AUGUST 15, 2010
I recall trying to watch Return Of The Living Dead III back in 1994 or so, taped off of Cinemax or something, and giving up pretty quickly. Guess I had a really short attention span back then, since the first zombie attack (I didn’t get that far) occurs around the 13 minute mark. Come on, young BC, at least hold out for a full reel! As to why I’m just watching it now, I have been waiting for the unrated version to hit DVD, but it seems like that’s not going to happen, as (owner) Lionsgate has better things to do (make Madea films and botch Saw sequel titles) than re-release a bombed 17 year old film to restore what is less than one minute of gore to a film that’s still pretty bloody – it wasn’t until I looked up specific changes that I knew for sure the film was cut.
It’s a shame I have waited this long, because it’s actually a pretty good movie, and at the time was a fairly unique take on the zombie genre, in that it’s sort of a romance between a rapidly deteriorating undead person and their still human lover, trying to stay together despite all of the obstacles (such as the zombie’s need to eat people). But the concept has been done in other films that came along after, such as Zombie Honeymoon and Beneath The Surface, so it didn’t feel as fresh to me as it should have. Let’s hear it once again for watching movies in the order they were released!
Still, it’s easily the best of the ROTLD sequels, and at times just as good as the original. The humor is mostly dropped, but in its place are some truly fantastic zombie designs. There are only like a dozen (if that) zombies in the movie, and never more than a couple at once, but the designs are awesome, such as the guy who had his head/spine pulled off/up and returns with his head bobbing around on a long “neck”. I also loved the two army “mistake” zombies – the first is a sort of half melted thing, the other is the prototype for a new exoskeleton that the Army is developing (zombies will be placed inside these skeletal “suits” and sent into battle). There’s a great bit where the human part of his leg is blown off, leaving the metal frame intact, so he can still walk around. There’s a lot of creativity on display with the various designs, and in that respect I’m actually GLAD I waited so long to see the film, as it’s incredibly refreshing to see nowadays, since modern zombie films (even Romero’s) never really have any interesting-looking zombies. I mean, come on: name one toy-ready zombie from Diary of the Dead!
I also like that it had a very loose structure, as it meant I never knew where the film was going to end up. They’re on the run for a bit, and then they’re trapped in the sewer with some gangbangers who want to kill them for fucking up their Street Fighter II game (apparently, the guy got to level 7! 5 more to Bison!), and then it’s back to the base for what passes for an all out zombie attack. But through it all they stick with the doomed lovers, and while neither of them are particularly engaging characters OR actors, it’s interesting to watch them take this journey all the same.
Apart from calling the stuff Trioxin and bringing back Brian Peck as yet another character, it’s not a particularly good canon entry though. The biggest change is that people who are bitten become zombies, which wasn’t the case before. I guess the army has made some improvements to the formula. Also, the humor has been severely toned down, which is surprising considering the involvement of Brian Yuzna, who knows a thing or two about funny zombie movies. I don’t recall any real humor in the film at all besides some inherent goofiness in some of the zombie designs. I didn’t really miss it though – just saying if that’s what you love about the first two, you should stick to Zombieland or something, because this doesn’t really feel like a sequel at all. Hell even Necropolis was more closely related, tonally.
One thing it definitely keeps is the bummer ending. While it was sort of played for laughs in the original (when the entire population is wiped out via nuke), here it’s much more tragic, as our heroes resign themselves to their fate and get immolated (and, off camera, so does pretty much everyone else we’ve seen in the movie). There’s a bit of "Romeo and Juliet" to the proceedings (not as much, I assume, as there is in Tromeo and Juliet, which came along a few years later), so it’s not much of a surprise unless you consider when the film was made – the early/mid 90s, aka the worst time in horror ever, when everything was bland and safe. Nice to see someone had some balls then, even if it was just Yuzna, whom I’ve never really taken a liking to (some are OK and/or have their moments, but this is his only film I’d consider “good”).
Yuzna delivers a very dry but informative commentary, pointing out filming locations, changes that were made (the footage you can kind of see behind the letters during the opening titles are in fact the MPAA-enforced snips), etc. It’s certainly better than the other one, in which star Mindy (sorry, MELINDA) Clarke and 2nd unit director/FX supervisor Tom Rainone mostly just offer lame anecdotes, at least when Rainone isn’t creepily hitting on Clarke by telling her how good she looks today (or confusingly calling her the "title character"), or if they’re just silently watching the film. As the FX supervisor, however, he actually offers info on all of the artists who worked on the film, which is nice – a lot of familiar names worked on it (Steve Johnson, Wayne Toth, Chris Nelson), so it would be even more silent if it was just Johnson or Toth, who’d know about their own work but (likely) nothing about anyone else’s. They really should have edited the two tracks together, but then again this is a 2001 disc, which means that it was more important to have a lot of stuff to advertise on the back of the disc than to have any of it be any good (indeed, these are the only two bonus features, unless you count being MPAA-hacked as a bonus).
It’s sort of ironic that the best sequel to the original Return is also the one with the least amount in common, but it’s also a shame that the subsequent sequels didn’t follow their lead and do something interesting (using Trioxin as the link), instead of a generic army experiment goes bad and a big (-ish) zombie horde attacks our band of heroes scenario that Necropolis offered (and I assume Rave to the Grave is no different other than the setting). It could have been the Alien of DTV zombie franchises!
One final note – throughout the movie I kept wondering what else writer John Penney had done, since I attribute the film’s success more to him than Yuzna. I then found he wrote and directed Zyzzyx Road, the legendary flop that I had a small part in “discovering”, leading to being described in Entertainment Weekly as someone “with a lot of time on his hands and nothing better to do than look at Tom Sizemore’s filmography”. Read Devin’s original article here!
What say you?