Almost a decade after a deadly Trioxin leak led to a nuclear disaster, the government attempts to control the victims of the toxic chemical, who have been turned into unkillable zombies. When a young man uses Trioxin to bring his girlfriend back to life after a motorcycle accident, she is driven to eat the only thing that will nourish her...human brains! She tries to stop her own feeding frenzy, but a chain reaction has already begun, as hordes of undead are unleashed from their graves! (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)
When Alien (1979) co-screenwriter-turned-director Dan O'Bannon inherited former George A. Romero co-writer John Russo's unused Night of the Living Dead (1968) sequel script in 1985, few could have suspected that he’d make the quintessential zombie movie of the decade. Dubbed Return of the Living Dead to imply that it was a sequel, despite Romero already making official sequels Dawn of the Dead (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985) in the interim, this semi-spoof disregarded the political themes and EC Comics irony of the ‘canon’ Dead movies, opting instead for pop sensibilities and punk rock witticism. It is, in many ways, the horror follow-up to Alex Cox’ punk rock sci-fi comedy, Repo Man (1984), and was pop culture’s introduction to living dead creatures that feast specifically on human brains. Unfortunately, the producers were unable to recapture O’Bannon’s formula when they hired writer/director Ken Wiederhorn to essentially remake the first movie as Return of the Living Dead Part II in 1988. Widerhorn’s film wasn’t a flop, but its lighter tone and lack of originality didn’t endear it to genre fans. The franchise languished until a new creative team, headed by writer/producer John Penney and director Brian Yuzna, was able to ‘rescue’ it.
Yuzna began his movie career by producing director Stuart Gordon’s early horror films – Re-Animator (1985), From Beyond (1986), and Dolls (1987) – in Europe and under the supervision of Charles Band’s Empire Pictures. This work heavily informed his later movies as a director, because, like Gordon, Yuzna’s movies tend fall under the horror umbrella and are usually characterized by tongue-in-cheek humour, a saturated colour palette, and intricate special make-up effects. Following his directorial debut, Society (1989) – a flawed, but incendiary black comedy that earned a rabid cult following – Yuzna started making belated sequels to already established genre franchises, including Bride of Re-Animator (1990), Beyond Re-Animator (2003), Initiation: Silent Night, Deadly Night 4 (notable for having literally nothing in common with the first three Silent Night, Deadly Night movies, 1990), and his best movie, Return of the Living Dead III (1993).
Initiation notwithstanding, this early part of his career reveals another common theme – doomed romance. For three movies (four, if you count his 2000 adaptation of Tim Vigil & David Quinn’s ultra-violent comic Faust: Love of the Damned), Yuzna struggled to inject sincere love stories into his over-the-top, cartoonish horror tales. In fact, Return of the Living Dead III is a combination of ideas that he had already explored in his first two movies. With Bride of Re-Animator, it shares the concept of heartbroken men using mad science to bring dead lovers back to life and, like Society, it is a variation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet motifs. O’Bannon’s original Return of the Living Dead also had a doomed zombie/human relationship, but it was a subplot and a purposefully unresolved one at that. While Peter Jackson’s Braindead (aka: Dead Alive, 1992) beats Return of the Living Dead III to the punch in terms of love story hijinx amid zombie mayhem, Yuzna and Penney still established a dramatic living/living dead romance well before the likes of Andrew Currie’s Fido (2006) or Jonathan Levine’s Warm Bodies (2013). Moreover, the tragedy at the center of that romance is key to the film’s success.
The only problem is that this otherwise rewarding relationship – a relationship that subverts the typical hero/damsel dynamic, by the way – is flanked on both sides by an equally satisfying story about the military trying to use zombies as weapons. The filmmakers were likely inspired by the militarism of Day of the Dead and the Alien films, but were still ahead of their time, especially considering the mostly stagnant state of zombie fiction in the early ‘90s. When Yuzna returns to the military base for the third (maybe even fourth) act and introduces the intriguing concept of zombies as the victims of experiments (including the a zombie-powered mechanical exoskeleton) Return of the Living Dead III sort of becomes a different movie – one that the filmmakers can’t quite deliver upon due to budgetary constraints. Not to mention that there’s only about 15 minutes left in the movie at this point. Too much of a good thing is a preferable outcome, I suppose, but the climax feels like a cruelly short tease for yet a sequel that would never materialized.
O’Bannon’s box-office success was partially built upon the fact that, unlike Romero, whose Day of the Dead was one of the goriest American movies of the ‘80s, he was willing to curtail his on-screen violence to achieve a multiplex-friendly R-rating. By the same token, Widerhorn’s sequel failed, in part because it was so teen-friendly that it barely earned the R-rating at all. By 1993, the growing home video market was able to support modestly-budgeted horror movies, so R-ratings weren’t as vital to financial success. In addition, audiences had grown to expect more elaborate gross-out effects. This led to the option of rated and unrated releases of movies on video – a practice that Yuzna had actually spearheaded when he and Gordon cut an R-rated version of Re-Animator for television and distribution with ‘family-friendly’ retailers. He did the same with Bride of Re-Animator and Return of the Living Dead III. Of course, horror fans know better than to settle for censored versions of gory movies and Return of the Living Dead III is no exception. It’s not as wall-to-wall gruesome as Jackson’s aforementioned ultimate gore opus, but Yuzna doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to brain-eating, flesh-rending, and other bodily mutilations and, like Jackson, he’s more than happy to linger on the nasty bits.
Return of the Living Dead III has had a raw deal on DVD. Following 1.33:1 cropped discs from Germany, France, Australia, and the UK, North American fans finally received an anamorphic special edition release from Lionsgate...of the R-rated cut. That makes this new Vestron Video Collector’s Series Blu-ray an extra-special release – it’s the first 1080p version available in any territory, the first unrated digital video version available stateside, and the first time that the unrated version has been presented in its correct 1.85:1 aspect ratio. I haven’t been particularly impressed with these Vestron discs so far and assume that they’re using older scans that were intended for standard definition releases. Fortunately, they seem to be getting better and this might be the best so far. Details are still a bit too soft and gradations are still a bit posterized, but there isn’t a lot of compression noise, aside from some vague, vertical strafing shapes. In fact, I barely noticed the mushy line qualities until I looked at the still frames I took for this review (it helps that there are so many misty environments, I suppose). In motion, it’s a huge upgrade over the old DVD. Film grain structure could be improved upon with a more detailed scan, but the transfer’s producers haven’t employed a lot of noise reduction. Yuzna and cinematographer Gerry Lively’s comic booky palette is well represented, especially the blue, red, green, and violet gels the filmmakers use for mood. Again, though, there’s room for improvement all-around and the colors are no exception. Without having ever seen Return of the Living Dead III in a theater, I imagine it was meant to appear even more vivid than this.
Return of the Living Dead III is presented in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio and its original 2.0 stereo surround. The comic book tone extends to the sound design, which is often punctuated with over-the-top effects work. The extra loud motorcycle engines, gunshots, crunching bones, and goopy zombie attack effects don’t distort at high volume levels and don’t overwhelm the consistency of the dialogue tracks. The electronic rock/pop-meets-Gothic synth score, supplied by Steve Miller Band keyboardist Barry Goldberg, is the most aggressive aural element during many scenes, exhibiting surprising surround depth for a mix without discrete rear and middle channels. On the other hand, the more happy-sounding music that underlines some expositional sequences is a bit too far spread over the stereo speakers, leaving (arguably) too much room for dialogue in the ‘ghost’ center channel. This is the effect of pre-digital ‘90s sound mixing, though, not a problem with the mix.
Commentary with director Brian Yuzna – This director’s commentary was recorded for Lionsgate’s R-rated DVD release. Yuzna is his typically pleasant self, though not quite as jovial as he has been on group tracks, like the one that accompanies Re-Animator. He loses his momentum several times, but picks up the pace again without leaving many quiet spaces. People that haven’t seen the R-rated cut could also use this track as a marker for some of the effects that the filmmakers were forced to cut.
Commentary with actress Melinda Clarke and special make-up effects artist Tom Rainone – The second track was also recorded for Lionsgate’s DVD and is quite entertaining. Teaming the actress and effects guy is clever, because their interests rarely overlap. On the other hand, they have zero chemistry together. Their awkwardness is actually sort of amusing, especially when Rainone starts complaining about “politically correctness.”
Ashes to Ashes (26:48, HD) – The first exclusive extra is a lengthy conversation between Yuzna and Penney. The director and writer trace the origins of the belated sequel and talk about Trimark studios minor demands that they include brain-eating and the Trioxin chemical to tie into the first two movies, the love story concept, collaborating on the script, casting, gore effects, and the effect that Warlock 2’s disappointing box office had on its release (i.e. the movie was only distributed in a few regions and lost a lot of money).
Living Dead Girl (18:56, HD) – Up next is a new interview with Clarke, who discusses her audition, portraying a zombie like a heroin addict, being covered in prosthetic effects, and her post-Return of the Living Dead III career.
Romeo Is Bleeding (17: 21, HD) – Actor J. Trevor Edmond recalls his early training as the lead in Romeo and Juliet to the role of Curt, auditioning with Clarke, the compressed shooting schedule, getting to meet the special effects team, and the film’s premiere coinciding with the Malibu fires of ‘93.
Trimark & Trioxin (13:33, HD) – New interviews with production executive David Tripet, who describes Trimark Studios’ acquisition of the Return of the Living Dead franchise and production challenges, and editor Chris Roth, who discusses, well, editing, obviously.
The Resurrected Dead (18:47, HD) – The final new featurette is all about the special make-up effects, including interviews with effects designers Steve Johnson and Chris Nelson, as well as some behind-the-scenes video. The interviewees talk about Return of the Living Dead III, but also contextualize the movie within the early ‘90s horror canon.
Storyboard slideshow gallery (5:51, HD)
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