similarly to the first film. After a montage of dead bodies digging their way out of their graves and feasting on brains, our heroes must defend themselves and try to find help.
The great joy of the first film was its lightness and silliness. It managed to bring about a great balance of humour and terror without losing its way. It seemed effortless. It’s successor strives for the same level of fun but never manages it. There are some attempts at self-aware humour that never quite land. A joke about Karen and Mathews’ characters feeling like they’ve been through this before doesn’t land as well as it should have. In the end, this joke needed to work in prevent it seeming odd that both actors reappear in this film. The fact that it doesn’t strongly highlights the weirdness at the heart of this film. It’s something you can’t escape and means it never feels as easy and effortless as the first.
But there is still some greatness to this film. The special effects are still as memorable and disgusting as the first. Although, the zombies themselves have evolved and, for some reason, some have a higher level of intelligence this time around. Some can speak, answer phones, and even drive cars. It’s another strange thing that was obviously intended to increase the threat but it just feels rushed and not thought out. Something this film has in buckets. It’s kind of fun and silly but not in a good way. It’s disjointed, messy, and as simple as possible. It recycles old material but makes it worse. There’s nothing wrong with watching this film but, if you’re in the mood for comedy horror from the 80s, you may as well just watch the first one.