Temper Your Enthusiasm for Return Of the Living Dead Part II (DVD/ Blu-ray Comparison)

1985's Return Of the Living Dead is a master class in effectively blending horror and comedy.  1988's Return Of the Living Dead Part II is not.  If you come into this expecting anything close to Dan O'Bannon's brilliant precursor, encouraged perhaps by the return of the film's two delightful leads, James Karen and Tom Mathews, you're in for a whopping disappointment.  Think of that major step down between Fright Night and Fright Night 2... not quite as bad as An American Werewolf In London and American Werewolf In Paris, but at least as steep as going from Halloween to Halloween 2.  But, hey, that doesn't mean there's absolutely no fun to be had.  Just set your expectations accordingly.
Directed by Ken Wiederhorn (Shock Waves), Return 2 really doesn't even try to thread the same needle between tones that O'Bannon.  It just leans into silly humor and being a little more kid-friendly (no more nudity, a twelve year-old protagonist).  It's still R, but this time we've wandered much further into Bud the Chud territory, where not only does it forgo the darker and more serious side for laughs, but most of said laughs fall flat on their face.  I mean poor, Philip Bruns looks like he was just cast for his resemblance to Don Calfa, am I right?  But he isn't allowed to do anything but clown and ham it up.  It's interesting that for Return 3, Brian Yuzna pulled more in the opposite way, creating a still somewhat light-hearted, but ultimately more earnest affair, which turned out to be a surprising return to form for the series.
But at the same time, this is not the complete messes that Returns 4 and 5 turned out to be.  You can argue against the creative decisions this movie made, and audiences world-wide would be right there with you; but ultimately this film mostly hit the notes it was trying to sound.  And for all the points where it lets you down - corny, unfunny gags that deflate the audience's involvement, attempts to repeat lines and moments from the first film that feel like heresy, and the completely unnatural way that kid was directed to deliver his lines - there's a good run of moments that succeed.  This film is filled with effects, most of which are quite good.  There are original zombie gags, like a woman with worms coming out of her face, where the worms lung forward when she attacks, or a really impressive scene where a zombie is blasted in half with a shotgun, and of course both halves are still in the game.  For all the jokes that don't work, which again is most of them, there are some that genuinely do.  As a kid, my friends and I used to quote "get the damn screwdriver out of my head" to each other all the time.  James Karen is still pretty great, and it is a nostalgic kick if nothing else to see him paired up again with Mathews, we get a fun early appearance by Twin Peaks' Dana Ashbrook, and the kid who played the lead bully is actually quite good and manages to be genuinely creepy when nothing else in this movie does.  The film's got a clean, attractive look with a somewhat rocking soundtrack.  If you can put the original film out of your mind, there's plenty of dumb fun to be had.
Now, Return 2 was originally released on DVD by Warner Bros back in 2004.  It was uncut, anamorphic widescreen and... not quite a special edition, but did have an audio commentary by the director and the kid who played the bully.  It just had one serious drawback, which we'll delve further into later, where the majority of the film's score was replaced with imitation music due to some licensing snafu.  So it was a little hard to get excited about that release, but unfortunately, it was pretty much all we had (foreign copies had the same problem).  Thankfully, Scream Factory has come around to finally do right by this film.  They're debuting the film in HD, with the original score restored (and the "fake" one to boot), and a whole bunch of new extras, turning it into a pretty loaded special edition due out in less than two weeks from now.  Still, remember my warning to not let your expectations run too wild...
2004 US Warner Bros DVD top; 2018 US Scream Factory blu bottom.
Let's start with the basics.  The DVD is completely full-screen at 1.78:1, while the blu is slightly matted to 1.85:1.  That's preferable, but we seem to have lost picture information around all four sides in the process.  It basically amounts to slivers, though, so no big deal.  You'll also notice a distinct shift in the color timing, with the DVD being cooler and the blu swinging into the reds.  I can't really say which is more accurate, and for the most part both discs play just fine, but there are at least some points, like the first set of comparisons above, where I prefer the DVD's timing, and the blu has a sort of hue washing out all the other colors.  Quibbles, though; and honestly, I prefer the blu's colors in the second set of shots, so the pendulum swings back and forth.  Anyway, I never felt while watching this on my television (as opposed to comparing screenshots on the PC, that is) where I felt the film looked "too red" or anything.
If there's any area to really knock this transfer down a grade point or two, it's the overall silky lack of detail.  Now curiously, the packaging for this film claims the transfer is both a "2K Scan From The Interpositive" and "created in 4K resolution at Warner Bros... from the original camera negative."  Both of these cannot be true at the same time, and looking at what we've got, I'd say the 2k scan of the interpositive is the correct one (plus, the 4k claim is only on the case, not the slipcover, while the 2k claim is on both).  And looking closely, I don't think there's any fault to be found in the 2k scan.  The film grain is very clear and authentic.  I think it's just an issue either of how the film was shot, or more likely just a lack of fine detail on the interpositive itself.  There's just not that much more to be gleaned than what we already see on the DVD.  To boil it down, I don't think there's anything wrong with this disc, and that Scream did their best to make it look as good as they possibly could given what they had to work with.  I'll be very surprised if a subsequent edition ever comes out from another label looking much better (barring a recovery of the OCN).  It's just not going to look all that impressive when excited fans pop it in their player or blow any HD fanatic's socks off.
A much bigger reason to get excited about the upgrade is in the audio department.  I mean, not only are we bumping the stereo mix up to DTS-HD (and both editions offer optional subtitles as well, by the way), but we're getting the original theatrical soundtrack that was on the VHS and laserdisc, but not the DVD edition.  And the difference is throughout.  I've seen references online to the scene where the dead rise out of the cemetery, and the music is absolutely different there, with real rock guitars in addition to the more synthy stuff.  But that's far from the only scene - almost the entire soundtrack has been replaced with another composer's work.  Only moments where a pop song or more of a library sting are used is the same.  Everywhere else it's been replaced.  And to be fair, the replacement soundtrack isn't terrible... nor is the original soundtrack a masterpiece in sonic horror; but the original soundtrack is definitely the better, preferable option.  And a few more dramatic differences in the soundtracks?  The replacement actually adds opening narration over the opening credits (which don't tell us much we don't find out directly in the film anyway), and original version originally ended with a cover of "The Monster Mash" over the closing credits, which the replacement completely discarded.  So yes, it's very nice to finally have the original soundtrack back.  And Scream went the extra mile to throw in the replacement version, too, so we get both.  👍
Another reason to get excited is definitely the special features.  Now, the original DVD had that commentary and the trailer, which have both been ported over.  The commentary is pretty good, clearly a composite edit with each participant recorded separately, but they both have some good stuff to say.  Scream Factory teams up with Red Shirt to add a whole lot more, though, including two more commentaries: one with co-star Suzanne Snyder (also of Killer Klowns From Out Space), where the moderator does most of the heavy lifting, and one with two film experts.  And there's a bunch of on-camera interviews, one with several members of the effects team, another with Wiederhorn, a very brief one with Troy Fromin, the extra who played the stoned soldier, and a fourth with the composer (of the "official" version).  What's great about all of these is that they're very candid and forthcoming, delving into all the fun details and stuff fans enjoy hearing, as well as being pretty open about their dissatisfactions.  This isn't just that typical Hollywood "everyone was brilliant and amazing" promo fluff.

Then there's a whole bunch of vintage stuff, like the original 'making of' featurette, plus additional EPK interview clips and B-roll footage.  Even better, they include the half-hour featurette from the original More Brains DVD (the documentary about the original RotLD) that was all about Part 2.  It's got some interviews that are unique to that feature, including Linnea Quigley and the now notorious Brian Peck.  Plus, they've got an additional teaser trailer, TV spots, two stills galleries.  It comes in a nice slipcover with reversible artwork, and if you pre-ordered it direct from Shout's site, a rolled poster.
So Return Of the Living Dead Part II isn't great, and it doesn't look amazing, but it's a pretty damned entertaining special edition that goes the extra mile to give the film more than it deserves.  There's a good chance you'll enjoy watching the special features more than the film itself, but hey, there are a lot worse zombie films out there, too.  A wholllllle lot worse.  I'm not holding it to the standards of the original and am having a lot of fun with this release.

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