Return of the Living Dead III
Review by Mike Finkelstein
The Return of the Living Dead series was started as a comedic answer to George Romero's Living Dead films. Where Romero used the zombies as metaphors for humanity's own failings, the Return series (which was sort of an unofficial spin-off) took the zombies towards more comedic aspirations. The zombies were goofier, sillier, and used often as jokes. These weren't zombies you were supposed to be afraid of, they were ones you laughed at and along with.
While that was the intent of the series, and it managed to mine two films of comedy-horror from the concept (The Return of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead Part II), there really was only so far you could go with the joke before it wore out it's welcome. How many times could you hear zombies call out for "brains" before it stopped being funny? The second film started flirting with some longer concepts with the zombies, prodding at what made the zombies tick, but its with this third one that true character-building, and world-building, for this zombie series really took off.
Make no mistake, this third film is not a comedy. While some of the goofier, low-budget ideas are still in play, this film uses its zombies for character drama and horror. Taking the ideas of the previous films, the movie goes far out into left field, taking what was available to make something darker, gorier, and much more hardcore than what came before. But in the process the film manages to find a true dramatic heart that elevates it above the two films that came before. This is easily the best, and more interesting, of the Return of the Living Dead films and, for a time, it served as an interesting capper to what was once a trilogy.
The film is focused on Curt Reynolds (J. Trevor Edmond) and his girlfriend, Julie Walker (Melinda Clarke). Curt and Julie are in love, wanting nothing more than to spend the rest of their lives together (this despite them both being teenagers who are just starting on their journeys). Curt, though, gets bad news: his father, Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord), hit a set-back in the project he was working on and, meeting that failure, the Army is set to transfer him. It had only been six months since they moved into town and Curt doesn't want to leave again, especially now that he's found Julie.
So the two run off together. This, unfortunately, is met with disaster as a truck runs the two lovebirds off the road. Julie goes flying, breaking her neck on a flagpole, dying instantly. But that's not the end for her, or their story, as Curt knows a way to bring her back. His dad was working on a project looking to weaponize the dead, using the gas that animates corpses. Curt saw this experiment before and reasons that he can bring Julie back, and it works. Unfortunately it doesn't quite bring her back like she was; she has a sudden hunger and a desire to kill. Curt has to worry now if he can keep Julie under control, if she can even control herself. Has he let the genie out of the bottle and caused yet another outbreak?
While we have seen couples in this series before, ones that had to deal with one of the two becoming a zombie, this film goes far deeper into that exploration. It does just play it for laughs but actually studies what would really happen if someone brought their loved one back from the dead. Would they be okay? Would they attack their lover? These are questions the film slowly picks apart, piece by piece, to show all the ramifications of the scenario. In the process it gets to some really deep character drama, creating two very real people out of Curt and Julie.
Special honor needs to go to Melinda Clarke for her part as Julie as she really nails all the pain and anguish the girl goes through during her slow transformation from teenage girl to the true living dead. She commits to the role, going through a lot of prosthetics and makeup, all while delivering a solid, real performance. She doesn't get lost in the monster, or buried under all the makeup, keeping Julie in there throughout. Truly a fantastic performance.
Of course, what people remember is that Julie starts mangling herself to control her hunger. She resorts to self-harm, and a lot of it, shoving metal through her skin, extra piercings, lots of cuts, glass, and just about anything she can find. The climax features a very mangled looking Julie as she gives in to her zombie needs despite all that she's done to herself. It's a lot, and the film doesn't skimp on showing all the pain and gore that she inflicts. This is a big reason why the film had to be trimmed down to an R-rating (and while the Unrated edition is prized among collectors). It's a lot.
The film was directed by Brian Yuzna, who over the years oversaw a number of great horror (especially body horror) monster films, either as a director and/or producer. He has titles like all three Re-Animator films under his belt, alongside From Beyond, Dagon and, amusingly, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. He clearly has an eye for the wild and imaginative, and enjoys mining horror from the strange and grotesque. Return of the Living Dead III is right up his alley and the director brings his standard low-budget flair to the film. You can tell that series creators absolutely needed Yuzna for this film as this is the kind of movie only he (and a few select others) could have done properly.
This movie isn't for everyone. It is hard to watch at times, creepy and gory but also painful because of all that Julie goes through, Growing up, this was one of the few movies I wasn't allowed to see when it came out (despite seeing just about everything else no matter the rating), and that's all because of its content. This is a very different film from the first two in the series, but also the best. If you have the stomach for it you'll find a solid horror film with a deep character study, and great performances along with. It's great, and truly delivers on the threads the series had setup prior to this film.