October 29, 1993
Melinda Clarke as Julie Walker
J. Trevor Edmonds as Curt Reynolds
Kent McCord as Col. John Reynolds
Basil Wallace as Riverman
Mike Moroff as Santos
After the events of the first two films in the franchise, the military are looking into the wartime possibilities of 2,4,5-Trioxin and the undead. On one side is Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord) and his plan of reanimating the dead and setting them loose on enemies, then freezing them for reuse. On the other is Col. Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) and her idea to outfit the dead in biomechanical suits. The battle between the two officers is taking its toll on Reynolds’ relationship with his son, Curt (J. Trevor Edmonds). Curt, meanwhile, has secretly stolen his father’s top-secret clearance keycard and decides to take his girlfriend, Julie (Melinda Clarke), to see just what his dad is working on. After witnessing an experiment gone horribly wrong, the duo escape and decide to run away together in response to Curt’s father’s grisly experiments. Unfortunately, along the way, Curt and Julie suffer a horrible motorcycle accident. Curt comes through relatively unscathed… but Julie isn’t so lucky after making contact with a telephone pole. Curt is heartbroken, but he remembers there might be a way for him to have his girlfriend back. Will he be able to reanimate the love of his life? And how will the process affect her?
The Return of the Living Dead franchise began with an absolute acknowledged zombie classic in 1985. Three years later, it was followed by a watchable but seriously flawed sequel and would later end up consigned to made-for-tv fare on the Sci-fi Channel with fourth and fifth films in 2005 that hit DVD in 2006 and are generally considered bad enough that the franchise is normally discussed as a “trilogy”. That trilogy ended with cult favorite Brian Yuzna stepping into the director’s chair for 1993’s Return of the Living Dead III. The final product is decidedly different from the franchise precursors and is one of the more underrated horror sequels. It replaces much of the comedy in the series with a brilliant, character-driven love story and is powered by some scene-stealing performances. Oh, and the outstanding practical effects don’t hurt either.
Where both of the previous films had attempted to blend horror with comedy (with the first striking the balance well and the second skewing too comic), Yuzna decided to break from that style and do something new while still having a few established elements of the franchise. This allowed him the freedom to work with John Penny’s screenplay telling the tale of a “Romeo and Juliet”-esque love story about the difficulty of letting go of those we truly love (partially inspired by having to grapple with the death of his father). He then combined it with a few elements of the previous films, mostly the Trioxin, the military, and the idea that the undead are in constant pain first brought up in the original film.
The end result is a surprisingly effective blend of gory zombie movie and love story. The practical effects are great whether it be zombies themselves, zombie attacks and aftermaths, or the absolutely outstanding and indelible effects work as reanimated Julie discovers she can only satiate her brain/bloodlust by causing herself immense physical pain. As for the romance, while Curt seems unrealistically blinded by love (Really, how hard is to tell she’s a zombie?), the relationship between him and Julie is still solid, realistic, and believable. The plot’s biggest flaw is the decision to bring in the character “Santos” (Mike Moroff) and his cronies as antagonists after an incident at a convenience store. They seem too over-the-top and out-of-place in the story to work well. However, while they have a significant role, they’re not quite in the movie enough to completely ruin it or wreck the chemistry of Edmonds and Clarke.
Actingwise, the weaker or average performances of some are made up for by great turns from Melinda Clarke and Basil Wallace. As “Julie”, Clarke seems to physically feel the pain she’s causing herself as she tries to resist her newfound urges. In addition, and possibly more impressive, is that she’s able to convey deep emotional and psychological pain as she’s pulled between her love for Curt, her desire to feed, and her continued pleas that she be allowed to end it all. The entire movie relies on her being beautiful, pitiable, dangerous, weak, seductive, strong, violent, and more at various points in the story, and it’s to Clarke’s credit and the movie’s benefit that she pulls it off seemingly effortlessly. Basil Wallace, on the other hand, is fantastically entertaining as “Riverman”, a slightly crazy, very wise sewer-dweller who helps the duo as they try to hide from Santos. He doesn’t even appear until roughly halfway into the film, but he’s still able to come across as instantly likable and absolutely relishes what screentime he gets with lines that combine the over-the-top insanity of the character with a distinct inner intelligence.
At present, Return of the Living Dead III is only available on US DVD in an R-Rated version from Anchor Bay that runs less than a minute different than an uncut, unrated version released in the UK and on US VHS and Laserdisc. The primary difference is that some of the gore in an early sequence has been either removed (as is a little other gore during the film proper) or replaced with other, tamer cutaway shots. It’s still perfectly watchable either way and is plenty gory in its R-rated cut. Overall, it’s a worthwhile, criminally underrated entry in the Return of the Living Dead franchise that effectively tells a non-stereotypical, dark love story in the context of a bloody, gory, and still somewhat campy zombie movie.