The Return of the Living Dead is one of the greatest zombie movies ever made, perfectly blending horror, comedy, and a punk soundtrack with zombies that didn’t follow the Romero rules and forever convinced the masses that zombies need to eat “brains!!!” The original 1985 movie was a box office success as well, making over $14 million during its US theatrical run on a $4 million dollar budget. Being that the ’80s really kicked off the age of horror sequels, it’s no surprise that a sequel to The Return of the Living Dead was greenlit, and while it failed to capture the magic that made the first movie so special, don’t tell that to my younger self in the late ’80s…

Like many ’80s monster kids, my VHS picks were based on cover art at the mom-and-pop video store. Horror art was always fighting for my attention, with the colorful poster art of the Universal Monsters, Fulci’s maggot-eyed zombie, and The Dead Pit’s raised cover always standing out from the pack. Another one to add to the list: Return of the Living Dead Part II’s Trioxin cloud zombie. Not only did it easily stand out against other VHS titles in the horror aisle, but my video store had a one-sheet of it right behind the counter, reminding me to beg my parents to pick it up every time we returned.

Eventually, my pleading paid off, my VHS copy was rented, and I loved Return of the Living Dead Part II. How could I not? It stars a young boy (Michael Kenworthy) who overcomes bullies and saves the day when zombies threaten to take over the world. It felt like a cartoon that was given an R rating and brought to life. I’m still very happy that Ken Wiederhorn made the perfect R-rated horror movie for young me, but unfortunately, that was the problem: very little thought was given to how this would gel with the tone of the original movie and how the sequel would play to adult horror fans.

The horror and gore are dialed down, the slapstick comedy is amped way up, and James Karen and Thom Mathews' return (although they are some of the strongest characters in the movie) is a head scratcher. What you have here are really two separate movies that could never find proper cohesion. You have the producers wanting this to be an R-rated follow-up to the original (with the original cast) and you have Ken Wiederhorn, who isn’t a huge fan of horror (although he did direct Shock Waves and he always could have said “no” to taking this on…), wanting to direct a more family-friendly horror comedy.

During the promotion of the movie, Wiederhorn said that he wanted this series to become the “Police Academy of horror movies,” and I think it could have worked if this were the first movie in a standalone series. But even though most of the people involved with the making of this movie knew it wasn’t going to work, there was either too much momentum or a strong enough voice didn’t speak up until it was too late. Even the zombie effects are a mixed bag, with some great prosthetic and animatronic work, but a complete misstep when it comes to the return of the first movie’s signature zombie, Tarman. It all comes down to a struggle to balance tone, where you can tell that the director isn’t interested in the horror, but it’s clear that he didn’t let anyone else in on it at the time. It’s no more apparent than with the Michael Jackson zombie at the end, which was a last-minute decision that cements this movie as comedy first to the audience.

As I got older and my horror IQ increased, the original Return of the Living Dead became one of my favorite horror movies, and I still appreciate what an incredible and rare accomplishment it was for Dan O'Bannon to pull it off. At the same time, my love for Return of the Living Dead Part II dropped. And it wasn’t all due to the fact that I realized Part II wasn’t nearly as good as the original. Similar to how horror fans rejected the sequel when it was first released, Warner Bros. did the same when they brought the film to DVD, removing much of the original soundtrack and showing no interest in releasing the movie to Blu-ray in recent years. For more than 14 years, this movie didn’t sound right, it didn’t look right, and it dropped off my watch list. That changed when an HD copy of the movie was available on streaming services, including Amazon, which allowed me to enjoy a better picture, BUT Scream Factory is now putting the finishing touches on a Collector’s Edition Blu-ray, which will include a new 2K scan and a restored soundtrack, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been checking my mailbox daily to see if it arrived.

Return of the Living Dead Part II isn’t just something that should have been filmed or edited differently, it’s something that should have never made it past the concept stage, especially when you consider that it's equal parts sequel, quasi-remake, R-rated horror movie, and family-friendly comedy—one that includes a young boy being exposed to chemicals, becoming a zombie, and biting into his mother's head AND a zombie version of Michael Jackson from Thriller getting electrocuted (back) to death while dancing. I won’t hold it against anyone that doesn’t like Return of the Living Dead Part II, and I won’t say it’s a great movie, but it was a perfect movie for me in the late ’80s. It stands as a cautionary tale for companies eager to start a sequel without thinking it through first, but I’ll always see it as this amazingly flawed gem that instantly transports me back to that first time seeing the Trioxin cloud monster at my video store.


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