Film Title: Return of the Living Dead Part II
Release Date: 1988
Runtime: 89 minutes
Region Coding: Region A
Studio: Scream Factory / Warner
Audio Format(s): DTS-HD Master Audio Stereo
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Formats Available: Blu-ray
Versions Available: Blu-ray Disc
Release Date: 8/14/18
Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Cast: James Karen, Thom Mathews, Thor Van Lingen, Jason Hogan, Michael Kenworthy, Suzanne Snyder, Marsha Dietlein
“Return of the Living Dead Part II” is technically a sequel to “The Return of the Living Dead“ (1985), but this movie is not connected to that film really at all, aside from also featuring toxic gas canisters that cause zombies and two of the same actors from the first film. James Karen and Thom Mathews appear in both the original film and this sequel. However, both actors play two completely different characters in the sequel, that in no way carry over from their characters in the first film. Also worth noting, the director of the first (original) film Dan O’Bannon had no involvement with this sequel. O’Bannon had other things to do, I’m sure, like write the screenplay adaptation of “Total Recall” (1990). In fact, in regards to writing credits, he’s not even credited for his original characters (like he was for the first “Alien” film, and its sequels). The writing (as mentioned) here was totally credited to this sequel’s director (Ken Wiederhorn). The writer / director (Wiederhorn) is known for directing some horror films like “Shock Waves“ (1977), “Eyes of a Stranger“ (1981), and “Dark Tower“ (1989).
Important Note to the Fans: the opening narration found in the 2005 DVD release has been removed in this Blu-ray release. Not sure why. I noticed this while doing visual and audio comparisons. It could be because the mention of “Trioxin” from the first film, and it was since removed for legal reasons? No clue, or mention in the bonus materials about it. The first film was done at an entirely different studio, so that could also have something to do with why the narration mentioning something from the first film could have caused legal issues. Just worth noting, especially for fans who have seen it this way before. I know it felt a bit weird starting out without hearing narration, however I think it works just as good, if not is perhaps better this way. Now, on with the review.
As the film starts up, we see a military convoy on its way somewhere, and in a hurry. Eventually, after showing the vehicles in route, we get to see a driver of one of the trucks. The driver seems really miles away, listening to music on headphones. It’s when he sparks up a joint, when he passes it to a person sitting in the passenger seat, that we can tell this guy is not probably the best choice of someone to be operating heavy machinery, let alone in our military. He’s rocking out to music on headphones while his poor friend is just sitting in silence, yet he shares his joint? Plus the factors of road conditions don’t make things any better. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that there (as we see) are some toxic gas canisters sitting on the back of the truck, rumbling around, almost already about to fall out of the back. It’s when the driver hits a bump a little too hard that a good amount of the canisters go tumbling right out the back of the military cargo truck, and find their way off into a small town to reek havoc and awake the dead. Anyone who saw the original film will remember that those toxic gas canisters are the key plot similarity here, and what cause the dead to rise, giving us zombies.
In a small town of Westvale, California is where those toxic gas canisters ended up landing. The residents are sure in for a surprise, as you soon get to witness. One of the main characters in the film is a young boy named “Jesse Wilson” (Michael Kenworthy). Jesse doesn’t seem to have many (if perhaps any) friends, and is handing over a precious comic book to a couple of bullies in the housing development that he lives in. The two bullies, “Billy” (Thor Van Lingen) and “Johnny” (Jason Hogan), think the comic isn’t enough to leave poor Jesse alone. Instead the alpha bully here, Billy, decides that Jesse must come with them to the graveyard to visit a crypt. That doesn’t go as planned, but the three kids manage along the way to discover a toxic gas canister. Yes, one of those that fell off the military truck in the beginning of the film. They don’t open it at first, but leave it to young boys to find a way to kick a hornet’s nest so-to-speak and get the whole town infested with zombies.
Meanwhile we get to see two familiar faces to the “Return of the Living Dead” film franchise in two totally different characters as our other set of main players in this. An older gentleman named “Ed” (James Karen) awaits anxiously, as he has taken his employee “Joey” (Thom Mathews) with him on a venture into the graveyard to do what he refers to as “grave digging” – while others would refer to it simply as grave robbing. Joining them along the way, or rather waiting back at the van, is Joey’s girlfriend “Brenda” (Suzanne Snyder), a vivacious redhead, who has some real moral dilemmas with what her boyfriend is doing for work.
Back to our younger main player and his side of things going on. Jesse is staying at home while his parents are away, as we can tell, and is being babysit by his older teenage sister “Lucy” (Marsha Dietlein). Lucy seems a bit more interested in doing her aerobics and later flirting with the cable guy “Tom” (Dana Ashbrook). As the young boy’s sister and the cable guy flirt Jesse sneaks back out to where he an the bullies found the gas canister, only to find something pretty disturbing – at least to him, anyway. The dreaded “Tarman“, as he’s referred to, makes an appearance at this point, and practically scares poor little Jesse almost to death. He runs off, covered in mud (as it starts to rain) and rushes home, frightened.
It’s really only around like twenty minutes in where things really start to get a tad weird. The zombies rise, “SPOILER ALERT“, as I’m sure no one expected that to happen. What we get for the next couple of minutes is nothing short of a rip-off of the John Landis directed music video for “Thriller” by Michael Jackson – minus the cooler looking zombies, dancing, vocals and such. Instead we get laughable zombies and extra cheesy late eighties synth rock, and not even the cool kind. Michael Jackson fans will want to remember this moment, though, as they’ll get a nice short “Thriller” themed joke later on in the film. This movie, in all honesty, is totally something that MST3K needs to riff on, now that it has returned, much like the reanimated corpses in this – as both prove to be downright hilarious, and a blast to watch. The zombies here and their silly nature are really the thing that turn a lot of horror fans away from this sequel over the original. The make-up and special effects are just not as realistic, perhaps on purpose as it was unapologetically a comedy and a horror film – with more emphasis on comedy.
It’s no offense to their work and effort put forth here on the make-up and special effects to say this, as some of the same folks actually worked on this, but it pales in comparison to what the original film did just three years before this in 1985. That film seemed more realistic with its gore and not so much almost coming across as appearing cartoony, in a goofy looking manner that you cannot take seriously. Sure, the movie was going for laughs, just like the original film did, but this falls short in achieving so much the laughs from its jokes as it does in reality from its laughable effects.
These effects? They’re just silly, only a kid could perhaps have taken them seriously enough to ever have been really frightened by them. Having grown up seeing this first as a teenager, I never found it to be believable (even at that age), as much as I found it to be just campy and hysterical in nature. The movie’s overall plot is not too much different in comparison to the original film. It’s just that the original film was genuinely realistic in its horror gore, and was a lot funnier when it wanted to be; whereas here, the gore is what actually turns out to be usually what will provoke the most laughter in its comical nature. The slapstick approach just doesn’t work here, as the first film relied on believable scary zombies and the occasional laughs.
“Return of the Living Dead Part II” is, as a horror fan, what I find to be a guilty pleasure of sorts. It’s a film where they focused too much on comedy gags and the zombies almost seemed animated, as even the folks who worked on the special make-up effects agreed. It all really boiled down to the fact that the writer / director that was given the task, of doing this sequel to what would be a horror franchise, and decided to take “a different approach” with more “slapstick” and emphasis on being a comedy first and foremost. In process of doing that it feels he ended up making horror only ride shotgun so-to-speak to help his gags and jokes. The man pretty much hates the horror genre, yet he started out making horror movies? Weird.
Even during the making of this movie the crew working on special make-up effects seemed to get a bit upset with the amount of gags, and questioned the direction of the film in comparison to the original. It’s because Kenny Myers (Special Make-up Effects) not only had the task of working on this sequel, but also worked on the original film. Check his IMDb, and you’ll understand why he might have been upset with the filmmaker, and his direction he was taking the film. That’s actually something I’ve learned more about in the newly created bonus materials for this movie, which prove the be very worthwhile. More on the bonus materials further down in the review.
Movie Rating: 3 (out of 5)
According to the technical specifications on IMDb “Return of the Living Dead Part II” was shot on 35MM film using the Arriflex 35 Bl camera. The movie is presented in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, as it was originally intended – unlike the previous DVD release from 2005. Scream Factory touts this high def presentation comes from a new 2K scan of the interpositive. More details on that a bit later in the video quality section. First, let’s discuss the actual quality itself.
From the very opening title sequence, you’ll notice a definite amount of film grain visibly present. There is a definite newfound amount of detail here now in its Blu-ray debut, especially in comparison to DVD. It’s a very solid video transfer and HD presentation. The folks at Motion Picture Imaging (at Warner) made sure that they did not overly clean this up. It has that healthy amount of film grain to it for sure, with sharper detail than before, although a still bit soft because that’s how films were in the eighties. Seriously, a lot of films in the 1980s shot on 35MM even on bigger budgets came across a tad bit soft, mostly due to film grain, which is a good thing.
In regards to them not overly cleaning this up in the restoration: they’ve actually left some occasional spots, dirt, tiny scratches, hairs and such to give it that rough eighties slightly gritty visual style. It works and delivers a very nice visual presentation, one that fans of the film will find to be a definite improvement over the DVD. If it’s your first time seeing the film, you’ll have the pleasure of seeing it at the best video quality that it has ever been available in. Scream Factory really has done a nice job here on this movie visually, proving to do the film justice. In fact, below you can find some screenshot comparisons I’ve done using the original 2005 DVD release of the film and this new (2018) Blu-ray Disc release.
DVD vs Blu-ray Screenshot Comparisons:
In comparison to the original 2005 DVD (released by Warner), this obviously is in the correct aspect ratio (1.85:1) unlike that DVD, which was presented in an incorrect (1.78:1) aspect ratio, entirely filling the screen. Colors seem to have been adjusted nicely by Fotokem, appearing more vibrant and accurate. That previous DVD release just seemed dull in comparison now to this new Blu-ray. The black level is solid here, unlike the previous standard definition release. The improvements to color have also helped on making flesh tones appear a bit more accurate than before. It visibly has more film grain present in comparison to the DVD. It just seems brightened up slightly – in a good way, in terms of color, especially red. Close-up shots now show a definite newfound amount of detail that you never saw so much, in this clarity, on the DVD.
This looks really good in high def for a late 80s horror / comedy film shot on 35MM film stock. Job well done to the folks at Warner’s Motion Picture Imaging for their work on this new transfer, Fotokem for the coloring, and to Duplitech for the restoration.
Video Quality Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Audio here is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo. According to the technical specifications listing on IMDb, this film was originally presented in Ultra Stereo during its theatrical run. If you remember, or research, you’ll know (or find out) that Ultra Stereo was designed to be compatible with Dolby Stereo and systems.
So, it really comes as no surprise we that do not get a surround mix here. In hindsight, the previous DVD I owned of this movie also only contained stereo, and it was adequate even in those days. Stereo still proves to work, and do the film justice here, in this lossless 2.0 mix.
Some folks might be a little worried that this release is on Blu-ray but is not in surround, but rest assured it does get the job done here in just a Stereo configuration. The dialogue is delivered distinctly spot on throughout. The original music (composed by J. Peter Robinson) can get a slight bit intense, as can the sound effects as well, on more than a few occasions. None of the action or music, though ever drown out any of the movie’s dialogue. You’ll pick a volume and stick with it here, and end up finding no need for adjustments.
If you’re looking for a bit more bass on this audio presentation (via your subwoofer), I’d suggest you try an audio setting to achieve a 2.1 or 3.1 up mix on your AVR (Audio Video Receiver). Most all receivers offer this type of listening option, just check your remote or manual (if need be). Personally, I don’t think you’ll have to do that unless you just like more bass. It certainly adds a bit more to it, having sampled a good twenty minutes of the film with that setting turned on my AVR (after my first viewing). Still, that said, the 2 channel mix works just fine for me, containing a nice amount of bass at times during the action or when the music gets a tad more intense. It’s worth noting the use of songs in the film, especially a song by Robert Palmer [“Bad Case of Loving You (Doctor, Doctor)”], proves to not only be fitting for the movie, but also sounds pretty good (even if only shortly and quietly used) here in the lossless Stereo mix. The same can be said for the original music and other songs used throughout the movie, they sound good, and are fitting for the film.
My only complaint is at times were was a little bit of hiss still present in the audio, but it’s not really too bothersome, plus it is a major improvement over the audio found on the original DVD. Overall the audio quality here is just as like the video quality, solid and something to be pleased with, especially for fans.
Audio Quality Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Bonus materials, all feature Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo sound (@192kbps), unless otherwise noted below, on this release. The bonus materials included are listed below.
- NEW Audio Commentary with Actress Suzanne Snyder (“Brenda“)
- NEW Audio Commentary with Gary Smart (Co-Author of “The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead“) and Filmmaker Christopher Griffiths
- NEW Featurette “Back to the Dead: The Effects of Return of the Living Dead Part II” (25:01 – HD) includes interviews with the guys behind the zombies here: Kenny Myers (Special Make-up Effects Creator), Andy Schoneberg (Special Make-up Effects Artist), and Mike Smithson (Special Make-up Effects Artist). Keep in mind they, Kenny especially, didn’t totally see eye-to-eye with the filmmaker on this choice to focus more on going for comedy. These interviews prove to be very, very informative and are worth the watch for the fans.
- NEW Featurette “The Laughing Dead” (19:22 – HD) gives you a new interview with the writer / director of the film, Ken Wierderhorn, defending his choice to make this a “slapstick” film. No offense to him at all here, but, Ken makes a statement in this interview saying that horror and comedy can’t mix. Perhaps someone should show him “Shaun of the Dead“ and maybe like every horror / comedy hybrid film to be released ever since that? It’s became a huge genre, not sub-genre. This proves to be informative, much like the previously mentioned featurette, but you’ll probably end up siding with the guys above and not the filmmaker here. He seemed to want to make his own choice, and he still sticks by it to this day.
- NEW Featurette “Undead Melodies” (12:48 – HD) has an interview with the (replacement) Musical Composer J. Peter Robinson. He talks about his career up until this movie, and reminisces a bit about his work on this particular project. Even he mentions that this film had some drama surrounding the choices in direction to take with a sequel. Very interesting, and informative.
- NEW Featurette “Interview with Actor Troy Fromin” (2:10 – HD) a.k.a. the guy who played the joint smoking military truck driver. Here we get to hear from the guy who caused everything in the beginning scenes of the film, and hear how he got the gig as an extra.
- Audio Commentary with Writer / Director Ken Wiederhorn and Co-star Thor Van Lingen – was featured on the 2005 DVD. This is not new, but is nice to see carried over to the Blu-ray release, especially in its debut to the format.
- “They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at Return of the Living Dead II” (29:45 – HD) uses the film by its otherwise shorter and the IMDb preferred title. It’s also not a completely new featurette, however it is the first time it’s been on a home video release of this film. This has been taken from a documentary called “More Brains! A Return to the Living Dead“ by Michael Perez Entertainment released back in 2011. This includes interviews with cast members James Karen, Thom Mathews, Suzanne Snyder, and Michael Kenworthy, as well as Special Make-up Effects crew member Kenny Myers, and countless others involved in the franchise. This certainly proves to be worth the watch for those who never saw that documentary.
- Archival Featurette – “Live from the Set” (5:35 – HD) is pretty self-explanatory by the title, no? Well not totally. It was an original promotional video made for the studio to be released and build hype up about a sequel being in the works. This included some on-the-set footage and interviews with folks like the Writer / Director (Ken Wiederhorn), as well as actors James Karen (“Ed“) and Thom Mathews (“Joey“).
- Archival Interviews (2:36 – HD) are included with filmmaker Ken Wierderhorn, actors James Karen and Thom Mathews, and Special Make-up Effects crew member Kenny Myers.
- “Behind the Scenes Footage” (4:14 – HD)
- Teaser Trailer (1:44 – HD) is presented in a 4×3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio.
- Theatrical Trailer (1:41 – HD) is presented in a 16×9 (1.78:1) aspect ratio.
- TV Spots (2:10 – HD) are presented in a 4×3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio.
- Still Gallery of Posters and Stills (1:46 – HD) will play on its own.
- Still Gallery of Behind-the-Scenes Stills from Special Make-up Effects Artists Kenny Myers and Mike Smithson (5:59 – HD) aslo, will play on its own.
This “Collector’s Edition” Blu-ray Disc release includes newly rendered artwork and collectible slipcover (pictured below). The release also includes reversible cover wrap artwork, to match the original poster and DVD art (also pictured below).
Overall, there’s a good deal of NEW bonus materials to be found here, that all prove to be very much worth the watch and very informative. It’s no surprise that the folks at Scream Factory (Shout! Factory) have finally done this film justice in terms of supplemental material. Added up, I get roughly about 90 minutes of video featurettes, and you get 3 audio commentaries, two of which are all-new. That’s what I’d call a pretty solid set of bonus content for a ‘catalog’ title. This distributor and their collaboration with Red Shirt Pictures and such always leads to some amazing featurettes, stuff way better than we ever saw on previous DVD or Studio direct releases of films.
Bonus Materials Rating: 3.5 (out of 5)
“Return of the Living Dead Part II“ proves to be what I’d call “Silly Horror” not so much as a real horror / comedy film. Those type of films are all over the place now and even can be looked at with something like “Shaun of the Dead“ that was a comedy and also featured zombies, who seemed way more believable – I certainly might add. By the way, for the record, I’m in no way comparing those films aside from the mentioned similarities.
Still, as I said a bit above, as a horror fan, “Return of the Living Dead Part II“ admittedly remains one of my guilty little pleasures, that I like to watch for a good laugh on occasion. It’s very nice to see that the folks at Scream Factory have finally done this justice in its debut to Blu-ray Disc, in a “Collector’s Edition” form too. That’s a bold choice and one I’m glad they made. The amount of new bonus materials will also leave anyone who previously owned this excited. If you’re seeing this for the first time, you’ll finally get the bonus materials there should have always been, much like the video / audio presentation found here.
In terms of Blu-ray release, this gets:
4 (out of 5) for video quality
4 (out of 5) for audio quality
3.5 (out of 5) for bonus materials