Return of the Living Dead III (1993)
Okay, I didn’t have time to watch and review the first two movies for this month. However, I feel this has generally been regarded as a markedly different entry to warrant being judged apart from them. It’s a zombie film meshed with a teenage love story. It’s no Shaun of the Dead, another film that I’m overdue in revisiting, but Return of the Living Dead 3 is a decent watch with one hell of a sexy horror femme fatale.
Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord) and his group of government scientists experiment on re-animating the dead for military use. Meanwhile, his son Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) and his girlfriend Julie (Melinda Clarke) use the Colonel’s security pass card to sneak in and watch the proceedings, and are startled by the grisly sights they witness. Later, when father and son have a disagreement, Curt and Julie take off on a motorcycle, but a little too much frisky behavior results in an accident which kills Julie instantly. Grief-stricken, Curt takes her body to the lab and resurrects her. However, she is now changed into an undead creature who craves brains to curb her incessant hunger, and self-mutilates herself to ease the terrible pain that now consumes her. Yet, driven by his genuine love for Julie, Curt struggles to help her deal with her new existence as military agents and local gang members try to find them, who all have vile intentions.
The strong suit of Return of the Living Dead 3 is the love story between Julie and Curt. This is mainly due to the very impressive acting talents of Melinda Clarke and J. Trevor Edmond. Since the film doesn’t delve into the characters all that much, it really fell to the actors to make it click, and it does. Julie is quickly established as a bit of a wild girl who enjoys a little bit of danger and risk. She also has great sexual charisma. Curt also has a wild spirit to him, but definitely shows he loves Julie dearly. She’s really captured his passion and brings out the full life in him. There’s never a point where their love isn’t strong or convincing. When things take that undead turn, they both keep selling the emotional depth of their characters, but now, it’s a tragic pain and grief which they pull off amazingly well.
Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call this a horror comedy as it doesn’t go for parody, satire, or laughs particularly. Yet, I wouldn’t say the film takes itself too seriously. It’s really in that middle ground between true horror and gory comedy. It’s hard to pinpoint how exactly it wants itself to be taken. I think this is mainly due to a lack of a consistent visual tone. It doesn’t always look like a tense, gruesome horror film. Considering the very well executed love story concept, I think keeping it away from blatant laughter is best. Yet, it does have its darkly quirky aspects which are just a matter of taste on whether its appropriate or not. I would’ve preferred the movie go for straight horror, but the opposite fits better into this franchise. Still, it doesn’t go remotely as far out with the comedy as its predecessors.
This was a release from TriMark Pictures, who I’ve mentioned before were mainly a low budget B-movie company in the 1990s. So, a $2 million budget it was for this one, and while the production values are a little low, they are not bad. TriMark really seemed to make the most out of what they had, even if there wasn’t much to work with. The military base interiors are very nicely designed with a bunker mentality, and are brightly lit showing that the sets are fully constructed. The sewers later in the film are filled with colorful production design, and serve their purpose just fine. It’s certainly a film made within the means of the budget, but it does nicely make use of some practical locations.
All that sounds very tenuous, sort of like I’m straddling a line of light criticism. This is because the problem is not in the budget, but in how the filmmakers present a film of this budget to an audience. What I think the film really lacks is artistic and visual flare. Just because this film has a low budget doesn’t mean it has to lack cinematic quality. You’ve got lights, you’ve got a camera. You just need to know how to use them both to create something that looks strong and compelling. So, it’s a matter of talent, not budget. An innovative filmmaker will use the restraints of budget to get more creative. They can’t have the elaborate, mega-budget sets to really make the film look high grade, and so, they’ll use lighting and camera angles to create a striking visual appeal. This film can be very well shot at times, but it’s usually in the more dramatic or horrific moments. Many times, it’s just sort of point-and-shoot stuff with no sense of real danger or urgency in how it’s shot. Aside from those big dramatic moments, the filmmakers don’t take advantage of tight framing to build up tension, or utilize lighting to create any kind of atmosphere. They show the ability to create that kind of style at certain times, but the vast majority of the film just looks rather bland. If the filmmakers could’ve maintained the stronger visual style throughout, I think the overall tone would’ve benefitted from it immensely, and made this a creepier, more tense horror flick.
Now, there is certainly plenty of blood and zombie gore done with fairly good results, but it’s just unfortunate that the unrated cut has not been released on DVD. Despite the film passing through the hands of three different studios since its release, none of them decided to upgrade us from the VHS unrated release. The horror level is pretty good, but certainly very tame by even the standards of the day. Return of the Living Dead 3 is more a film focused on the tragic love story and a sense of gory fun. While we get the brain eating undead arising throughout the runtime, the full-on zombie action really doesn’t materialize until the final thirty minutes of the film. Still, it is quite good with a good helping of graphic imagery. However, I couldn’t say it would satiate a modern audiences’ desires for zombie horror carnage.
What really gets gruesome is when Julie takes her self-mutilation to its fullest extent. All manner of sharp objects are freakishly pierced through her skin, and it’s in every way terrifyingly imaginable. She herself looks like something out of Freddy Krueger’s nightmares. She’s both frightening and sensual at the same time. The sensation gives her such a powerful rush that it transforms Melinda Clarke’s performance from tragic to absolutely ferocious and ghastly. These make-up effects are immensely amazing. It’s also lovely that Melinda Clarke had no issues with repeatedly appearing nude in the film. We certainly don’t get enough sexual content in our horror films these days.
Notably, there is a supporting role of Lieutenant Colonel Sinclair portrayed by Sarah Douglas. You would best know her as Ursa from Superman: The Movie and Superman II. Her role here is nothing much to talk about, but it’s just a special casting note. The rest of the casting is generally okay. Not doing exceptionally excellent work, but not being exceptionally bad, either. Although, Basil Wallace, who plays the homeless Riverman, does not put in a good acting job. Every line is overacted. It’s clear that there’s supposed to be an honest dramatic intention with the character, but this performance is just too silly to be taken seriously.
So, is the film all that good? It’s okay. It’s nothing I’ll ever rave about, but it’s worth a watch. I definitely believe that a more dead-set tone of true horror would’ve strengthened the movie along with a darker, more atmospheric look. They should’ve just gone for broke with intense horror all the way, and shy away from the strangeness or the low budget quirkiness. There’s not much in the way of tension or suspense. I will admit that zombies have never done all that much for me. Slashers are really my favorite subgenre of horror. Although, I do think Julie, in her fully mutilated state, comes off as an iconic image that wasn’t in a film of iconic status. Her look is surely the one big impression that I’ve always been left with over the years from this movie. I really think the tragic horror love story is greatly executed with two solid young lead actors. It’s where this film shines the brightest, and with a more innovative visual style and tone, this could’ve been a really damn good flick. As it is, I would say it’s generally all right. If for nothing else, it’s worth checking out just for seeing Julie in her full horrific glory.