The F*cking Black Sheep: Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

THE BLACK SHEEP is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATH. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Dig in!



Little decaying bones I’ve made over the years about THE RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD holding strong as my all time favorite zombie flick. I truly love it more than any other. Now, considering such, it may come as a bit of surprise to some that, until quite recently, I had never seen, or even had much desire to see, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II. Many reasons account for this omission, chiefly among them the absence of originator Dan O’Bannon via the replacement of writer/director Ken Wiederhorn (SHOCKWAVES, EYES OF A STRANGER). Again, so undying is my love for the OG that, especially considering the abject hatred the sequel amassed over the years (The Arrow called it a "kindergarten Sesame Street episode"), I simply had no real want or need to see the film. You can imagine the absolute shock then of seeing Frank from the original (James Karen) not only alive and well in the sequel, but somehow now named Ed. WTF? Same goes for Thom Mathews, who played Freddy in the original, now named Joey. The oh-so-bad-it-must-be-seen quality of ROLD 2 has taken hold!

Now, let’s be clear. This is not a good movie. Not by any measure. It took a brilliantly balanced blend of hardcore horror and mordant humor and reduced to it a farcically flat pastiche with all of its nastiness neutered in favor of a watered down, anodyne, borderline PG-13 kiddy-show. Damn near unforgivable! However, while that is almost impossible to overcome, I’m here to claim that, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary this month, ROLD 2 is a dash better than people remember it for. Chalk it up to the soft bigotry of low expectations if you’d like, but I have to say it, however wincingly, ROLD 2 is kind of a F*cking Black Sheep of a horror joint. Okay, so more as an unintentionally bad-comedy than an outright horror joint, but a F*cking Black Sheep nonetheless!

One of the things I instantly appreciated about the film is how it picks up exactly where the original left us. That is, the army canisters that were left over from the atomic fallout that ended the original are collected and transported out of town. Of course, one barrel falls off the truck and ends up in a nearby swamp. An obnoxious smart-ass named Jesse (Michael Kenworthy) and two older bullies stumble upon the canister, the latter of which breathe in the noxious green toxins and soon morph into a flesh-parched ghouls. Same goes for poor Ed and Joey, essentially redoubling their roles from the first flick. Word is Mathews disliked this sequel so much he said the best part of making it was the outstanding craft services. As for Wiederhorn, so jaded was he at this time of from making horror movies, a genre he did not like mind you, that cast and crew members gave interviews around the time of ROLD 2’s release lamenting how unenthused the director was in making this project. Makes you wonder how the film found any redeeming qualities whatsoever.

But, in my opinion, there are a few. First off, I liked the idea of turning two bullying bastards into zombies themselves. We’re talking junior high-school kids. And while I wish Wiederhorn had the balls to actually kill off the annoying Jesse in the end, I understand how taboo that was and still is for any horror movie to do. Especially a leading kid. But hey, I also really enjoyed seeing the ever-sexy childhood crush Suzanne Snyder (Deb from WEIRD SCIENCE and KILLER KLOWNS) show up as Brenda, this time a sultry, ass-kicking redhead. The scene where she punches a zombie in the face until it melts into a viscid geyser of green goo is a nice standout, obviously calling to mind an exorbitant Euro, Bava-esque splatter-fest. Good fun! So too is the Tarman callback, the nastiest zombie from the original, even if comported this time with a ridiculous cheesing grin plastered on his putrid mug. Still, it’s always good to see an old friend!

Other memorable moments include a worm-faced female zombie gouging a huge chunk of brain matter out of an unsuspecting street victim, as well as a fully decapitated zombie head being able to chomp down on Ed’s finger while he holds it in his hand. Tom Essex (Dana Ashbrook) steps in, stabs a screwdriver into the zombie head, to which the ghoul drolly spouts “Get the screwdriver out of my head” in a risible redneck twang. There’s some decent FX work here by Gene Crum (E.T., BLADE RUNNER) and Terry Frazee (THE BLOB, GHOST), no lie. And hey, speaking of the look of the film, we’d be remiss not to mention how superbly the film is lit and photographed for a typical throwaway horror sequel. That’s because none other than Oscar winning DP Robert Elswit (BOOGIE NIGHTS, THERE WILL BE BLOOD, NIGHTCRAWLER, etc.) shot ROLD 2. The work speaks for itself!

In a way, I’m almost glad Wiederhorn made less of an effort to try and duplicate the inimitable original, and instead imbue his version with a slightly campier tone. No nudity, far less obscenities, etc. In fact, if it were not for a single shot in the hospital where a zombie gets blown in half, the MPAA would have bestowed the film with a PG-13 rating. Not that I favor that, I just think it would have been an even graver mistake to try and recreate the alchemical bliss O’Bannon and crew were able to in 1985. Interestingly enough, Wiederhorn’s script wasn’t even initially conceived as a RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD sequel. But the producers liked his story enough that they told him they would buy the script if he turned it into a franchise entry. Hence the uneven reworking, changed character names and all the rest of it.

Not for nothing, I suppose we must address the ridiculous Michael Jackson “Thriller” zombie that appears at the end of the electrocution scene. WTF?! Clearly a ham-fisted attempt at a pop-cultural jibe, this scene ultimately tips the films hand as being nothing more than a silly satirical send-up. Not that it makes this scene excusable, or the movies intentions pure, but it does tend to contextualize the film as one to not be taken as seriously as some might have wanted given how outstanding the original is, was and will forever remain. It seems Wiederhorn wanted to supplant the sick sense of humor for stupid sight-gags and the killer carnage for a cartoonish countenance. And in case you wondered, the MJ makeup apparently took three and a half hours to apply. Worth it?

Look, I cannot in good faith defend ROLD 2 as a great film. Not even a very good one. However, having never seen it until recently due to the fact I’d heard such terrible things about it, I can confidently say it was better than expected. Now does that make it a bona fide F*cking Black Sheep of a horror flick? Perhaps not entirely. It does, however, hopefully allow for others who were similarly dissuaded from ever laying eyes on the film to actually give it a chance to judge it for themselves. Because, in the end, for a low-budget late-80s horror sequel, the movie is, despite being too childish all around, is shot, directed and peppered with better VFX than many of its ilk. Give this one a second look, yo, it's enjoyably entertaining enough!



Extra Tidbit: Don Calfa, who played Ernie Kaltenbrunner in the original Return of the Living Dead, originally auditioned for the role of Doc Mandel before Philip Bruns got the part.
Source: AITH



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