Sunday, May 21, 2006

Return of the Living Dead 2

1988, directed by Ken Wiederhorn

Ironic that a movie about brains should have so few. Did the Romero series-- each installation of which begins with complete knowledge of the prior film and builds upon that established world-- so thoroughly spoil me that I'm unable to appreciate sequels of another stripe? Perhaps it's not the fault of Return of the Living Dead part 2. The fault lies with me. I've seen too many zombie sequels that closely echo the original instead of creating new ideas.

One military officer offers a cursory “not again” but no one else in RotLD2 acknowledges that RotLD occurred. A shame that the excellent set-up for a sequel in RotLD wasn't adopted. Instead, we have a retread of events and causes, this time enacted by kids. It is my opinion that child protagonists add very little and offer a cheap way to spark audience sympathies with a minimum of characterization.

Because we know the RotLD formula is in effect there's very little tension to build. This time is instead devoted to comedy-- an interesting choice that didn't quite work for me but one I respect anyway. Two extremely likeable lead characters from RotLD return here in completely different -- and far less likeable-- roles. There are even certain dialogue echoes for fans of the first movie.

The slapstick increases when the zombies appear. I have never been a fan of slapstick humor though I think I'm pretty open to genre experimentation. Oh, I don't hate the idea of zombies joyriding in a stolen army vehicle, but I'm highly critical of the gag's execution. If a late 1980s horror-comedy starring a shrill and constantly screaming cast excites you, I recommend this movie.

Oh-- it also has Dana Ashbrook, whom I love a little bit.

Zombie explanation: 245-Trioxin, a military chemical experiment.

Contribution to the zombie canon: It's a bit unusual to offer a child protagonist, and I did enjoy the way they set our hero up against his nemesis-, the zombified neighborhood bully. It's also an example of a straight zombie comedy (RotLD was highly comedic but maintained a genuine sense of terror as well). Finally, it shows the zombies consuming all the animals in a pet store, marking one of the few films in which zombies consume living flesh indiscriminately. (The original Night of the Living Dead was the first, and despite an undisturbed crocodile living among the zombies in Day of the Dead, I believe this is canon for Romero's films.)

Favorite moment: The zombie kid eating his mother's head was a moment of successful tension and humor. Bon appetit!

Favorite zombie: So closely does this sequel mirror its predecessor that the tar-monster emerges from a cannister again. I bet you thought he'd be my favorite, wouldn't you? Especially since he's portrayed by the same creepy mime as the first? But no; whether through costume, mime, or other factors, the shimmying shimmering horror isn't quite the same here (and is far too quickly dispatched by a child-- blasphemy!).

Instead, my favorite is the ravenous zombie boyfriend played by Thom Matthews, who was so charming in the original RotLD. Through logic, love, and overriding hunger for brains, he convinces his girlfriend to let him eat her brains. It's sweet, really. We've seen love between zombies before (Wild Zero), and between the dead and the living (Cemetery Man, Night of the Living Dorks, White Zombie), but aside from Cemetery Man I cannot think of another film that shows a lover offering him- or herself to a zombie out of love. And this is the kind of trivia for which I watch these movies.

Return of the Living Dead

1985, directed by Dan O'Bannon

Let us commence with a brief summation of why RotLD is among the finest zombie movies ever made.
  • It opens with this legend: “The events portrayed in this film are all true. The names are real names of real people and real organizations.” This begins the film with ABSOLUTE THRILL-POWER.
  • Tar-monster is one of the scariest zombies ever. He makes my Top Five list. They hired a mime to portray this tall, shimmying slime monster, and he moves as though his bones are liquified.
  • This is where the brains fetish started. Prior to this movie and its emphasis on human brains, zombies ate any part of humans they could reach. You’d be surprised how few films offer brains as a specific driving force, though it’s one thing everyone associates with zombies. All thanks to this little gem of a film. This significance cannot be underrated.
  • Relentless, inexorable, undefeatable evil. EVERYTHING dead returns to life—dissection specimens, butterflies pinned to boards. Zombie dogs! Zombie bugs! There is no escape. But most importantly, there is no shortcut to zombie destruction here. Decapitation, destroying the brain, cremation — these zombies don’t die.
  • Zombies can think, act, and speak, though they’d prefer to just dine. “Come in, dispatch. Send more paramedics,” might be the grandest zombie plan ever.
  • Linnea Quigley nude. A lot. There you go.
  • If you don’t want to watch the whole film, the credits roll over a selection of Greatest RotLD Moments, telling the story in brief, hilarious snippets! And it ends on a very meta question — please enjoy the irony!

This review must open with a personal story. I saw this movie at a slumber party around 1989. My twelve-year-old self was traumatized. It would be thirteen years before I watched another zombie film! Even then, I only watched 28 Days Later because I’m a Danny Boyle fan—and the zombie content inspired nasty nightmares. After several insomniac months I realized I had to confront this fear. I began to rent zombie movies in hopes of finding the initial movie — in particular, one scene—that had scared me so badly. By the time I rented Return of the Living Dead I’d seen enough good zombie movies to spark my enthusiasm. So sixteen years later I returned to this film with appreciation for the genre as well as the psychological satisfaction of confronting my primal zombie fear. Thanks, RotLD. You made me the self-styled zombie queen and scholar that I am today.

RotLD is camp horror. Laughs outnumber screams. But laughing at these characters inspires goodwill faster than drama might so the audience’s sympathies are engaged early. I also genuinely like the older male characters; I could find myself getting a little teary-eyed at the slowly dying man who knows he’ll soon be a zombie and reverently removes his wedding ring before locking himself in the crematorium. Character stereotypes are saved for the young Brat Pack types, including a mohawked Molly Ringwald lookalike and poor Linnea Quigley, whose clothes keep falling off.

The scene that ripped my poor 12-year-old mind apart and placed within it zombie trauma timebombs that would go off 13 years later underscores the inexorable evil of these zombies. I think it’s also where the funny-scary nature of the movie turns into pure horror. Survivors trapped in a funeral home capture half a decomposing zombie. Strapping her to an embalming table, they proceed to interrogate her while her exposed spine leaks fluid across the metal. The pain of being dead, she moans, is only lessened by eating living brains. So there’s no hope and no escape, only swarms of fast, hungry zombies. It’s still a bit brain-bending, if you ask me; most other zombie interpretations offer some hope of killing individual zombies (destroying the head, usually), outwaiting the threat (28 Days Later), or even living in relative harmony with them (Shaun of the Dead).

How hopeless is the zombie plague in this movie? Headshots don’t work—a pickaxe through the skull only pins it to the floor. Decapitation? Now you have a headless zombie running around. Even sawing it into pieces won’t help; the pieces live on. Cremation destroys the body but releases the zombifying chemical into the air. Hiding doesn’t help… they can smell your brains.

Only solution? Nuclear bomb. Oh, silly U.S. Army. Didn’t we learn anything about releasing the chemicals into the air? Next up: Return of the Living Dead part 2!

Zombie explanation: Military chemical. The title, of course, implies a continuation of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Original bodies from that plague were stored in the basement of a medical supply company. Container failure releases the gas (and some zombies) into the doomed city of Louisville.

Contribution to the zombie canon: Indescribable! This is essential viewing for zombie fans. Here’s where the brain-eating concept of zombies begins.

Favorite moment: Some of the lines just kill me—“Rabid weasels.” “Send more cops.” “I can smell your brains.”

Favorite zombie: Tar monster is fantastic—he moves as though he has twice the joints of a living human, and all of them are double-jointed. Shining with slimy decay, he’s slightly more skeletal than zombielike but nevertheless terrifying.