Monday, August 27, 2018

RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II (1988) (Scream Factory Blu-ray Review)


Label: Scream Factory
Region Code: A
Rating: R
Duration: 89 Minutes 
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo with Optional English Subtitles 
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: Ken Wiederhorn
Cast: James Karen, Thom Mathews, Dana Ashbrook, Marsha Dietlein, Philip Bruns, Michael Kenworthy

I have always wanted to like Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) more than I actually do, and with the release of the Scream Factory Collector's Edition Blu-ray it seemed like as good a time as any to give it another watch, and maybe through the miracle of HD experience it as never before, so let's give this a shot. The sequel opens with an Army convoy transporting barrels of Trioxin during a dark and stormy night when one of the barrels flies right off the back of a truck unnoticed by the stoned soldier driving the vehicle. The next day suburban kid Jesse (Michael Kenworthy, The Blob) is being bullied by a pair of dip-shits named Billy and Johnny in the cemetery, he runs and hides in a nearby sewer where they find him before taking a break from harassing the kid when the trio discover the barrel of Trioxin. They take a moment to investigate this strange Army-branded barrel that they've found, but run screaming away in fright when a glass portal in the barrel reveals a creepy corpse that lay inside. However, when Jesse says he's going to call the number printed on the side of the barrel and report the discovery the bullies lock him inside a creepy old mausoleum, wanting to keep this new discovery for themselves. Jesse is later found in the mausoleum by a pair of inept graverobbbers, Ed (James Karen, Poltergeist) and Joey (Thom Mathews, Friday the 13th Part VI), the latter of whom drags along his exasperated girlfriend Brenda (Suzanne Snyder, Weird Science) on their cadaverous treasure endeavor. 

Meanwhile the bullies have gone back into the sewer and opened up the Trioxin container, in the process drenching themselves in the un-deadly green vapors inside it, which then seeps into the ground and the surrounding cemetery, including the mausoleum with the grave robbers, with the now familiar results for anyone who has seen ROTLD. Having left the mausoleum before all this Jesse escapes being contaminated by the green vapors, but does returns to look in on the barrel for himself a short time later. While the bullies are gone the corpse from the barrel remains at large, a new re-imagined version of the Tar Man from ROTLD, though a bit more cartoonish and slightly less gooey than his previous incarnation. The fiend attacks him but the kid manages to escape, running home to tell his older teen sister Lucy about the zombie threat, but she dismisses his warnings as nonsense and locks him away in his room while she spends some quality teen-time with handsome cable TV installer Tom (Dana Ashbrook, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me).

As hordes of the undead begin to emerge from the local cemetery the various factions convene and team-up to face off against the threat, with the bullies and the grave robbers experiencing the now familiar Trioxin-induced sickness, suffering from a lack of vitals and stiffening rigor mortis, plus a new found craving for human brains. I think a large part of the reason I keep coming back to this one is that Thom Mathews and James Karen are basically revisiting their characters from ROTLD, it's a testament to their onscreen chemistry how funny they are, re-visiting memorable lines straight from the first film to good effect, Karen has a bunch of great lines in particular, with a lot of macabre grave robbing humor. I do think the kid Jesse is pretty damn annoying, I'm firmly on his sister's side here, this kids a shit. It's always fun to see Dana Ashbrook in these 80's rolls, this one coming out the same year as comedy-horror Waxwork (1988), before he went onto appear in David Lynch's surreal TV crime-drama Twin Peaks. The film also inserts a local medical man Doc Mandell (Phil Bruns, Corvette Summer) a fairly obvious watered down stand-in for Don Calfa's probable-Nazi-mortician from the first film, coming across more as a Grandpa Howard (from Sixteen Candles), but he's got some good comedic timing so it's still fun. 

As with so many films before and after the descent from the original to the sequel is pretty steep, basically a retread of the first film with a lot of the same beats, but the script and execution aren't up to the challenge, falling far below the classic that Dan O'Bannon wrote/directed. But fear not, there's fun to be had here, the wonky blending of slapstick humor and half-hearted horror offers some silly laughs, and  you cannot deny the fun special effects of Kenny Myers (returning from ROTLD) and his team, they created a handful of cool-looking zombies including the re-imagined Tar Man, a zombie that's been blown in half, the crowbar zombie from the mausoleum and Billy the bully as a zombie is creepy looking, the kid has the look of a future serial killer even before he's transformed into the undead. 

Compared to the punk rock awesomeness of the original this is a let down, but I dig the special effects and the atmosphere in certain scenes, like the graveyard stuff with loads cool Gothic trappings with thick shrouds of fog and fun humor inflected montages of the dead rising from the graves, it's just too bad the story isn't better, the humor is way too slapstick and the horror elements are downplayed, Wiederhorn just went all out for the comedy, but he's not much of a comedy director in my opinion, he seems out of his element. I will say that this viewing was the best so far with improved an A/V presentation and a wealth of extras that did give me a new appreciation for the film. 

Audio/Video: Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) arrives on Blu-ray from Scream Factory with a new 2K scan from the interpositive, performed by Warner Bros.. The sleeve has some contradicting claims about the transfer, while the special features listing indicates the 2K scan, there's written indication elsewhere on the same sleeve that this is a 4K scan from the original camera negative, but I do believe that this is a 2K scan from the interpositive, as advertised by both the wrap and slipcover - it looks like the 4K OCN info is a misprint. Regardless, the 1080p HD image is framed in 1.85:1 widescreen and looks solid all things considered. This is one of those fuzzy looking 80's productions that often looked like Vaseline has been smeared across the lens with diffused lighting and a gauzy appearance that has the magic ability to sap fine detail, but this is the best the film has ever looked on home video to my eyes.

Audio comes by way of an English DTS-HD MA Stereo 2.0 track, and while usually audio is not a big deal for me this is perhaps one of the most notable features of this new Blu-ray release, it features the unaltered theatrical audio/soundtrack for the first time since the original VHS/Laserdisc release. When this film arrived on DVD there was a licensing snafu that resulted in the score/soundtrack being altered and some weird voice over narration was added to the opening. Well, that phony soundtrack and voice-over are gone and we get the real deal, including some choice cuts from 80's rockers Zodiac Mindwarp and the Love Reaction (bonus points if you remember them!), Anthrax, Leatherwolf and even some Top 40 Robert Palmer with "Bad Case of Loving You". Fear not though if you have a soft spot for the DVD audio track, Scream Factory have you covered by included it here as an alternate audio option, optional English subtitles are provided.

The film might not wow me but the extras on this release are fantastic, beginning with two brand new audio commentaries, the first with actress Suzanne Snyder, and a second with Gary Smart (co-author of The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead) and filmmaker Christopher Griffiths, plus a vintage commentary from the DVD with director Ken Wiederhorn and actor Thor Van Lingen who played the bully Billy. We also get a 25-minute 'Back to the Dead: The Effects of Return of the Living Dead Part II' with Special Make-up Effects creator Kenny Myers and Special Make-up Effects artists Andy Schoneberg and Mike Smithson who take us behind-the-scenes discussing the FX of the film, Myers says he didn't like the comedic bent of the film from the beginning, but enjoyed the extra time he was afforded to create the special effects. Lots of great insight into the creation and execution of the FX used in the film, including the silly Michael Jackson zombie that literally jumps into frame during the end credits.

'The Laughing Dead' is a new and very candid interview with writer/director Ken Wiederhorn (Shock Waves) who discusses how he came into directing, and coming onto the project with apprehension after his experience on another film which was retitled Meatballs 2 - despite the movie having nothing to do with the previous film, but then being OK with making this film a sequel even though hs original script had nothing to do with the original film! He also speaks about the excitement of working with a larger budget than he had before, the cast and special effects team, and some acne-fighting wisdom he departed onto Dana Ashbrook, also touching on the cult-status of the film and the joy of cashing residual checks from it. 

'Undead Melodies' with composer J. Peter Robinson (Mind Ripper) whose shows up to discuss his approach to scoring film, not going for the obvious comedy phrasings, instead being more atmospheric and brooding, what he calls a "serious piece of work", but also dissecting the final product and mix, feeling the music wasn't mixed very well into the film, that there should have been more give and take with the effects and what not. 

Actor Troy Fromin who appears as the weed-smoking Army truck driver at the start of the film shows up for a very brief 2-min interview discussing how he was so excited to be cast as an extra in the film. You can tell this guy must tell everyone he has ever met about his role in the film and - and who can blame him, I would too if it was me!

Another coll extra is that Scream Factory have included all the interviews from the 'They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD II' documentary that pertained the sequel, with interviews from the cast and crew from this and the first film, a nicely candid set of interviews, well-produced and still a very cool. 

The disc is buttoned-up with vintage featurette, interview, behind-the-scenes footage, trailers, TV spots and a pair of galleries. The single-disc release comes housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a reversible sleeve of artwork, the a-side is the original poster artwork and the b-side is a new illustration from artist Graham Humphreys who also did the new artwork for Scream Factory's ROTLD release, so it's cool that have some symmetry and they look great on the shelf right next to each other.   

Special Features:
- NEW 2K scans from the interpositive
- NEW Audio Commentary with actress Suzanne Snyder
- NEW Audio Commentary with Gary Smart (co-author of The Complete History of the Return of the Living Dead) and filmmaker Christopher Griffiths
- NEW Back to the Dead: The Effects of “Return of the Living Dead Part II” – including interviews with Special Make-up Effects creator Kenny Myers and Special Make-up Effects artists Andy Schoneberg and Mike Smithson (25 min) HD 
- NEW The Laughing Dead - a new interview with writer/director Ken Wiederhorn (19 min) HD 
- NEW Undead Melodies – an interview with composer J. Peter Robinson (13 min) HD 
- NEW interview with actor Troy Fromin (2 min) HD 
- Audio Commentary with writer/director Ken Wiederhorn and co-star Thor Van Lingen
- They Won’t Stay Dead: A Look at RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD II including interviews with  James Karen, Thom Matthews, Brian Peck, Kenny Myers, Susan Snyder, Michael Kenworthy and more… (30 min) HD 
- Archival Featurette – Live from the Set (6 min) 
- Archival interviews with Ken Wiederhorn, James Karen, Thom Matthews and Kenny Myers (3 min) 
- Behind the Scenes footage (4 min) HD 
- Theatrical Trailer (2 min) HD

- Teaser Trailer (2 min) HD
- TV Spots (2 mn) 
- Still Gallery of posters and stills (6 min) HD
- Still Gallery of Behind-the-Scenes stills from Makeup Effects artists Kenny Myers and Mike Smithson (2 min) HD

Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) is a problematic sequel, it's not awful but it pales in comparison to the original film, which is a punk-zombie classic. There's still a lot of fun to be had here though, with cool undead make-up FX and the somewhat confusing return of James Karen and Thom Mathews from the first film. The main distraction here is that there's an imbalance of comedy and horror, if feels out of whack, but it's trashy fun, glad to see it get a true special edition from Scream Factory with loads of extras and a quality presentation. 

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