While it doesn’t get the credit of the esteemed Night of the Living Dead, the all-too-unrelated Return of the Living Dead is nonetheless one of the best zombie movies of all time. It’s imaginative, energetic, quirky, and totally original. It has all the gore that fans of ‘80s horror crave and then some. Given that the title already makes it sound like a sequel, it makes sense that Return of the Living Dead would wind up spawning its own franchise. But there were some challenges in that, too, as the first movie has a very nihilistic ending that suggests things are not going to be okay.
Still, it did spawn a sequel. Return of the Living Dead Part 2 was not exactly ushered into production compared to most horror sequels of the era. It took a few years to get off the ground. When it finally did arrive, it didn’t feel quite like what fans had been expecting and so it was met with generally unfavorable reviews from both critics and fans.
Essentially, it tells the story of the first movie over again only taking the action out of the cemetery and into a small slice of Spielbergian-lite suburbia. Both James Karen and Thom Matthews return in identical roles to those they played in the original. Allan Trautman also returns as the Tarman zombie. The comedic elements are heightened while the scares and gore are placed on the back burner. The laughs are less organic, too, more heavily focused on sight-gags.
Much of this was jarring for audiences, but it turns out there’s a reason for it: according to a set report from Fangoria #70, Return of the Living Dead Part 2 was originally intended to be a children’s movie, or at least something geared toward younger audiences. The reasons behind this decision are unknown, but that is extremely helpful in contextualizing the film we were given and trying to understand the decisions that were made in order to make it what it is.
First of all, we have a kid as a major protagonist and a good chunk of the movie is told through his perspective. There’s a little less R-rated language and much less gore. One has to look at it and wonder if they were intending to shoot for the newly implemented PG-13 rating. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were, because the film kind of earns it. It’s not overly gory and most of the violent scenes are played for cartoonish laughs.
Having a child as a central character doesn’t necessarily feel like a product of trying to make it a kids’ movie because both the Friday the 13th and Halloween franchises had done/were doing it around the same time. Still, it makes the most sense demographically to feature children so prominently if the film had truly meant to be aimed at them.
More puzzling is why Return of the Living Dead, of all movies, even had a sequel intended for children. Yes, the end result was R-rated, but why was it ever even considered not to be? It’s surprising, given the punk attitude and heavy gore of the first.
But when you consider that there were so many horror fans who started young, renting titles like Return of the Living Dead when they could or sneaking them on cable, I guess it’s not as alarming. Looking at it in those terms, it’s surprising that there weren’t more horror movies being made at the time to cater to the young adult audiences that studios were clearly aware they had.
It doesn’t mean that Return of the Living Dead 2 was the right place to start, though. While the movie certainly has its merits and is fun in a low-budget Amblin knockoff kind of way, it’s an experiment that kind of failed in that the audience that loved the first one is left wanting more, given how tame and even more cartoonish the sequel is when compared to the original.
Still, this somewhat watered down retread of the first is what we got and when you look at the fact that it wears its faults right on its sleeve and owns every one of them, the movie is kind of hard to hate. It’s stupid, the humor is way more juvenile this time around, but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun. At times, it’s absurdly fun.
This is the UHF version of Return of the Living Dead, off-the-wall, zany, bizarre with no real rhyme or reason. It’s the first movie retold through an almost Zucker Bros. lens and feels less like a direct sequel—it’s not—than the Return of the Living Dead version of Repossessed. It’s a spoof that manages to bring back some returning cast, aping the original, making fun of zombies and the ‘80s suburban horrors at the same time. It doesn’t have much to say, but it wastes no time saying it.
Even though Part 2 was the first of the franchise I saw, I love the first and third so much that it’s sort of the weird thing that happens in the middle, for me. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun, not enjoyable to watch on its own, and that I didn’t appreciate the way it structures itself in comparison to the original. I think in the end, being a kids’ movie may have ironically been the thing that saved Return of the Living Dead Part 2. Having a child protagonist injected into the mix was obviously what I identified most with seeing it as a kid, but also keeps the film from feeling like a total rehash as this kid gives us a new perspective on the events that the first one didn’t have.