Monday, October 7, 2013

Return of the Living Dead 3 (1993)

It might seem a bit strange to tackle not only a sequel but the third film in a series without giving coverage to the first two films but there is a very good reason for doing just that. For starters the original Return of the Living Dead (1985) is an undisputed classic who’s iconic status was certified a long time ago. The last thing the internet needs is yet another review highlighting the films fun blend of horror and humor, the fact that it was the first zombie film to employ the device of zombies specifically eating brains which has become a pop culture staple or its amazing soundtrack and Linnea Quigley’s equally amazing naked graveyard dance. Ad nauseam. Nor is it really necessary to go into great detail on how the significantly more comical 1988 sequel alienated a good number of fans of the original film with its reliance on, pun defiantly intended, brain-dead humor. In all actuality, aside from a few plot points 1993’s Return of the Living Dead 3 is a stand alone film, setting aside the comedic elements of the first two films and going in a radically different direction resulting in not just one of the most original sequels of any franchise but also one of the most unique films in the zombie subgenre, and a film that just may be the finest in the entire Return series.      

Looking for excitement, young lovers Curt and Julie (Melinda Clarke, billed here as Mindy) sneak into the military base where Curt’s father is in charge of a project designed to turn corpses into weapons of war using the Trioxin chemical which caused the zombie outbreak in the first two films. Later that evening the two are involved in a motorcycle crash which kills Julie instantly. Remembering what he saw at the base, in an act of desperation Curt sneaks back in and exposes Julie’s corpse to the Trioxin, successfully bringing her back to life. At first Julie seems normal, although it isn’t long until she discovers her uncontrollable hunger for human flesh which is only quelled by inflicting harm on herself, and whomever she bites becomes infected. With the military and a gang of Latin thugs on their tail, the pair retreat to the sewers, both struggling to come to terms with Julie’s affliction.  

Its always refreshing when a film, let alone a sequel in a particular subgenre deviates from the typical formula and does something different and Return of the Living Dead 3 does just that. The mixture of all out bloody zombie mayhem, a love story and some Barker esque S&M/body horror elements is certainly a strange concoction yet director Brian Yuzna pulls it off with ease. Again the comedic elements from the first two entries in the series is all but gone here and for the better. For what the first film was it worked wonders but the second film sort of drove the final nail in that coffin. That’s not to say this film is entirely devoid of humor as there are some chuckle worthy bits, and yes, Clarke does utter “Brains!” in an ecstatic fashion, but their brief and any attempt to inject more comedy in the film would have come across as awkward. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this film is just how strong the love story is. All too often in genre films these sort of things feel so out of place and tacked on but in the case of ROTLD 3 that couldn’t be further from the truth. The romance between Curt and Julie is the backbone of the film and more than anything believable as the film is so incredibly well written which results in many moments that are legitimately sweet and never once does it come off as corny which, all things considered, is quite the feat.

Of course the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does without the performance of one Melinda Clarke who for all intensive purposes IS the film. Not only does Clarke possess unlimited amounts of presence in both her living and undead forums, along with it comes range. She effortlessly handles every aspect of her character and she especially knocks it out of the park when it comes to the films more tender moments which up the films dramatic ante considerably. Her characters masochistic tendencies only make her more sympathetic, yet in an instant she’s able to do a complete about face and rip off a mans chin with her teeth with the same amount of conviction. The look of Julie’s character in her full on, almost Cenobiteish bondage zombie form is an unforgettable sight to say the least, tipping its hat somewhat to the punk rock aesthetic of the first film. The revelation of Julie in this state is perhaps the films finest visual moment, given more impact when coupled by the montage of Julie sticking various sharp objects into her skin shown beforehand. Its a key sequence in the film and a standout example of Yuzna’s skill behind the camera. For the most part Yuzna was able to sidestep any shortcomings the films limited budget could have presented especially in the gore department as the film is an absolute bloodletting, and the finale is definite highlight featuring some really creatively designed zombies causing all sorts of mayhem. Traditional this isn’t.

For some reason the fully uncut version of the film containing all the gore effects remains available only on VHS in America. What’s even more frustrating about the DVD containing only the R rated cut is it features commentaries from both Yuzna and Clarke which would both be interesting to listen to. Why Yuzna would agree to do a commentary for a butchered cut of his film is a mystery unto itself. Regardless, the unrated VHS should be fairly easy to find for a decent price for those unequipped with a multi-region DVD player and obviously fully uncut is the way to go. With some minor tweaking Return of the Living Dead 3 could have easily been its own thing and essentially it is, although in the grand scheme of things with it being the third film to bear the Return of the Living Dead moniker its perhaps destined to be a bit underrated by purists and always judged by how well it stands alongside the first film, although the character of Julie has gone on to become iconic to many and rightfully so. Despite the fact that the film turns 20 years old this year when considering the zombie trend of today, it still feels like the breath of fresh air that it was when it was first released in 1993. Unquestionably one of the best American genre offerings from the 90’s.

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