The Return of the Living Dead is considered a classic zombie film and a great artifact of pure 80’s cheese (I mean that in the best possible way). It basically took the Night of the Living Dead premise and put a couple of new twists on it. Instead of a group of people being trapped in one location there are two used, the zombies seem a little more tenacious and specifically want brains to eat and the cause of the dead returning to life is explained. The effects and gags are all done really well and it’s a pretty spectacular directorial debut from veteran screenwriter Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Total Recall). It’s a great movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously which I imagine is the reason it has a following. So as long as you’re not in the mood for a completely serious horror picture, this one’s definitely worth your time. And as good as The Return of the Living Dead is I just might like the sequel even better.
For the next installment the filmmakers decided to more or less do the same movie again (although apparently the script was not originally intended to be the next Return of the Living Dead movie). This time though they decided to take the show on the road. A 12 year old boy named Jesse stumbles upon a barrel in a sewer pipe while running away from some bullies. They see that it’s from the military (in fact it is because we see it roll off the truck during the opening credits) and that it contains a zombie but they get scared and run away. Later the bullies go back and open up the barrel which releases the gas that makes the dead return to life. Various other characters including, but not limited to, Jesse’s sister, a doctor and two grave robbers all have to ban together in order to escape the clutches of the undead.
The reason why I think this one might be better than the original is because it moves a little quicker, there seem to be more zombies and I like that our group of heroes try to ditch the zombies but at every turn they keep showing up. They don’t know how to kill the things either so it’s not like they can stand and fight them. This gives the feeling that there truly is no way out the situation and that they’re fucking trapped.
The teen protagonists are actually likeable and don’t bumble around for most of the movie. It was a good move to throw two middle aged guys and a little boy into the mix so that we get different reactions to the situation. I also like that none of these people really know each other (except Jesse and his sister and this other couple). It’s not your typical group-of-friends-go-on-a-camping/road-trip-together-only-to-stumble-upon-an-unspeakable-evil. Even though these characters are strangers they know that they need to stick together in order to stay alive. That seems to be not unusual for zombie movies but it still feels nice to see instead of nothing but self absorbed high school or college kids.
The zombie makeup and effects are top notch too. There are a lot of good bits in this like a zombie hand gets loose inside a car with our group, there’s a scene with a really impressive zombie head that comes to life with eyes, eyelids, mouth and tongue all moving as one of our guys pulls it out of a bag and one zombie even gets blown clean in half but his legs still walk around while his upper body tries to get back up. And it all looks so good because they actually did these effects for real using models and animatronics ‘n shit. You won’t find any bad CGI or terrible editing of action sequences that involve nothing but close-ups so you can’t tell what the fuck you’re looking at here.
With all of that said I probably should warn you that there is some comedy in this piece as well. But I’m telling you guys, it’s just the right kind of humor and never gets in the way of the sense of danger that our characters are constantly in. Ok, the Michael Jackson zombie took me out of the movie for a second but believe me, the comedy only accents the good time that this film is. The filmmakers must have had a ball making this thing because it really comes through. You can tell that these guys were very excited to be making a zombie picture and that they wanted to see a lot of zombie action. They kept the background and character development efficient and to a minimum so that once they could throw undead people in your face they could keep them there until the credits.
Between the refreshing mix of characters that you don’t normally find in a horror movie, the various locations (graveyard, hospital, streets), the very matter-of-fact wit and the kick ass zombie designs and encounters this is a real gem. I can understand why the original The Return of the Living Dead has a cult following but I think this one can stand toe to toe with it. Return II doesn’t need a preamble so it doesn’t really matter which film you start with. I prefer the sequel (only slightly) but it looks like I’m in the minority. Whichever you pick, they’re both perfect for a Halloween get together.
And does anyone else think that using roman numerals for your sequels is an awesome idea? It looks so much cooler than regular Arabic numbers. I guess with the Halloween II remake sequel they did it but I don’t think anyone else has done it recently. Filmmakers and studios should start doing that again.