Crimson Quill’s Appraisal #417
Number of Views: Three
Release Date: January 15, 1988
Sub-Genre: Zombie Horror/Comedy
Country of Origin: United States
Box Office: $9,205,924 (USA)
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Producers: Eugene C. Cashman, Tom Fox, William S. Gilmore
Screenplay: Ken Wiederhorn
Special Effects: Kenny Myers
Cinematography: Robert Elswit
Score: J. Peter Robinson
Editing: Charles Bornstein
Distributors: Lorimar Pictures, Warner Bros.
Stars: James Karen, Thom Mathews, Dana Ashbrook, Marsha Dietlein, Phil Bruns, Michael Kenworthy, Michael Kenworthy, Thor Van Lingen, Jason Hogan, Suzanne Snyder, Hanala Sagal, Jonathan Terry, Sally Smythe, Allan Trautman, Don Maxwell, Reynold Cindrich, Mitch Pileggi, Art Bonilla, Terrence Riggins
Suggested Audio Candy
 Joe Lamont “Flesh to Flesh”
 J. Peter Robinson “Trioxin Theme”
Dan O’Bannon’s riotous classic Return of The Living Dead was a simply glorious film. If I was asked for my ten favorite eighties horror films then it would be one of the first movies to make that list and without so much as a second thought. While O’Bannon sent up Romero’s zombie template, and did so with tongue firmly planted in its cheek at all times, it never once veered into the ridiculous and found the correct balance between knowing humor and outright horror. It was a tough act to follow for damned sure but nobody could be prepared for just how much it would vacate its tracks when, three years later, the conspicuous sequel arrived.
Directed by Ken Wiederhorn (Shock Waves, Eyes of a Stranger), it would have appeared to have been in fairly safe hands. However, Wiederhorn was tiring of being typecast as a horror film-maker and had lost interest in the genre. Thus, by the time Return of The Living Dead II surfaced, he had lost the support of his cast and many of his cast and crew turned against him, citing his indifference to the project as the chief factor why his sequel fell so flat. Thom Mathews, in particular, was incensed by his lackluster approach and publicly vilified his efforts. It effectively ended his career and the offers dried up from that point onward.
As well as ruffling the feathers of those involved, the director also managed to upset hordes of movie-goers who had taken the original to their hearts and, while his sequel just about turned a profit, it left a bitter taste with critics and audiences alike. While Brian Yuzna attempted to steer the vessel back on course with the quietly impressive Return of The Living Dead III, it was direct-to-video fodder and the ship had evidently sailed by that point. It would appear that there are many reasons to hate on Wiederhorn’s misguided entry and, indeed, that is exactly what has transpired. However, for as much as it failed to bring anything new to the table, on its own merits it isn’t quite the stinker that folk regard it to be.
I’m treading on thin ice here and wish to make it abundantly clear that, whilst not wishing to kick a dog in peril, I won’t be sucking its dick tassels either. The subversive approach applied by O’Bannon for the original was replaced by far broader comedy and it missed the beat somewhat embarrassingly with its knockabout antics and misfiring humor. In addition, it borrowed shamelessly from the original template, to the point where certain characters returned to the fray to essentially retread their steps, albeit without any of the subtlety of the previous effort. It also employed a child actor in one of its key roles and, had it not been for one reasonably grisly dispatch, Wiederhorn’s film may well have secured a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. You can see why rabid fans were up in arms.
Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II did a similar thing by focusing on the slapstick comedy hinted at by its predecessor and playing largely for laughs but, where that managed to strike a balance and still succeeded in sickening its addressees with ladled on grue, this was largely neutered and came across as inane. Mathews and fellow stiff James Karen reprised their bumbling roles from the original and were put through their identical paces a second time. Familiarity isn’t always a good thing and it was left to Philip Bruns as Doc Mandel to single-handedly provide us with a slither hope, courtesy of a brilliant turn which deserved a better vehicle than was provided.
The set-up was strikingly similar but the insular trappings of the graveyard were replaced by a more wide-reaching Trioxin epidemic which saw the entire town become infected, leaving a gaggle of inept survivors to bicker their way through any ensuing pratfall. Pratfall was the operative word here and Wiederhorn threw everything into the mix in a vein hope that something would stick. It didn’t; that loose-lipped female corpse from the mortuary slab in the original may have been a tad too communicative for some but here the damned zombies just wouldn’t shut the hell up and even resorted to flicking the bird and asking politely for screwdrivers to be removed from their craniums. I’m sure on some planet this was amusing but Wiederhorn took the intel that Earth Girls Are Easy a tad too literally, culminating in a Michael Jackson impersonator moonwalking across our rapidly numbing senses and sealing its fate.
Despite its many shortcomings and special effects which were decidedly less effective on a larger budget, I still find it hard to discount this film entirely. Mathews and Karen, while utterly caricature, were still good value-for-money, and there was no end of incident to keep us from misplacing our own pulses as regularly appeared likely. In the history of sequels, Return of The Living Dead II didn’t fare particularly well and the enigmatic original must have been ruing the fact that it could still turn in its grave. But, as 89 minutes of harmless junk, it was never less than watchable, even though we did so largely through gritted teeth. 6/10 may seem a touch easy-going but I would urge any fans of O’Bannon’s horror/comedy classic to read between the lines on this occasion.
Crimson Quill’s Judgement: 6/10
Grue Factor: 2/5
For the Grue-Guzzlers: Gone was the gruesome gore of the original and, in its place, were Tom and Jerry sensibilities which was perhaps its most heinous crime. When you consider the premise which opened it up to a smorgasbord of grisly options, the decision to relieve it of splatter was a downright miscalculation if you ask Keeper. Even the Tar Man, so effectual first time round, couldn’t seem to find a decent meal amongst the shenanigans.
Read Return of The Living Dead Appraisal
Read Return of The Living Dead III Appraisal
Richard Charles Stevens
Keeper of The Crimson Quill
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