Given just how lousy with zombies our current pop culture climate has become over the last decade or so, it’s hard to remember that the walking dead were out of favor as recently as the 1990s. The decade had a few bright spots (Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, aka Braindead is a stone-cold classic, as is Michele Soavi’s Dellamorte Dellamore, aka Cemetery Man), but on the whole there weren’t a lot of memorable zombie movies coming out of the Clinton decade. Well, along comes the new Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray of Brian Yuzna’s Return of the Living Dead 3 to remind us that at least one more terrific zombie movie did come out in the ’90s, but many horror fans slept on it. Hopefully that changes now.
Pretty much a sequel in name only, 1993’s Return of the Living Dead 3 bears almost no resemblance to Dan O’Bannon’s great The Return of the Living Dead or its lesser 1988 sequel, minus the presence of the titular zombies and the appearance of Trioxin, the gas that caused the living dead outbreak in the first place. Instead, director Yuzna and screenwriter John Penney created a dark romance—a sort of tragic love story between a boy and a zombie.
J. Trevor Edmond and Melinda Clarke play Curt and Julie, a teenage couple with a taste for the macabre. One night, they sneak onto the army base where Curt’s dad is serving and witness an experiment in which a corpse is exposed to Trioxin gas and brought back to life. On their way home, they have a terrible motorcycle accident and Julie is killed… but not for long. Curt returns her to the base and doses her with Trioxin, bringing Julie back to life with a few side effects, like an aching hunger for human flesh and a need to dull the pain by shoving pins and needles through her appendages. When Curt and zombie Julie run afoul of some thieves sticking up a convenience store, the zombie virus starts to spread. They have a way of doing that.
I can think of a number of horror sequels that skew comedic when their predecessors are played straight, from The Bride of Frankenstein to Evil Dead 2 to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 to even C.H.U.D. II: Bud the C.H.U.D., which I just recently re-watched and reviewed via Vestron’s Blu-ray. I can think of hardly any horror sequels that pivot from comedy (like that found in the first Return of the Living Dead movie), to serious horror the way this one does. The zombies here aren’t funny. They’re played for scares. A prolonged attack sequence inside a testing facility early on is bloody and horrifying and lets us know right away that this sequel is not screwing around.
As it progresses, RotLD 3 is played for sadness as much as scares, with Melinda Clarke’s Julie experiencing the self-awareness that she’s supposed to be dead and both she and Curt realizing their love is doomed but refusing to accept that truth. For a low-budget and insanely gory zombie movie from the early ’90s, this one is surprisingly moving; the relationship that Clarke and Edmond create feels authentic, with both actors infusing real pathos into their love story even while surrounded by disembodied heads and gut-munching monsters.
Speaking of the gore, it’s another area in which Return of the Living Dead 3 puts a lot of other ’90s horror movies to shame. Brian Yuzna has always shown a penchant for splatter, whether it was when he was producing Stuart Gordon’s early movies or when he moved to directing movies like Society, Bride of Re-Animator, and Necronomicon: Book of the Dead. He indulges those tendencies again in RotLD 3, spraying the sets with blood and showcasing some inventive zombies—one with half its face removed, revealing its skull underneath, or another with the top of its head missing and its brain exposed, or, most famously, a zombie walking around with its head hovering a few feet above its body, full spinal column attached and exposed. The effects work by Steve Johnson and Chris Nelson is amazing, especially when you consider the budget and schedule with which they were working. Just the design of Melinda Clarke’s character—that iconic image of her with blades and broken glass sticking out everywhere featured in most of the movie’s promotional material—is enough to earn RotLD 3 a spot on the list of great ’90s horror films. The movie addresses themes of cutting and body modification before those ideas really entered the public consciousness. It’s years ahead of its time.
Lionsgate’s Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray release of RotLD 3 is one of their best yet. The movie is presented in 1080p HD and looks only pretty good; it’s softer and a little more lifeless than I would like, but decent overall. Where the disc succeeds is in the number of bonus features, many produced by the always reliable Red Shirt Pictures. There are two commentary tracks (ported over from the 15-year-old Trimark DVD), the first featuring Yuzna and the second featuring actress Melinda Clarke and makeup artist Tom Rainone, both of which are fun and offer a detailed look at how the movie was put together.
New to this edition are a collection of interviews with cast and crew that, when combined, run longer than the actual film: Yuzna and writer John Penney (“Ashes to Ashes”), Melinda Clarke (“Living Dead Girl”), star J. Trevor Edmond (“Romeo is Bleeding”), effects designers Steve Johnson (his usual candid self) and Chris Nelson (“The Resurrected Dead”), Trimark executive David Tripet and editor Chris Roth (“Trimark and Trioxin”) all speak at length about the making of the movie, the challenges of shooting on a low budget (including having to re-do some scenes in half the already rushed time) and how it stands on its own within the series. Also included are a collection of production and promotional stills, a storyboard gallery, and a couple of trailers.
It’s been years since I last saw Return of the Living Dead 3; while I recall liking it, revisiting the movie on this new Blu-ray was still a pleasant surprise because another viewing reminded me that it’s even better than I remember. It’s another wildly inventive, splattery effort from the consistently inventive and splattery Yuzna, only now with a big, beating, broken heart. This is one of the most underrated horror movies of the ’90s and one of the best zombie movies of that decade.
Movie Score: 3.5/5, Disc Score: 4/5