You have to give props to any filmmaker willing to stray from a successful formula long before we all get tired of it. Nearly two decades prior to The Walking Dead, Warm Bodies (2013), and Word War Z (2013), director Brian Yuzna and screenwriter John Penney combined the gory excesses of Night of the Living Dead (1969) with the youthful romance of Romeo and Juliet, providing horror hounds with a welcome break from the usual horde of reanimated corpses pushing through a makeshift barricade. They even threw in a dash of Hellraiser (1987), making Return of the Living Dead III a unique if somewhat perfunctory entry in the zombie genre.
J. Trevor Edmond and Mindy Clarke star in Return of the Living Dead III as Curt Reynolds and Julie Walker, star-crossed lovers kept apart by a pulse (or lack thereof), a military conspiracy to weaponise the dead, and a sudden craving for juicy human brains. You see, our hero’s father, Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord), commands a secret zombie-research facility, so, when Julie bites the big one in a motorcycle crash, Curt, genius that he is, sneaks her body onto the base and uses Trioxin to resurrect her, engendering a new living dead outbreak in the process.
In a clever twist, Julie’s metamorphosis from punk-rock goddess to brain-dead cannibal occurs gradually so that she remains more or less the same person throughout, except with an increasingly debilitating urge to chew on human flesh. This implies that alleviating this craving could, in theory, rehabilitate the ghouls in Return of the Living Dead III, thus adding an ethical quandary to the time-honoured tradition of bashing their skulls in with a blunt object. When Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) reveals her plan to nail every zombie onto a remote-controlled exoskeleton, we can’t help feeling bad for the poor, deadly saps.
Given that the series is mostly known for its humour and bad taste, Return of the Living Dead III serves up a surprising amount of pathos. The single-minded devotion of the film’s central couple leaves me somewhat apathetic. However, Curt and his father have a genuinely complex relationship full of unspoken love, respect, and regret. I also dig our young Romeo’s affection for the crazy black vagrant (Basil Wallace) who teaches him about paying it forward seven years before the sanctimonious Mimi Leder flick. He, of course, suffers an unspeakable fate… Twice over.
Minorities don’t have it easy in Return of the Living Dead III. In fact, all of the on-screen casualties consist of either faceless authority figures or mildly offensive ethnic stereotypes like the Chinese corner store owner (Dana Lee) or the knife-wielding, moustache-twirling Hispanic gangbanger (Mike Moroff). Truth be told, I don’t really know what to make of these, except to declare the nineties an embarrassing decade even beyond MC Hammer, bicycle shorts, and them made-for-TV Stephen King movies.
Besides, everyone knows that the true appeal of a Return of the Living Dead flick lies in its excessive gore, and, in this respect, Return of the Living Dead III delivers in spades. Want to see a scalped bloke shove a crowbar into another guy’s eye socket with his brain exposed? Check. Or a man’s spine wiggle frantically as a metallic frame props up his head and torso? Check. How about a woman with rusty nails and shards of glass strategically planted across her forehead pulling out her would-be rapist’s noggin from its socket only for him to get up again and bend his exposed vertebrae like a camel’s neck? Check, check, and check.
Look, creativity comes in all shapes and colours. Long-time readers know that my feelings toward excessive violence tend more toward the forgiving than the enthusiastic, but Return of the Living Dead III provides just unique enough of a context that I’m willing to give its inherent geek show a pass. Consider the way Yuzna and Penney take Julie’s angst-filled goth girl image to its logical extreme so that, to ease the pain of her undead existence, she ends up mutilating her throat, palms, and nipples. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like this before or since. At the same time, I find myself oddly pleased that somebody thought of it.