Written by: John Penney
Directed by: Brian Yuzna
Starring: Melinda Clarke, J. Trevor Edmond, and Kent McCord
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“The pain... the pain keeps the hunger away."
Like its Romero Living Dead counterpart, the Return of the Living Dead series is loosely connected at best, with its primary link being the prominent presence of barrels of Trioxin 2-4-5, the nuclear waste material responsible for bringing the dead back to life. Though the first two films shared cast members (including leads Thom Mathews and James Karen), they barely resemble each other beyond the mix of humor and the undead. Part three goes even further off the board--the Trioxin is still there, causing havoc as ever, but the franchise’s funny bone is largely amputated and replaced with an unexpectedly tenderhearted love story.
Curt and Julie (J. Trevor Edmond and Melinda Clarke) are teenagers in love. He’s an army brat who’s moved from town to town, she’s the fiery, red-headed wild child who convinces him to steal his dad’s military ID so they can break into his compound. Unbeknownst to either of them, Curt’s father is part of a secret team of military leaders and scientists doing research on the Trioxin compound. After witnessing an experiment on a reanimated corpse, to Curt’s house to fool around until they’re interrupted by the colonel (Kent McCord), who informs his son that they’ll be moving yet again. None too pleased at this news (and his father’s backhanded insults of his girlfriend), he and Julie take off for a defiant joyride that turns tragic when she’s flung from his motorcycle and killed. Heartbroken and desperate, Curt takes Julie back to his father’s lab, revives her with the Trioxin, and unwittingly turns her into a zombie.
Despite arguably having the silliest premise of the series, part three is the most straight-laced of the bunch. Gone are the punk-rock anarchy of the original and the juvenile, Abbot & Costello undead routine from the follow-up, here replaced by a gory teenage drama. With Brian Yuzna at the helm, things are still a little wry and offbeat, but this one’s a horror movie first, with the humor providing the colorful playfulness expected of this series. This second sequel also dispenses with the pattern set forth by the first two that finds the protagonist attempting to avoid the undead. Instead, Curt and Julie are mostly on the run from a pack of hoodlums they encounter in a convenience store shortly after busting back out of the government lab. With an assist from a homeless man named Riverman (Basil Wallace), they elude their pursuers while simultaneously reckoning with Julie’s slow transformation into the living dead.
Previous entries in the series sort of dealt with that latter angle, of course, as Freddy (Mathews) turned into pasty-faced zombie as the original wore on, much to his girlfriend’s horror (it only got worse when he attempted to eat her brains). Whereas that film played the scenario for laughs (and the second one played all scenarios for maximum silliness), Return of the Living Dead III is ingested with a little bit more pathos for its lovers. Curt is maybe an impassioned “you’re tearing me apart” speech away from being a rebel without a cause, so he’s a sort of sensitive punk unlike his counterparts in the first movie. Meanwhile, Melinda Clarke has probably ushered many a young zombie enthusiast into puberty as Julie, the blazing, buxom beauty who totally commands the movie. In a series that can also boast the likes of Linnea Quigley, it’s quite a compliment to say she’s invariably linked to the franchise in my mind, especially when she becomes something of a bondage queen zombie hero. Decked out with piercing, chains, metal claws, and an ability to kick ass, she’d be the franchise’s icon if not for the Tarman (who unfortunately sits this entry out).
Together, Curt and Julie are star-crossed lovers like Romeo and Juliet, separated by both Curt’s disapproving father and, well, death. No stranger to fucked-up romances after helming Bride of Re-Animator, Yuzna handles these two well by balancing the humanity and the horror. The film might be a little bit more serious than the previous ones, but it’s bouncy enough and infused with a similar devil-may-care spirit that delivers the right amount of ghoulishness and grisliness. Thematically, the film taps back into the military angle, as the army's back here breeding the undead for use in war. Sarah Douglas has a thankless role as one of the commanders overseeing the project, which fades into the background for much of the film. By the end, though, it comes roaring back when all of the pickled corpses emerge from their canisters for the gruesome climax.
Putting Yuzna behind the camera also results in the series getting its nuts back. Part two might as well have been a PG-rated affair--it’s the type of horror movie that appeals to 9 year olds, which is okay since there’s a place for that kind of movie. Part three, though, is purely pubescent, full of boobs and incessant gore. While it isn’t as gleefully excessive as the previous year’s Dead Alive, Return of the Living Dead III is an incredible display of body horror and splatter. Yuzna’s always been a sort of poor-man’s Cronenberg, but he’s hit some incredible highs during his career, with this being one of them. Not content to merely create nondescript, shambling zombies, Yuzna embraces the franchise’s legacy of unique designs. Tarman might be absent, but he’s not completely missed, as Yuzna conjures up a fun array of creatures, including one that has an elongated spine after his head is almost severed from its body. The accompanying eviscerations, impalements, and, (of course) brai(iiiiii)n eating are messy and gooey, so it’s a great practical effects showcase.
The bad news is that you’ll have to seek out the uncut version to see all of this splatter. Trimark released both the R-rated and unrated versions on VHS and Laserdisc, but, for whatever reason, only the former made it to Region 1 DVD when it was released back in 2001. The release is otherwise fine--the transfer accurately reflects the grungy cinematography, while the stereo soundtrack is more than adequate. Yuzna also dropped by to provide a commentary where he’s apparently aware that he’s watching the cut version of the film, as he’s all too happy to point out what was cut from certain points. There’s quite a few instances too--in fact, there’s enough to warrant seeking out the uncut version from other countries if you have a region-free player. Regardless, Return of the Living Dead III is a good recovery for the franchise after the weak second film; it doesn’t ascend to the heights of the original (which is one of the most purely 80s horror films and a true popcorn classic), but it is one of Yuzna’s best offerings. Possessing a rare combination of sweetness and splatter, part three would have been a fine final chapter for the franchise had it stayed dead. Buy it!
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