Thursday, November 03, 2011

Return of the Living Dead 3

Return of the Living Dead 3
Directed by: Brian Yuzna
USA, 1993
Horror, 97min

A sequel, two notches away from the original source, shouldn’t really become a cult classic should it? Especially as the second installment only added insult to injury – despite finding it’s own place in zombie filmography and horror fans collections. Taking a daring step away from the black comedy splatter fest that Dan O’Bannon and John Russo’s original movie once was, and even further from the tepid not really that fun, and not really scary, failure of Ken Wiederhorn’s Return of the Living Dead II 1988, splatter-flick pioneer Brian Yuzna dug deep into the origins of the living dead to bring one of the franchises greatest moments; Return of the Living Dead 3.

Teenagers Curt [J. Trevor Edmond] and Julie [Mindy Clarke] are deep in love. Nothing can tear them apart… not even Curt’s stern military dad, top-secret research facilities or even death it’s self. After trying to impress his girlfriend by snitching his dad’s security pass card and sneaking into his research facility, and instead seeing a man being brought back to life, and then shot in the head, the couple take off scared and panicked with what they have seen. After another domestic conflict with his father at home Curt adolescently storms out of the house, most likely intent on running away with Julie. But fate has other plans for them and a freak accident leaves Julie dead. With the knowledge of what goes on in his fathers secret laboratory Curt has a second chance at love. But playing God has a price.

The first and foremost thing to pop out of the screen at me this time around was something that’s been attributed to other directors than the one who perhaps deserves the recognition. When critics, myself among them, started praising Marc Price’s Colin 2008 and even George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead 2005, and Survival of the Dead 2009, for introducing zombies as active characters making conscious decisions, one tends to forget about Julie Walker.

Seems that Brian Yuzna and writer John Penney, already went down that road almost twenty years ago with Return of the Living Dead3. Well aware of the lifecycle of the zombies – being bitten, dying and transforming into living dead flesh eater, Julie takes to self-mutilation to stay in touch with her humanity. That artwork and subplot wasn’t only a smart way of getting some great special effects and tapping into subcultures of the time, it was also a brilliant piece of character development. And it’s a rare to take the position of monster trying to stay human even in the modern zombie flicks of today. It’s pretty much still a metaphor for showing how man and man still bicker and fight amongst each other even when rotting flesh-eaters are banging on their front door.

Another interesting detail with the movie is the timeframe it’s set in. Not only a modern take on William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but it also reflects modern deadly love affairs from pop culture such as Sid and Nancy and undoubtedly, Kurt and Courtney. Yes it's very nineties with several referents to the music scene of the time. Curt even holds a plan to take off to Seattle and join a band as a drummer... It's very much Grunge Nineties. But at the core of it all there’s the love story, and I can’t really think of a zombie movie that centers on a romance-fight for survival themed story before RotLD3, which again makes it rather unique at the time.

You need to pay attention to how characters are introduced in The Return of the Living Dead 3. The audiences’ first encounter with Julie sees her testing her endurance as she holds her hand over a flame – this will return throughout the movie and kinda sets a trait for her character. Curt arrives with the magic keycard and they both take off in what they think will be a mission to rescue animals from military experiments. We know from these few scenes that these are two typical young kids, trying out limits, seeking their place in life and engaged in the stuff that kids that age are, rock music, making out and rebelling against anyone and everything.

The power of politics are presented right off the bat. Where an initial attack would have been customary, Yuzna choses to present the real antagonists of the piece straight up front. The army via Colonel John Reynolds [Kent McCord] who’s all for the freeze-thaw-refreeze project and Colonel Sinclair [Sarah Douglas] Exoskeleton, a steel frame to control the zombies and use them in war… Which undoubtedly comes off as a comment on USA military and their way of exploiting anything they can. A lot of exposition and info about the secret military base is presented, amongst other things the shoddy security due to budgetary restraints… that will come in handy for Curt and Julie when they enter the facility somewhat later. This first scene establishes a rift within the corridors of power. John and Sinclair obviously come from two separate corners when it comes to the Zombies, which too is established in their very first scene.

The second military scene brings some delightful backstory into the piece and connects this installment with the previous two. A few lines of dialogue and a brilliant shot of a zombie in the classic barrels we have seen before. And as always, there’s never a scientific experiment that doesn’t go wrong. Where John’s rather humane approach seems to have been a success, it obviously fails, and the Sinclair’s exoskeleton project is propelled forth. Being a part three, one would have expected that viewers already would have known the genesis of the zombie. But as Yuzna and Penney have boosted their zombies – not even the common bullet to the brain works here, hence the Freezing experiments – and therefore we even get that little “this is how it works” scene.

Needless to say the movie thrives on the experience of Julie, and how she fights against her own body turning into a zombie. Poking her self with nails, twisting iron coils into her skin and fording shards of glass under her skin to tight off the hunger – and keep Curt’s love, are still in someway noble acts that do create empathy. After all, this is the character that changes the most through the movie. Possibly tame by todays standards, but at the time I recall the S&M motifs of Julie to be really captivating. Subplots like the Chinese shopkeeper – who drives a whole series of spectacular effects via his character, and the Latino gang out to get Julie and Curt, are set in motion pretty rapidly. Then they venture into the sewers, into the realm of Riverman [Basil Wallace]. With all this going on, the two fractions of the army chasing Curt and Julie – as they want her for research –is like spinning the volume up to eleven. There’s really no way you can’t enjoy this movie, as there’s never a slow moment. And just wait until Julie feasts on the brains of the poor man who just received a gun blast to the head!

A piece of fun trivia concerning that semi nude bodysuit that Clarke wears: as legend has it, special effects wizard Steve Johnson molded the suit off the body of his at the time girlfriend. None other than scream queen Linnea Quigley, star of the original installment.

Unfortunately the movie didn’t really make much of a splash at the box-office due to the MMPA and poor marketing from Tristar – despite a golden opportunity when the movie was Banned in South Africa for grounds of being immoral. With the poor theatrical reception in hindsight, the few page treatment that Brian Yuzna wrote about Hell Mary (about an underground Goth club where kids romanticize the story of Curt and Julie, and one special girl, Hell Mary has learned to cope with the pains and huger of being a living dead girl - never got made. I would love for Yuzna to dig it out of his archives and try to get it made, because there needs to be a change in the zombie movies made today as they all are more or less the same damned movie made over and over again… seeing men fight amongst each others in the face of the apocalypse is getting tired all over again.

Filled with some great special effect scenes, full throttle action from square one and characters that I actually give a damn about, Return of the Living Dead 3 is a lost classic of the 90's. This is a movie well worth re-discovering, it still delivers, has some very time-typical effects and it will certainly evoke that gothic punk rock chick fetish that you outgrew two decades ago all over again.

The most romantic zombie flick of them all, and this time love won’t tear them apart!


Ninja Dixon said...

Very fine review Mr J. The odd thing is that when I watched it for the first and last time around 15 years ago I never got hooked on it. Maybe I expected something else. Instead the very silly part 2 has grown on me.

Now I really need to find myself part 3 and give it a new try!

Kev D. said...

I'm a big fan of this one as well... If you like the whole idea of characters slowly tormenting and agonizing over the change, I highly recommend Zombie Honeymoon. Explores similar themes as Return of the Living Dead III...

Nice post.

Unknown said...

Personally, this is my favorite of the series. Nice review!

The Cheshire Cat said...

Nice review. Quite thorough. Personally, I love the first movie of this series. I think that the first two are hilarious, and number three is cool, but the last two sucked big time. It's a series with a wide range of quality. But it gives us a unique style of zombie.

I got the chance to review of couple others in the series on my blog. They are short reviews but cover most the series. Check it out if you get the chance.

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