Friday, May 29, 2020

The Cutting Room Floor: Return of the Living Dead Part II

The Return of the Living Dead sequels are an interesting bunch.  Neither tried to replicate the original's balance of horror and comedy, opting instead to do either-or.  While most fans appreciate Brian Yuzna's dark, gothic, body-mutilation approach to Return of the Living Dead 3, reactions to the second installment's slapstick shenanigans are divided.  Either you laugh at the chatty severed head with a Southern accent or groan at how this is a sanitized, comedic retread of the original.  Writer/director Ken Wiederhorn has stated in various interviews it was his decision to focus on the laughs and have a child be the main star instead of punks.

There is a lot of information available on the making of the first Return, but not as much on the sequels.  Any details on what changed or got removed during the script-writing process is only briefly detailed by those involved.  I always wondered what was cut from Part II's script, and my luck changed in early 2019.  Someone from a Return of the Living Dead page I follow told me he had a copy of the script he would be willing to part with for the right price.  Due to other financial commitments, I did not acquire it right away, but that changed earlier this month.

On a rainy Friday afternoon, the film's script and EPK (electronic press kit) arrived in the mail.  Once the package was opened and the contents removed, I began reading through the script, taking note of any deleted scenes, unused dialogue, alternate scenes, etc.  The script, 2nd draft dated November 7, 1986, is 104 pages long, equal to 104 minutes.  Nearly 15 pages worth of material did not make it into the finished product.  Time to highlight ten elements which ended up on the cutting room floor.

Not for sale.

1. Jesse's Introduction

The script begins with a convoy of trucks driving through town with Trioxin barrels in tow.  One of the drivers, too distracted by the music emanating from his Walkman, fails to notice three barrels fall out the back and onto the road, where one barrel is clever enough to inch its way off a cliff and into the river below.

We then transition to a newly built suburb, complete with (as the script describes it) "new sod for lawns, a moving truck in one driveway.  For Sale signs.  Several houses still under construction."  Jesse Wilson, the protagonist, is introduced running around and pretending he's his favorite superhero, Master Man.  He runs from "house to house caught up in some sort of fantasy game.  Jesse is a kid who plays by himself and is never alone."  His superhero fantasies are cut short by Billy and Johnny, two bullies who take note of his unusual behavior and begin harassing him about it.

Jesse begs them to stop by bargaining his rare comic books.  When Jesse runs to his room, the script describes it as "Comic city.  The book shelves are packed with comics.  There's comic literature, articles, blow-up prints of comic in particular has a place of honor above his desk...his name emblazoned across the poster....MASTERMAN."  This leads into the film's opening, where Jesse looks out the window at the bullies, unsure what to do next, before pulling a box of comics, snagging an issue, and bringing it to the two toughs waiting for him.  

If the lighthearted tone was not clear enough in the film, then it is here.  The suburban setting, combined with the kid's vivid imagination, his love for comics, and the bullies who pester him for his energetic behavior, is ripped straight from the Spielbergian school of filmmaking.  Having kids or teens encounter an unknown creature/presence terrorizing the small town/suburbs was all the rage in the 80's, as evidenced by films like Gremlins, The Monster Squad, and The Blob remake.  Return of the Living Dead Part II falls into the same category.

2. Gags and Gore

Return of the Living Dead Part II features a lot of slapstick humor, from zombies falling into empty graves to a Michael Jackson zombie being electrocuted amidst the throngs of other ghouls, and what violence exists is kept to a minimum.  However, the script tries to strike a balance between the two, even if the zombies are played for laughs.  For example, later in the movie, Ed, James Karen's character, attacks a soldier after he turns into one of the undead.  Though the scene is tame in the movie, it is surprisingly graphic in the script.

When he attacks the soldier, named Les in the script, the description is as follows:
"Les' body jerks in a death spasm, his hands scratching at the open wound, trying to stuff his brains back into his he staggers backwards and collapses onto the street."

Scenes like this and an earlier scene where Billy's dad gets pounced on by the worm-infested zombie ("His body jerks and collapses onto the street) showed Ken tried to fill his zombie comedy sequel script with as much violence as possible.  

Although that is not to say the script is light on gags.  There is a bit described where while driving through the town looking for an exit, Doc Mandel spots a liquor store and asks if they could stop there for a second, until zombies burst through the windows with booze in tow.  Earlier, when the corpses pour into Jesse's house looking for brains, one of the zombies notices a beetle fall out of its ribcage and onto the counter.  He tries to crush it, but instead hits the remote, which turns on the TV and distracts the reanimated bodies.

3. The Severed Head

One of the more memorable moments in Part II is when the head Ed and Joey lobbed off one of the bodies in the mausoleum springs to life and attacks Ed.  Tom stabs it with a screwdriver, throws it in a closet, and that's the last of it until the finale, where it pops up for a final appearance before being roasted by a flamethrower.  The severed head is in the script, but instead of appearing twice, it only appeared the one time in the house, and after Tom kicks it into a closet and shuts the door, we never see it again.  The reason for this change was a studio decision.

According to an article published in the January 1988 edition of Fangoria, the producers saw the scene and asked if the head could become a recurring bit.  Another piece of trivia is the voice was provided by the man in charge of make-up, Kenny Myers.  Myers thought his voice would be replaced in post-production, but the studio instead kept it in.  The severed head is one of the funnier parts, so it is surprising to see it was initially a one-scene wonder.

4. Tarman's Return...and Death

Return of the Living Dead Part II is a comedic, beat-for-beat retread of its predecessor, and at no point is it made clearer than by the reappearance of Tarman.  In the script, Jesse has to return to where the barrel is since he can't remember the number stenciled on the side of the tank, whereas in the movie he goes immediately from Billy's house to the cemetery.  When he gets back there to write the number, the description of his encounter with Tarman is nearly the same as how Dan O'Bannon wrote Tina's encounter, as you can see in this comparison below.

From Return of the Living Dead's script:

Her eye goes from the black slime in the tank to the floor next to the tank.  There is more of the slime on the floor, and a trail of it leads away from the tank.

The trail of black liquid, which has a smeared appearance, leads over to the corner of the cellar...back behind some crates, in the black shadows.



Who's there?

Something starts to shuffle forward out of the shadows.  First WE SEE its feet.  Then the rest of it comes into the light.

It is a hideous, horrible monstrosity.  It is the body that was in the tank.  It is a skeleton covered with black, tarry glop, wobbly and loathsome.  It SPEAKS, in a voice like vomit.

Brains. Brains.

From Return of the Living Dead Part II's script:

Jesse gets close enough to see the numbers, but the painter's goggles have steamed up...he can't see through them.  He lifts them up onto his forehead as he writes the numbers down.

He steps in something sticky and notices the black-green slime on the ground next to the drum.  A trail of it leads away up into the storm drain itself.  

Jesse follows the trail of black-green liquid with the flashlight.  The stuff smears as it disappears into the bowels of the drain.

Something moves in there.

Jesse stiffens.

I knew it.  I just knew it.

Something starts to shuffle out of the shadows.  First, we see its feet.  Then the rest of it comes into the light.

It's the body that was in the tank!  It's a skeleton covered with black, tarry glop.  It speaks in a raw, vomitous voice.

Brains.  Brains.

When Jesse outwits Tarman and pushes him into the creek, we assume he dies, but in the script, it describes how after Jesse pushes the shuffling corpse into the water, Tarman's body dissolves and falls to pieces.  What should be a cool moment is cut short.  Still, this sequence highlights Ken's tendency to retread old ground instead of taking risks.

5. The Hospital

This is a tricky one.  Though the scene exists in the final product, the events which occur were heavily truncated from page to film.  At first, it starts the same.  After returning from their search around town, Jesse sneaks off while Tom and Lucy talk with Doc and Brenda about Joey and Ed's condition.  Jesse takes the elevator to the basement, where he finds the communications room.  A corpse notices Jesse through an above-ground window and breaks in.  Jesse attempts to hide but is spotted by the corpse.  Jesse retaliates by shooting the zombie with a magnum he hid under his shirt.  From here, the script and movie deviate.

Instead of immediately running back to the elevator to try and escape, Jesse flees to the nearby morgue to hide.

Jesse slams the door shut, looks around.  There's a whole wall of refrigerated drawers...this is the morgue!  The Corpse pushes against the door.  Too strong for Jesse.  He backs to the other center of the room.  The Corpse bursts in!

The Corpse advances.  Jesse frantically looks around...he sees the handle on a drawer and pulls it out.  The body of an old woman lies on the tray.  Jesse points at the cadaver's head and motions to the Corpse.

Look! Brains!


Yeah, that's right! Over here.

The sequence continues with the corpse choosing to chase Jesse, preferring the fresh brains over the dead ones.  Unfortunately, more zombies show up in the hallway, but just as the pursuing zombie closes in on Jesse, Lucy steps out of the elevator and sends it flying with the shotgun.  From there, we get a surprisingly hectic action scene where Tom and Lucy mow down zombies left and right, with an occasional humorous moments like when Tom is briefly distracted by the ghastly but beautiful sight of a female corpse, as well as a bit where Lucy SHOVES HER SHOTGUN DOWN THE THROAT OF THE LEGLESS CORPSE AND SENDS IT FLYING ACROSS THE ROOM. When the fighting is said and done, the three escape as "THE CAMERA HOLDS on the corridor of moving and twitching body parts."

The elaborate action described is downsized to just the one corpse who corners Jesse at the end of the hallway.  Tom and Lucy show up, and the zombie gets bisected courtesy of a double-barreled shotgun blast from Lucy.  The effect of the half-corpse chasing after Jesse is impressive, but one has to wonder why this scene was cut to the bare minimum.  As seen in these frames taken from a behind the scenes video, the morgue set was built, but never used.  

Ken Wiederhorn said he faced a variety of challenges during production, most of which stemmed from his decision to make a kid the star.  Labor laws state a child actor can only work a certain number of hours on set, which meant Ken probably had to reduce the sequence of events to what we see in the film.

It's a shame he was not able to pull off this scene as he intended.  The over-the-top action fits well with the campy nature of the sequel.  Plus, it plays up the fact Lucy is supposed to be a top-notch marksman and ranked as one of the state's best.  One final note, after the one zombie gets shot in half and its legs walk away, a gag was supposed to happen later where Doc, Jesse, Tom, and Lucy notice the legs stumbling around town.

6. The Fate of Ed and Joey

Return of the Living Dead Part II brought back James Karen and Thom Mathews.  This time, they play Ed and Joey, graverobbers who arrive at the cemetery to dig up bodies and sell their skulls.  Just like before, they get exposed to the gas via the acid rain, which is pouring through a leaky roof and into the mausoleum, contaminating them and eventually one of the bodies they pull out, at least in the script.  

In the movie, the mist from the rain seeps into the mausoleum.  The leaky roof does better explain how the one body arises when the two take a break since in the movie, it just wakes up.  Yet, the question remains, what happens to Ed and Joey after they turn?

The answer:  they disappear!  I was astounded to learn this glaring plot hole existed not only in the movie but the script.  I always thought the scenes were shot, but cut; then again, when I asked Thom Mathews about this last year, he said they shot nothing, which should have been my clue maybe it was that way in the script.  

Nevertheless, it is disappointing to know the two disappear, never to be seen again.  Did Ken think no one would notice?  However, Brenda's death does play out differently.  Instead of fleeing into a church, she runs out into the street, unsure of what do, before Joey catches up and convinces her to let him eat her brains.  Still a better love story than Return of the Living Dead 3.

7. Alternate: Order of Events

A minor detail, but many scenes which happen in the movie occur at different intervals in the script.  For example, the scene where Sarge and Frank (the other soldier) get into a shootout with the undead happens after Brenda's death, instead of when Tom and the other three pull up at the packing plant.  The return of the return of the living dead occurs after Jesse comes home with the phone number and begs Lucy to use the phone but is instead sent to his room.  

Billy's death and resurrection happens after Doc Mandel's introduction, instead of when the group is sneaking from house to house to avoid the  zombies.  Again, it is minor in the grand scheme of things, but does highlight how the arranging of events is subject to change between script and movie.

8. Tom Likes Butts and He Cannot Lie

This is incredibly awkward to discuss.  I mentioned earlier a deleted scene where Jesse tries to the number by memory but can't quite remember the digits.  After going back to his bedroom to think about what to do next, we cut back to Lucy, who realizes the cake she is baking is finished.

As she pulls the cake out, and I can't believe I'm saying this, Tom stares at her butt:

She frowns and bends back towards the a way that allows him to see more of that rear wiggling at him.

He can't take his eyes off it.

Someone wrote this scene and thought, "This is grade-A material right here."  It is cringy to read, to say the least, and I'm glad this moment got excised.  The fact Lucy is supposed to be 17 makes it more uncomfortable.

There's also a few unused dialogue exchanges between Jesse and Lucy early on in the movie, but it's nothing too significant.  What is significant, however, is the startling amount of script omissions.

9. Return of the Omitted Dead

For those unfamiliar with script writing, when a writer omits a scene or shot, it's done to improve the flow of the screenplay and remove something that might be considered irrelevant from a story point of view.  There are numerous shots that are omitted in my copy of the script.  Most of them are minor, but the most significant omission comes between the scene where the heroes start throwing brains to lure the zombies to the power plant and when they arrive.

What was cut?  The world may never know.

As you can see here, shots 197 through 240 were omitted.  That's about 43 shots, which is a lot of material.  Unfortunately, I have no idea what originally happened.  This particular revision is dated January 6, 1987, so whatever was planned was scrapped.

Putting on the tin foil hat for a second, I have two theories.  The first is these scenes showed what happened to Ed and Joey after they became zombies.  My other theory is it was an encounter between Jesse and Johnny, since Johnny is completely absent for the rest of the script and movie, save for a brief shot in both.

10. The Ending

Surprisingly, the ending plays out differently.  After our heroes succeed in electrocuting all the zombies, Doc Mandel and Jesse step outside to notice the sun rising and the military arriving.  They start burning the corpses and a couple of stragglers with flamethrowers and are about to turn the torchers on the two when the back of the truck opens to show Tom and Lucy fervently making out.  The military realizes they are human, and the two guys walk off while the soldiers get to work cleaning up the mess and the two lovebirds continue kissing each other.  It's not too different from the film's ending, only instead all four of them walk off and we close with the severed head from earlier cracking wise and getting toasted.

Closing Thoughts

Is this script better than the movie we got?  Yes and no.  For starters, I appreciate Ken's attempt to balance the humor with violence.  The finished film leans heavily towards slapstick humor, and though the comic tone is prevalent throughout the 104 pages, the gory bits involving zombies, humans, and vice versa are entertaining and would have helped solidify the R-rating the movie received.  

It moves at a speedy pace and does a better job at visualizing how empty the town is versus the movie, where everything looks too clean and organized, almost as if they were shooting in Sierra Madre late at night.

As much as the script tries to be a fun zombie comedy, its biggest problem is its structure.  The script borrows too much from the original and tends to repeat memorable moments word-for-word.  There is the previously mentioned Tarman encounter, but the zombie resurrection scene reads like a carbon copy of what we saw before, complete with descriptions of "corpses kicking and screaming from down below as the camera pans over the tombstones."  I can understand now why some key personnel from the first decided to opt out of doing the sequel, given how copy and paste the script can be at times.

What could have helped Return of the Living Dead Part II is if it went for the satire instead of slapstick.  You can have bits like the zombie getting its jaw ripped out but have material which pokes fun at trends from the late 80's, the first film, or even Ken Wiederhorn's earlier works.  How funny would it have been if the main characters were stalked by the Nazi zombies from his directorial debut Shock WavesGremlins 2: The New Batch also amped up the comedy, but it took plenty of jabs at the first movie.  If this movie had done the same, it could have been more memorable.

Nevertheless, this script is a piece of horror history I will preserve as long as I live.