The Return of the Living Dead is one of those unlikely franchises. Given most of John Russoís other output, itís a miracle it beget even one great movie, let alone a masterpiece that endured enough to spawn four follow-ups. Hatched by the Night of the Living Dead co-writer in an attempt to cash in on the resurgent popularity of the undead, the original Return of the Living Dead was only molded into shape when Dan OíBannon came aboard and essentially transformed Russoís original novel into a zany, comedic take several miles from the serious source material, let alone George Romeroís films. The result is one of the all-time great party movies, a raucous, infectious punk rock howler that emphatically undercut any chances of a sequel with an unhinged ending that blasted every character into nuclear oblivion. This, of course, did not stop Hollywood from resurrecting the title several times over, eventually driving it into SyFy Original oblivion and mutating a respectable trilogy into a full blown series with entries weíd rather not speak of. But speak of them we must because if a franchise exists, so does the compulsion to rank Ďem, and itís party time.
5. Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (2005)
Okay, technically, they were still the Sci-Fi Channel back in 2005, when the network aired a pair of follow-ups that had no connection whatsoever to the previous films--well, unless you count barrels of Trioxin a ďconnection.Ē Nomenclature aside, it still has that distinct, low-budget stink to it that continues to pervade this channelís nonsense 15 years later. Filmed back-to-back with Rave to the Grave, this one debuted first, a shrewd positioning because anything that followed had to look better by comparison. The absolute nadir of this franchise, Necropolis is a truly brain-dead affair involving a group of high schoolers breaking into a military compound to rescue a detained friend, only to discover the presence of zombies. Itís not a bad setup, and you canít even say itís all that foreign to this franchise since it vaguely echoes the plot of the third film. However, the difference here is that Brian Yuzna didnít walk through that door to deliver this one. Instead, this feels like Return of the Living Dead put on by an ill-equipped band. Lame humor, forgettable characters, punishing nu-metal, and a droning score that acts like wallpaper conspire to undermine some admittedly face-shredding gore effects. I also have no idea what Peter Coyote is trying to do with his face. You will believe a man looks like he smelled a fart for the entire duration of a feature film. He deserves better--and so does anyone who bothers to spend 90 minutes on this movie.
A marginal improvement over its predecessor, Rave to the Grave at least feels a little bit like what youíd expect a ROTLD movie to feel like. Donít get me wrong: youíre not suddenly whisked back to 1985 or anything like that, but the emphasis on dopey teenagers partying their asses off as the dead rise can at least feign the pretense of deserving the ROTLD title. Whatís weird about this one though is that weíre apparently dealing with the same characters in the previous film, only they make no reference to Necropolis. I guess itís supposed to be a cute nod to the similar trick pulled in Part II, but itís truly confounding to see this movie pick up exactly where its predecessor left off without following it all the way through. Itís almost like they werenít sure which of these two movies were going to air first, so they split the difference by not having any direct references between them. At any rate, this one is still full of lame humor and bad music, but itís slightly more fun and splattery. Plus, it sees the return of franchise mascot Tarman, who provides an obvious tiebreaker here. Still canít figure out what Peter Coyote was doing with his face, though.
Iíve done a complete 360 on Return of the Living Dead II. As a kid, it was one I enjoyed, which made sense: itís a decidedly more kid-friendly riff on the franchiseís theme, and has a huge silly streak that undercuts any scares. In fact, it would have landed a PG-13 rating with just a few cuts but the filmmakers refused. You can see why that wouldnít appeal to me as I grew older and dismissed it as being too juvenile and try-hard. For a solid decade, I figured it was one better left to those rosier childhood memories, but a recent rewatch had the quality of a warm blanket. Something about that opening scene, with its autumnal hues and carefree kids poking around a cemetery, just seems so quaint and cozy. The rest of itís pretty good too: it feels less like the original film and more like a Creepshow segment stretched to feature length, buoyed by a madcap comic book sensibility and a killer soundtrack (so long as youíre listening to the original one, which Scream Factory restored to its Blu-ray release). Reuniting Thom Mathews and James Karen (here playing completely different characters) is also a weirdly inspired move, even if the material theyíre working with isnít quite as good as it was the first time around. And that pretty much sums up ROTLD II as a whole: like a lot of jokes, itís just a little less funny the second time around, but that doesnít mean you donít mind hearing it every now and then. Plus, this one will always be lodged in the deepest recesses of my horror-loving heart because its holofoil sticker was a staple of many a toy vending machine throughout my childhood. There must have been plenty of other horror stickers during this time, but for some reason, this one has lingered on my brain for 30 years.
With its third entry, The Return of the Living Dead abandoned all pretense of being a coherent franchise--and thatís okay. When Brian Yuzna came aboard for this one, it was apparently decided that all this title really requires is zombies, gore, bitchiní tunes, and a punk rock attitude; any other additions, including a romantic subplot between a boy and his undead girlfriend, are fair game. I suppose you could understand if some find this one to be too much of a departure from the formula set by the first two movies, but, if the second movie was any indication, that formula was already wearing thin. Enter Yuzna, who gave ROTLD the blood-soaked jolt it needed with this relentlessly nasty but wildly entertaining sequel. In addition to its crimson-splashed mayhem and rotting flesh, it also boasts an array of colorful characters headlined by Melinda Clarkeís Julie, the ill-fated girlfriend whose death during a motorcycle accident is just the beginning of her ordeal. In a franchise thatís full of memorable characters, it says a lot that Julie is arguably the coolest of the bunch: a goth girl whoís obsessed with death before she goes on to be a total, kick-ass zombie. Likewise, Yuzna has been at the helm of some absolute all-time great gorefests, and Return of the Living Dead III is one of his crowning achievements. Both the zombie designs and the various gore gags are downright awe-inspiring. Best of all, it has a perfectly acceptable ending before it graciously ladles on about 15 more minutes of brain-chomping, flesh-melting carnage.
Iím sure someone could make a compelling counterargument for one of the sequels, but, for me, there is no debate: The Return of the Living Dead is not only the finest entry in this franchise, but it absolutely deserves to be spoken of in the same company as the ďproperĒ living dead movies that inspired it. No, itís not at all trying to walk in lock-step with Romeroís films, but thatís exactly what makes it work. The Return of the Living Dead turns its predecessors inside-out by trading in Romeroís bleak outlook for punk anarchy. It makes for a riotous take on an old staple, one thatís bursting with gut-busting dialogue and colorful characters brought to life with spirited performances from Karen, Mathews, Don Calfa, Clu Gulager, Miguel Nunez, and Linnea Quigley. Guided by the raucous spirit of its soundtrack, The Return of the Living Dead is just a damn good time. It also sneaks some of that Romero cynicism into the backdoor, ultimately giving it the distinction of being the most entertaining movie ever made that ends with all of its characters being totally annihilated by a nuclear bomb.
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