It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 20082009 (a bad year), 201020112012 (when we left the blog behind), 20132014201520162017201820192020, and 2021.

Return of the Living Dead III (1993)

Directed by Brian Yuzna

Written by John Penney

1985’s Return of the Living Dead is an unquestioned classic in the genre. It’s single-handedly responsible for the “zombies eat brains” trope. It infused a punk rock aesthetic into a potentially simplistic and dismissible series of films. And it helped to make the zombie film relevant at a time when it could have been dismissed as a horror dead-end.

Return of the Living Dead 2 (1988) isn’t held in very high regard, but I have a fondness for it, since it made me laugh and has a lot of fun with meta-textual references to the first film. It didn’t take the concept all that seriously, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but a lot of fans didn’t appreciate it at the time. I haven’t checked to see if that’s changed over the years, but I’ve always had a soft spot for it.

Five years later, the franchise made a return with a goddamn legend at the helm. Brian Yuzna directed Return of the Living Dead III and decided to shift the focus of the franchise from horror-comedy to something more interesting. There are elements of teen romance mixed into straight up paranoid horror and combined with Yuzna’s inherent anti-authoritarian punk rock approach, it’s a match made in zombie heaven.

As far as I’m concerned, Brian Yuzna can do no wrong.

The story is simple enough. Five years after Return of the Living Dead 2, we center on a government experiment to weaponize the living dead. Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord of Adam-12 and Farscape acclaim) is trying to develop a way to control the living dead by freezing them after they’ve done whatever nefarious government bullshit that’s required of them. This is a program in direct competition with Colonel Sinclair’s (Sarah Douglas) plan for remote controlled exo-skeletons. Meanwhile, Reynolds’ son Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) has lifted his dad’s passcard in order to impress his death-and-pain-obsessed girlfriend Julie (Melinda Clarke).

They plan on slipping into the military base and checking out this crazy experiment Curt heard being mentioned on a phone call to his dad. What they see is an attempt to use a special bullet to freeze the living dead long enough to round them up after being set on enemy troops. Of course it doesn’t work and the teens witness some crazy violence that is barely contained, but it costs Curt’s dad his position and he’s reassigned.

But Young Love isn’t having it.

Curt and Julie decide to run away together, but after a motorcycle accident kills Julie, Curt decides to return to the base and reanimate his best girl.

Things spiral out of control from there, as one might imagine.

Despite not writing the script for Return of the Living Dead III, Brian Yuzna conducts a master class on making a schlocky horror movie. There’s no wasted time on character development, letting actors banter back and forth and wander around wasting the audience’s time (I’m looking at you Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City!). The story is stripped to its bare bones and everything needed is locked in, while anything extraneous is dumped.

In the first fifteen minutes, we’ve got the main conflict established (the competing military projects), we get emotional connections established (Curt and Julie are teens in love), and we have an inciting incident (because the Reynolds family is going to have to move, desperate measures are locked into place).

And this is where it gets great.

Instead of having Julie turn into a brain-obsessed monster, we get a twist. Julie doesn’t immediately turn. She and Curt go on the run, leaving a nightmare of zombie chaos in their wake and the rest of the film is spent with Colonel Reynolds trying to save his son and Curt trying to save Julie. In the process we get a group of Hispanic characters trying to avenge one of their friends who was bitten by Julie during a botched convenience store robbery, and the introduction of a fantastic homeless character known only as Riverman (Basil Wallace), who becomes the heart of the film.

There’s a lot of buzz around this movie, and Melinda Clarke’s performance as Julie in particular, that makes it seem like this is a cheap, salacious, exploitation of her character. I won’t try to pretend that being a super-hot, sexy zombie lady covered in piercings and body mods isn’t something that leans into exploitation, but Yuzna and Penney found a way to make Clarke the most badass, sexy, punk zombie that is ever going to be put on screen. Julie is amazing, both as a character and as an image.

In order to keep her hunger for brains at bay, she has to hurt herself, plunging needles, springs, and shards of metal into her skin in graphic scenes of self-mutilation. It’s never exploitative, but instead presented as a tragic necessity.

Tragic is probably the best word to describe this film. After what seems like a pretty standard horror cliché opening, Return of the Living Dead III turns into one of the best examples of what the genre can accomplish.

It’s not deep. It’s not intellectual. It’s not racist or sexist despite the story providing ample opportunities to veer that way. Return of the Living Dead III is, quite simply, one of the best examples of the genre.

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