Tagline: She’s to die for.
Director: Brian Yuzna
Writer: John Penney
Starring: J. Trevor Edmond, Melinda Clarke, Kent McCord, Sarah Douglas
18 / 97 min. / Horror
You know what they say, third time’s a charm.
When Return of the Living Dead Part II was released back in 1988, reactions were mixed. The original Return of the Living Dead succeeded in balancing horror and comedy, but the sequel tipped the scale in the comedic direction, offering up minimal gore but a boatload of gags. Some enjoyed such a humorous take, others not so much. As the 1990s approached, Trimark Pictures, the studio who brought us Leprechaun, bought the rights to the series and began searching for a writer and director to helm the third entry.
Many scripts were submitted, including a treatment by actor Brian Peck and make-up artist Kenny Myers which explored the origins of zombie-resurrecting chemical 245 Trioxin. Eventually, the studio went with a script by John Penney that was a more personal and intimate tale involving a boy who refuses to let his love die — even after she is killed. Directing the picture would be Brian Yuzna, a man whose previous credits included Reaganite satire Society and Bride of Re-Animator. With a new emphasis on horror mixed with romance, Return of the Living Dead 3 was finally released in 1993.
Despite events in the previous two movies, the U.S. military is once again eager to examine the chemical Trioxin and figure out its potential as a bio-weapon. In charge of the experiments is Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord), who believes the undead can be immobilized and kept under control through his prototype freezing gun. Elsewhere, son Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) meets up with his girlfriend Julie (Melinda Clarke), the two of them eager to see exactly what Curt’s dad is up to. Using the key-card he swiped earlier, the couple get inside the base and stumble upon all sorts of strange experiments involving human remains, and secretly witness a demonstration of Colonel Reynolds’ freezer gun on a re-animated corpse.
At first, the experiment seems like a success, but when a scientist goes in for a closer inspection and is attacked by a zombie, the Colonel decides to relocate his family to a new town, Curt’s resultant anger leading to an accident that leaves his girlfriend dead. Realising that his father has access to gas that brings people to life, Curt naturally returns to the base and brings Julie back from the dead, a decision that leads to some very familiar consequences.
With Return of the Living Dead 3, Yuzna and Penney bring a unique idea to the series, with a story that is a bit more personal and limited in scope. The idea of an undead lover has been done before — 2013’s Warm Bodies being a recent example — and on paper it’s a fascinating concept. The film is about struggles: the struggle to keep a relationship intact and hold on to one’s humanity. What keeps the ship afloat, even with the shakier aspects of the script, is Julie’s character. Melinda Clarke puts in an admirable performance with a character who goes through quite the ordeal over the course of the film, most notably a brain addiction that acts as a commentary on the effects of drug abuse.
Recalling her human guise as a punk rocker, Julie’s means of tackling this comes in the form of self-mutilation, as she begins piercing her body with anything she can get her hands on. Those disappointed by the lack of gore in Part II will be pleased with the amount on offer here. Though produced on a small budget of approximately $1,000,000, the movie sports some nifty effects and creature designs. Many of the zombies look like they’ve wandered off the set of The Evil Dead, and in Julie’s case, her pierced and mangled body is something out of an S&M addict’s fantasy — the image one associates with this movie whenever it’s brought up in conversation. But themes of self-harm and graphic shots of Julie penetrating her body with all sorts of junk is a double-edged sword. Visceral scenes of body mutilation are a bit much and often uncomfortable to watch. It’s novel to begin with, but after a while becomes somewhat mind-numbing.
Return of the Living Dead 3 is remarkable in concept alone, but the rest of the movie fails to live up to its premise. Though Julie goes through one heck of an arc, Curt doesn’t. Most of the movie is him whining and moping around, even though much of what happens, from Julie’s resurrection to the events in the finale, is clearly his fault. Rather than trying to help his love, he lashes out at her for the pain she’s putting herself through, which nulls the significance of their romance. Similarly, the angsty relationship between Curt and his father is something we’ve seen a thousand times before, and no real resolution is ever explored.
As for the rest of the cast, the Latino gang who chase Curt and Julie during the second act seems tacked-on. They conveniently know where the two of them are at any given time, and even when one of their own gets bitten by Julie and starts to slowly deteriorate, they couldn’t care less about finding him a hospital or putting him out of his misery. The only character who comes close to being on par with Julie is Riverman, a homeless man who lets the couple stay in his underground lair as Julie falls apart. His wild-eyed but humble nature makes him a likeable character and a contender for the coolest homeless man in cinematic history.
What really hinders Return of the Living Dead 3 is it takes itself too seriously. The melodrama and tension often make the movie unintentionally hilarious, and the more outlandish elements introduced during the third act leave the movie with a bit of an identity crisis. It’s hard to sell drama when there are zombies decked out in battle armor or we’re witnessing one contrived moment after another. The amount of plot conveniences or characters making stupid decisions is kind of ridiculous, especially during the finale, where chaos results from something as simple as an unlocked cage.
An uneven tone and cheap production values mar Return of the Living Dead 3, but Yuzna and Penney deserve credit for trying something different with the material, and those who appreciated the wacky antics of Part II will probably get a kick out of the twisted, tragic romance that is central to this instalment. In many ways, the movie is like Julie herself — you want to appreciate it for what it is but struggle to look past the imperfections.
During the cadaver’s rampage, one of the scientists, played by Waxwork director Anthony Hickox, meets a grisly end when his head is smashed into a bloody mess.
Most Absurd Moment
Though Curt realizes that Julie is a walking corpse, he decides on a spot of intercourse while the two are hiding in Riverman’s sewer lair. Nothing says romance like necrophilia.
Most Absurd Dialogue
When Julie feasts on the brains of a convenient store clerk, Curt makes a rather obvious statement.
Curt: “Julie, are you eating him? You should stop it.”
Return of the Living Dead 3 is a difficult film to recommend. The concept of love beyond the grave is noteworthy, but the subject matter of self-mutilation is an uncomfortable watch. While it has its merits, it is often dark and mean-spirited, and as a result will likely prove a tough sell.