Friday, June 23, 2006


Return of the Living Dead III

(1993, 96 min.)

Starring J. Trevor Edmond, Melinda Clarke, Kent McCord, Basil Wallace, James Callahan, Sarah Douglas, Mike Moroff, Pia Reyes, Sal Lopez, Julian Scott Urena, Dana Lee.

Written by John Penney.

Directed by Brian Yuzna.

Edmond plays Curt, a disaffected teen (yeah, and I just took the training wheels off my Schwinn), unhappy because a) since his mother died, it’s just been him and his affection averse father (McCord), and b) said father is an army Colonel, meaning they’ve bounced from town to town quite a bit during his young life.

Things do seem to be picking up a bit. The current town has provided him with a hot girlfriend, Julie (Clarke). She’s quite juicy, but also rather spooky. In a non-walking cartoon echo of Linnea Quigley’s Trash character from the first film, Julie likes to think about death, and she likes to do so in such a way fit to get her fiddling with her own equipment. Or Curt’s as the case may be, though while he enjoys the action, he’s not too crazy about the context. He is, however, willing to indulge her weird fascinations enough to steal his father’s key card and sneak her into the so-not-high-security-it’s-ridiculous facility, where they find that dad is working on a project involving making weapons out of reanimated dead bodies. Yes, our old friend 2-4-5 Trioxin is back, and being only slightly less badly mishandled than usual. His plan involves bringing them back, sending them in to nosh on the enemy, and then freeze-drying them until they’re needed again. Curt and Julie get a first hand look at this as they spy on the proceedings, though they leave before getting a chance to see how fucked up things can get in zombie movies, as the initial freezing part of the experiment doesn’t go so well and two scientists end up corpses themselves. This means that Colonel Dad’s plan is no-go and a rival colonel (Douglas, though she’ll always be Ursa to me) is free to enact her own plan for brazenly utilizing corpses in a degrading manner and acting awfully snooty about it in the process.

Curt and Julie beat their feet back to Curt’s house for a little fun. Colonel Dad comes back from the base to inform Curt that he’s being reassigned again. When Curt protests, Dad states that getting him away from Julie is all for the best anyway. Curt tells him to go blow and he and Julie jump on his motorcycle and hit the road. Julie is so excited that Curt defied his father she can’t keep her hands off of him, which would be great if she didn’t choose to do it while they’re still speeding down the highway. One encounter with an oncoming semi later, Julie has been thrown from the bike and broken her neck against a telephone pole. Curt, wracked with grief, does the only sensible thing a person with access to a reanimating agent would do for love.

There are certainly things to dislike about this film. For starters the set-up is less than satisfying. The scenes with Frank and Freddy early in Part One aren’t masterstrokes of character development and exposition, but they do successfully establish the combination of ghoulish and goofy – the ‘tongue through cheek’ approach, if you will – that rules the rest of the movie. Part Three, however, suffers, as do so many contemporary films, from what I like to call Main Course Syndrome. A truly fine meal, in a formal epicurean sense, is more than a slab of meat surrounded by this vegetable and that starch product. It’s a series of dishes – soups, salads, appetizers, breads – selected to compliment each other and lead up to the main course. A good film can similarly present assorted complimentary factors that allow the audience to get a sense of the universe that the film represents, so that when the main narrative thrust arrives, they’re invested enough to want to see what happens next. Unfortunately many directors seem to think that a microwaved bowl of canned tomato puree and soggy greens in oil and vinegar are enough, while others ignore the formalities altogether and dive straight for the meat and potatoes.

RotLD 3 does at least have the decency to serve the courses, in this case a fairly strong aperitif and some watery gazpacho. (I’m really beating the shit out of this metaphor, aren’t I?) It’s interesting to note that this is simultaneously the most vicious film in the trilogy (I’m aware more sequels have been made since, but for the time being I’m going to pretend they don’t exist) and the one with the most pathos, more than the original, which did have some, and certainly more than Part Two, which, if it had any, drowned it in a sea of schtick. The viciousness is pretty well established with the first zombie scene, but the passionate relationship and turbulent situation surrounding it are presented far too cursorily, and they’re damn important if we’re going to buy that Curt could do something so incredibly stupid just to keep Julie around.

What’s more, implausibility abounds, not the least example of which is the ridiculous ease with which Curt gets Julie’s body into the reanimation chamber. Granted, they make a point of mentioning how security is lax owing to budget cuts, but they couldn’t put one guard outside the room with all the pickled monsters?

So, yeah, there are reasons to dislike this film; and yet I don’t. In fact, I dig it a lot. For one thing, I dig that, flawed as the setup may be, the film’s crux is a passionate relationship. One might argue that Curt and Julie’s behavior is erratic and unbelievable, what with Julie demanding to be left alone one minute and then begging Curt never to leave her the next, and Curt’s intense naiveté in insisting that things can work out for them, but then, love can turn one’s brain to soup at any given age. Substitute limited life experience and jitterbugging hormones with the slavering jaws of the undead and you’ve got a fair approximation of the travails of young love.

Also interesting is the plot device in which Julie mutilates herself to stave off her cannibalistic cravings. It’s hard to believe that this isn’t a deliberate reference to Self Injury Syndrome, or as many who suffer from it, mostly women ages 13 to 30, call themselves, “cutters.” Impressive that an early-‘90s gore film would utilize subtext related to the emotional trauma of young women. And then slightly less so when you realize that it’s largely used as a means of exploitation. And then slightly more so again when you see how damn effective the exploitation is. I’m sorry if this sounds crass after bringing up cutters, but when Melinda Clarke finally appears decked out in her full “body art” glory, it is truly a sight to behold. (Which brings us to one of the other reasons I like this movie. With her fiery hair, feline eyes and shark’s grin, Clarke is exactly the kind of unconventionally attractive woman that spins my beanie.)

But before I devolve into fanboy droolydom, let me reemphasize that one of the main things this film gets points for (aside from some cool monsters and a topless Clarke) is its overtures towards real sentiment, such as the couple’s encounter with Riverman (Wallace), a homeless man who lives in the sewers (the coin bit is a nice touch and makes Riverman’s ultimate fate both more poignant and harder to watch). And the ending is another reference to Part One, and one of its most effective scenes at that, proving that someone was paying attention. For me it’s heartening to see, especially when so many modern horror films seem to consider even whiffs of real tragedy to be too much of a “downer,” or whatever expression is in vogue at the moment.

My colleague Marlowe once opined the use of the phrase ‘love you forever,’ saying that it’s a cliché, and even worse one that ignores reality while adding nothing new to the collective unconscious. Maybe he’d be more inclined to accept “I’ll love you forever…provided you can refrain from eating my head.” Less cutesy to be sure, but also considerably more difficult to fit on a candy heart.


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