Dan O’Bannon’s original Return Of The Living Dead has one of the most interesting tones of any horror films of the 80’s. Mixing dark wit with punk rock cynicism to create a nihilistic comedy that’s both hilarious and traumatic, there’s literally no other film like it which was further compounded by the 1988 sequel that put its deeply sardonic nature on hold and instead went for broad slapstick and goofy mugging.
However, in 1993, horror producer turned director Brian Yunza seemed to be both a weird and natural choice to once again crack open one of those pesky drums of 2-4-5 Trioxin and see what crawled out, but his arrival to the franchise meant yet another tonal shift for this world of indestructible zombies and questionable military health and safety. However, no one could have predicted that Yunza’s approach would draw so much from *checks notes* Romeo & Juliet?
The atmosphere in the Reynolds household could accurately be described as thick as the tension between Curt and his Colonal father reach breaking point. Young Curt is in the midst of a relationship with big hearted but self destructive relationship with nihilistic and death obsessed Julie Walker, something that widower John has a real problem with; on the other hand, Curt and Julie have snuck into the secret lab that his father runs and have found out that he’s knee deep in a military experiment to create bio-weapons for the next generation of warfare – and is failing royally.
The plan is to revive corpses into becoming an unstoppable, flesh eating force with those barrels of reanimation gas that keep popping up in weird places with the aim to let them run roughshod over enemy terrain and then move in with guns that fire paralyzing ice bullets to subdue them once the battle is over. The problem is, the paralyzing agent doesn’t hold for particularly long (a discovery made by a hapless lab worker) and John is due to be replaced by the shifty Colonel Sinclair, who instead proposes a bolted on exoskeleton approach that seems inhumane even to the living dead.
However, upon deciding to elope with Julie, the love struck teens are struck by something infinitely harder when Curt’s bike collides with a tree, killing Julie instantly, and while wracked with grief, the mourning himbo drags her body back to the lab and gives her a blast of zombie gas to bring her back to life.
Now, its here we reach the good-news, brand-new part of our story because while Julie is brought back to the land of the living, the pain of being dead can only be nullified by either the eating of brains or by acts of extreme self-mutilation – but when you throw in a roving group of stereotypical gangbangers, a kindly vagrant and a full on zombie infestation, you can take it to the bsnk that this is yet another love story that can’t possibly have a happy ending.
Choosing to eschew the sarcastic cruelty of the orginal and the wacky comedy of the sequel, Yunza opts to go for the same, untethered chaos he infused into Bride Of Re-Animator where a bunch of nice people run around for a bit before the movie gets utterly hijacked by multiple teams of special effects artists desperately trying to out do themselves during an utterly mental climax. Something of an unheralded saviour of early 90’s horror, Yunza is obviously struggling with a budget tighter than Wilson Fisk’s trousers and while the cracks start to show on more than one occasion, he still manages to bring home a movie that, while feeling admittedly removed from the franchise as a whole, still appeals to his out-there sensibilities – especially when it comes to the typically surreal gore he presents.
But first, let’s focus on the still-living members of the cast and if I’m being honest, J. Trevor Edmond’s Curt doesn’t really impress as as a leading man as his performance leans heavily into whining while stubbornly establishing minimal chemistry with anyone around him – but, he has photogenic bone structure and an expensive looking haircut so I guess he’s good enough to spend time screaming his way through a low budget 90’s zombie movie. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast perform their roles to decent effect with gruff military men and painfully on the nose gang members, but only Superman 2’s Sarah Douglas as a typically austere Colonel and Basil Wallace’s tragic Riverman make any real impact. Blowing everyone off the screen, however, is Melinda Clarke (formally Mindy) who is probably best known for her work in numerous TV shows such as The OC, but who goes all out to portray a young woman trying to struggle her way through dangerous urges that could spell disaster for everyone around her. Going above and beyond the call of duty by alternating between scoffing brains like she was born to it and shivering through withdrawals like a newborn calves, she also is called on to wear incredibly intricate prosthetics as she aggressively self mutilates to take the pain away, thus giving the movie its remarkable poster image. Harkening from everything to S&M, body modification, Clive Barker’s Cenobites and even riffing on troubled teens self harming in order to cope with their mounting challenges and thus it finally gives Return Of The Living Dead 3 that tone of disenfranchised youth the second movie was severely lacking.
However, if I was to choose, I would argue that with its extreme levels of cartoonish gore mixing with teen romance, ROTLD3 plays more like Peter Jackson’s Braindead as the violence gets evermore out of control and if there’s anyone who could match Jackson in the 90’s for extended acts of bloodily inventive carnage, it’s the man who gave us Society. Thus we get incredibly trippy sights of grue such as a zombie with its head and arm melted to its chest who tears them free to reveal its grinning skeleton, another victim who resurrects after his head and spine has been yanked a good comple of yard out of his body and of course the stunning sight of Julie after completing her extreme new look. In fact, the old school effects look so complicated, it actually reveals a few shortcomings elsewhere, such as some noticably uninspired sets such as the military compound literally seeming to be the exact same corridor shot from different angles giving the faster paced scenes feel like a Scoopy-Doo chase sequence.
Let’s not split hairs, Return Of The Living Dead 3 is noticably rough around the edges, but Yunza’s enthusiasm, Clarke’s dedication and the fact that the effects guys seem to have been let completely off the leash make this particular day of the dead a wince worthy return to form.