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Return Of The Living Dead Part II
Just to recap for those who've never been exposed to the franchise, it's literally an offshoot of Night of the Living Dead, a film which is largely credited as George A. Romero's masterpiece but was actually co-written with John Russo. Despite a copyright snafu that put their film in the public domain, they planned to move ahead with a sequel. Unfortunately, there were some creative differences that lead the pair to an amicable split. As a result, they decided to fork the franchise into separate entities with Russo's work being allowed to retain the ‘Living Dead' name. When The Return of the Living Dead finally debuted, it proved to be a wild departure from the rules established in Night.
The Romero zombies (as they're commonly called) from Night were slow, had no real intellect, would feast on flesh and could be killed by damage to the brain. Russo changed all that in Return by allowing his zombies to run, talk, lure their prey, feast on brains (and only brains) and be virtually invincible. The film's tone was also in stark contrast as it wove generous amounts of humor throughout. The plot was primitive - a couple of idiots unleashed a nasty chemical from some military drums, and because they were in close proximity to a cemetery, the dead rose from their graves and all hell broke loose - but who needs plot when you've got a hilariously smart script, rockin' soundtrack, memorable characters and great effects and makeup? It's for these reasons that The Return of the Living Dead remains one of the most masterful blends of horror and comedy to date.
Return of the Living Dead Part II unabashedly attempts to recapture that magic on celluloid by closely following the formula of its predecessor, to the point where it brings two of the original leads (Thom Mathews and James Karen) back in similar roles. The film even goes so far as to make a gag of it. Even some of the original zombie designs return, the infamous Tarman among them. However, the sequel's employed writer and director, Ken Wiederhorn, wasn't a major horror fan in the first place and clearly misunderstood what made the original such outrageously infectious fun: balance.
The first film in the franchise kept most of its comedy dark, ensuring there was still an element of fear at play. The sequel, however, turns the scare quotient down and cranks the laughs up to eleven… or at least tries to. I take no issue with Part II being a retread or ditching every element of nail-biting terror in favor of gut-busting guffaws - hell, I love movies like Killer Klowns from Outer Space - but the laughs have to work. These jokes and gags are so ineffective though that the entire film falls flat on its face, and hard. It took what should have been eighty-nine short and entertaining minutes and instead made them absolute agony to sit through. I know there are plenty of people who, despite acknowledging this to be a vastly inferior sequel, still find it to be worthy of some laughs, but virtually nothing in this misguided effort managed to tickle my funny bone.
It doesn't end with just the bad jokes though. The cast was entirely forgettable, and that includes the returning actors who were perfect in the original. As a matter of fact, they were just plain annoying this time around, and I blame the script and direction for that above all else. The makeup and effects are more of a mixed bag. There's some really great practical effects on display throughout, but a good share of them just look plain goofy and not in a way that befits the film.
I'd like to come up with a handful of redeeming qualities to balance my criticisms, but the best I can come up with is, "I see what the writer/director was going for." But good intentions aside, you know how there are films that are so bad, they're good? Yeah, this isn't one of them. For my money, Return of the Living Dead 3 was a far superior sequel - it took a vastly different approach and it worked - and I'm beginning to understand why Vestron opted to release that instead of this.
Return of the Living Dead Part II comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Shout (Scream) Factory with a new 2K scan, and is presented at a resolution of 1080p via the AVC codec at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. As much as I didn't care for the film, fans are going to be very pleased with what the distributor has released. They should keep their expectations in check because this movie can look a little rough around the edges at times, but based on what I'm seeing, it's all inherent to the photography.
Black levels, for example, are often appropriately deep and inky, but there are also plenty of shots where they appear elevated. I'm not sure if that's due to pollution from on-location lighting or if it was a creative decision to preserve as much detail possible in a film that mostly takes place at night. Either way, it's not a fault of the distributor's scan. Contrast is remarkable when the source allows. Part II isn't a particularly colorful film, but the ones that are featured really pop. Great examples are the red car the characters drive around in, fire, the spandex exercise outfit, and the yellow-green ooze that pours out of a zombie's head when it's punched in, just to name a few. Skin tones are also quite nice, looking natural throughout most of the film's runtime (unless lighting dictates otherwise).
From a technical perspective, the image is plenty sharp but there's definitely a bit of soft photography sprinkled throughout. You'll see some minor amounts of white specks and the occasional black speck, but these don't detract from the viewing experience. No edge enhancement has been applied, and a healthy and even field of grain means no DNR has been utilized either. However, grain does come off looking a little unnatural during moments with heavy amounts of moving fog. You probably won't notice it in motion unless you're looking for it, but as with many Shout/Scream Factory titles, their compression, while excellent overall, could be just a tad bit better.
Overall, this is an excellent video presentation and unless someone decides to do a 4K scan in the future, I can't imagine this looking better.
The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track on this release is also quite good, although not perfect. Dialogue is always the focus but it does sound a bit muted during moments where there's a lot of action (but not by much). The mix also does a horrible job of blending sound booth recorded dialogue with the on-set dialogue. Not only is it extremely obvious based on the sound quality, but there are times where the vocal recordings don't match up with what's on screen very well (like they were barely trying for good sync). There were also a few brief moments where the dialogue sounded a bit harsh, and there is even some audible, as minor and infrequent as it was, soundtrack hiss. That's not to say that this sounds bad, it's just that the sound design leaves a bit to be desired. Many of these issues are related to the source, both from production and probably even age, but the distributor did a fine job at preserving what was there.
It's worth noting that the old DVD audio - a 2.0 Dolby Digital track - has also been included. It features a narration that the original theatrical audio doesn't, as well as different music. It's great that the distributor included this for completion's sake, but I can't imagine anyone preferring this over the original theatrical track.
This shouldn't come as a surprise, but Scream Factory went all out for this release. There are two audio commentaries, a slew of interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, and even the appropriate trailers, posters and stills, and behind-the-scenes photo galleries. This appears to be one of the flagship horror releases from the label as it comes with a slipcover with newly commissioned artwork, and also features the reversible paper cover for the case itself in case you prefer to look at the original theatrical poster.
-Audio Commentary with Gary Smart (Co-Author of The Complete History of The Return of the Living Dead) and Documentary Filmmaker Christopher Griffiths
-Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Ken Wiederhorn and Co-Star Thor Van Lingen
-Back to the Dead: The Effects of Return of the Living Dead Part II - Interviews with Special Make-Up Effects Creator Kenny Myers and Special Make-Up Effects Artists Andy Shoneberg and Mike Smithson
-The Laughing Dead - Interview with Writer/Director Ken Widerhorn
-Undead Melodies - Interview with Composer J. Peter Robinson
-Interview with Actor Troy Fromin
-They Won't Stay Dead: A Look at Return of the Living Dead Part II - Interviews with James Karen, Thom Matthews, Brian Peck, Kenny Myers, Susan Snyder, Michael Kenworthy, and More
-Vintage Featurette - Live From the Set
-Vintage Interviews - Ken Wiederhorn, James Karen, Thom Matthews, and Kenny Myers
-Still Gallery - Special Effects Makeup
-Still Gallery - Posters and Lobby Cards
We often see the term ‘unnecessary' being thrown about in regards to sequels, and films like this are the reason why. I have no doubt that there were great intentions behind Return of the Living Dead Part II, but it's a lifeless sequel that never should have made the leap from script to film. I'm completely baffled as to how it tried to be a self-aware carbon copy of its predecessor, yet somehow managed to miss the point in every perceivable way. Of course, that's my opinion, and I know that if you're reading this review you're probably a fan and just want to know how the disc fares. In that respect, Scream Factory have done an excellent job at bringing this sequel to Blu-ray, as they've provided as fantastic an A/V presentation as the source allows, not to mention gobs of supplements that should satisfy the most hardcore of fans. However, if you've only ever seen The Return of the Living Dead one and/or three, I can't recommend a blind buy. This is definitely a rent it sort of film, if only to say you've seen the initial trilogy (before the other straight to television/DVD installments came along).
-About the Author- Michael Zupan is primarily a film guy, but has a variety of places where you can enjoy his work otherwise. Check Bytesizeimpressions.com for video game op-ed pieces and podcasts, and be sure to check out the sister site, Byte-Size Cinema, linked up top. This writer also contributes significantly to in-print magazines such as Minecraft Explorer and Fortnite Explorer!