It’s easy now to think that zombies were always an indelible part of the pop culture landscape, but it’s really just been the past decade where they’ve exploded. In the past, they weren’t the subject of wildly popular television series. They weren’t the subject of blockbuster movies with budgets bigger than the GDP of small South American nations. Zombies were for cult movies and low budget shlock, with just a few that rose above the grindhouse theaters and into the mainstream, like the films of George Romero. In 1985, Return of the Living Dead combined graphic gore with wild humor in a punk infused take on Romero’s classics. But for the second sequel in the series, Return of the Living Dead 3, director Brian Yuzna abandoned the silly humor of its predecessors and made a horror film that took on elements of a romance.
Now Return of the Living Dead 3 is the latest release from the revived Vestron Video, getting the deluxe Blu-ray treatment. The film isn’t among the pantheon of zombie fare, but it is an entertaining romp featuring some great effects work and a breezy pace as the dead rise once again.
Julie (Melinda Clarke) and Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) are Gen-X lovers in suburbs of Los Angeles. On the outskirts of their suburban community, a military base is examining the reanimated corpses from the previous installments. Curt’s father, Colonel John Reynolds (Kent McCord), works alongside the stern Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) and the more understanding Colonel Peck (James T. Callahan), the military is aiming to weaponize the hordes of the undead. Curious teens, Julie and Curt sneak onto the military base and get a glimpse of the chamber of horrors before sneaking out just as an experiment goes horribly wrong. The fallout from the failed experiment leads to Colonel Reynolds being transferred, but Curt rejects the notion of moving away from Julie and the young lovers runaway with the plan to move to Seattle (it’s the ‘90s!). On Curt’s motorcycle, the young lovers are involved in a crash, Julie flung from the bike and breaking her neck on a telephone pole. Young, dumb, and in love, Curt drags Julie’s lifeless corpse to the military base and uses the toxic gas to reanimate her body. Now the young lovers must run with one of the verge of brain-eating cannibalism at any given moment.
Return of the Living Dead 3 is fairly decent piece of low budget shlock for its time. Sometimes the makeup effects on the zombies is truly impressive considering the budgetary limitations at the time. Other times, well, the makeup effects can be quite laughably bad. Either way, Return of the Living Dead 3 is still pretty entertaining for what it is.
The script by John Penney and the direction of Brain Yuzna play the absurd events of the movie with a straight face, which is probably why the film still works over 20 years later. Scenes where zombies get loose and wreak havoc are still pretty effective, and even when the film descends into silly melodrama the serious tone allow all sorts of unintentional laughs to come bubbling up to the surface. The acting, as can be expected, is never particularly proficient, with J. Trevor Edmond coming across as a teen idol that never was and Melinda Clarke having yet found her confidence to be fiery-haired sexpot.
The true highlight of Return of the Living Dead 3 comes when the undead Julie accepts her newfound status as a zombie, and is revealed as a zombie angel who adorns herself with broken glass and metal piercings. It’s a triumph of makeup design and execution, an evocative image that stands tall above most of the film’s other rote aspects. This piece of design is the closets that Return of the Living Dead 3 ever comes to recreating the punk origins of the series’ first film. Too bad there’s nothing to match “Surfin’ Dead.”
The special features on the Blu-ray include three separate audio commentary tracks with director Brian Yuzna, actress Melinda Clarke, and makeup artist Tom Rainone. One of the more fascinating special features is a conversation between screenwriter John Penney and Yuzna, as they discuss the genesis of Return of the Living Dead 3 and its complicated journey from its scheduled theatrical release to straight-to-video purgatory. There are other featurettes featuring Clarke and co-star J. Trevor Edmond discussing the production of the movie and their personal memories of the experience. Rounding out the special features are interviews with the movie’s makeup crew as well as trailers and a stills gallery.
For the devotees of zombie movies, Vestron Video has put out another comprehensive Blu-ray set for the die-hard fans of Return of the Living Dead 3. While I certainly can’t extol too much praise on this B-movie, there’s obviously a great level of care put into this Blu-ray edition and another example that the newly revived Vestron Video is raising the standards of what B-movie special editions are as they resurrect their expansive catalogue.