The biggest difference between Return of the Living Dead and its first sequel is...well, the "Part II" tacked onto the title. No, writer/director Ken Wiederhorn (Shock Waves) and company don't exactly set out to tread new cinematic ground, and Return of the Living Dead Part II almost feels more like a remake than a straight sequel. There's another zombie-in-a-can that spews Trioxin gas onto a couple of fellas that get a little too curious. There's another montage of the dead clawing their way out of the cemetary. There's a confrontation with a too-faithful girlfriend in a chapel. There's an old hand at working with corpses and his younger, reluctant partner who both catch a whiff of the gas and are slowly transformed. Heck, they're even played by Thom Mathews and James Karen, the stars of the first Return... who are basically reprising the same roles with different names for their characters. The 'tar-man' zombie and even a line or two of dialogue also return.
Another notable difference is that the original Return of the Living Dead is a brilliant mix of comedy and horror, one of just a handful of movies able to deftly and successfully juggle that blend of genres. Part II...? Not so much. The comedy is cranked up several notches for the sequel, and it's incredibly broad -- a severed hand that's bounced around inside the car and eventually flips the survivors the finger, zombies stepping all over each other as they rise from the grave, a doctor who sounds like he's channeling some long-dead '40s radio comic, the undead being entranced by a workout video, a nod to Michael Jackson's Thriller... I'm not some stodgy genre purist who frowns on the idea of tossing in some humor into the mix, but if you're going to include comedy, make it funny. That's why it's called "comedy" and not...whatever Return of the Living Dead Part II serves up. All the suspense of the original has been sapped away, and the pacing shuffles around aimlessly. It also puts an annoying kid in a lead role, which is never, ever a good idea unless your target demographic is in junior high (which might explain why I liked this movie so much when I was in 7th grade). The writing's poor. The acting's lousy. The direction is uninspired. The closest thing to praise I can muster is that the poster art is pretty neat, but I wouldn't pay $15 to get it.
Video: I've gotten so used to the soft, pale, grainy videos and cable broadcasts that I didn't go into Return of the Living Dead Part II with particularly high expectations. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen video on this DVD is an improvement in every respect, boasting more robust colors and considerably more detail. Film grain is still present, but the level seems more appropriate for a low-budget flick of its vintage than the older transfers that have been floating around for the past fifteen years. What little grain that remains, the better saturated but unspectacular palette, and the occasional tinge of softness are probably owed more to the way Return of the Living Dead Part II was shot than anything specific to this transfer, and I'd bet most viewers who have seen this movie before will be very pleased with the way it looks on DVD.
Audio: "There's something wrong with this music. It's familiar sounding, but it sounds misplaced." Those are the words of director Ken Wiederhorn on the disc's audio commentary, and if you lurk around any DVD message board, you've probably stumbled onto a thread complaining about the altered music in the movie. I admittedly didn't notice on first listen -- the movie didn't have a particularly memorable score to begin with -- but I feel obligated to give the Dolby Digital stereo surround track a lower rating on principle. Strangely enough, the monaural French dub on this disc has an untainted score, making Warner's alterations even more questionable. Although I didn't know before watching this DVD for the first time that the score had been changed, the music that plays during the climax (yes, that's one of the altered sections) did sound very different from the rest of the movie. Most of the score has a very full presence, coaxing some hefty (maybe even a little too much) reinforcement from my subwoofer. Those final scenes sounded like someone was plinking away on a decrepit Casio in the other room, noticeably thinner and more confined than any of the other music in the movie. Oh well. These alterations aside, the soundtrack is okay -- dialogue and sound effects come through without any concerns, although there were a couple of times when things seemed to briefly fall slightly out of sync. It's not particularly jarring, though.
Aside from the stereo surround English audio and French mono track, other audio options include subtitles in English, French, and Spanish as well as closed captions.
Supplements: The featured extra is an audio commentary with writer/director Ken Wiederhorn and Thor van Lingen. They clearly were recorded separately and piecemealed together in editing, and of the two, van Lingen is definitely the dominant presence. Wiederhorn takes the proceedings pretty seriously, even quoting Hitchcock and Truffaut. He comments on why he believes comedy/horror blends are cinematic suicide, and he also discusses how the movie's origins didn't begin as a sequel and the role Robert McKee played in hammering out the screenplay. van Lingen has more of a sense of humor about the whole thing, and although he frequently falls into the trap of describing what's happening on-screen, he's immeasurably knowledgable about the movie. He chats about how he got his one and only film credit, points out some of the absurdities of the plot, and even describes the recipe for the zombies' beef brains. I've seen a bunch of complaints about this commentary on various message boards, but I personally enjoyed it and would suggest giving it a listen. Rounding out the extras is an anamorphic widescreen trailer. Return of the Living Dead Part II features 23 chapter stops and 16x9 menus. The DVD is packaged in a keepcase, and an insert has not been tucked inside.
Conclusion: The last (and the worst) of the Return of the Living Dead series to make it to DVD, part two is an okay bargain bin purchase, but anyone who's not a rabid fan of these movies probably shouldn't bother. Rent It.
Related Links: DVD Talk also has reviews for a couple other flicks in the Return of the Living Dead series. If you want to catch up with Thor van Lingen, he's a reviewer for TheBoxSet.com.