There's two things I'll take from Brian Yuzna (director) and John Penney 's (writer) twisted little zombie love tragedy. One is never, ever stick your hand in the mouth of a zombie however permanently dead you think it might be and two, don't ever think resurrecting your significant other with a highly experimental biological agent in a top secret military base is a good idea, however much you miss her. They're two quite avoidable scenarios when you think about it, but where would we, the zombie enthusiast who gets off on buckets of gore, total pandemonium and apocalyptic end game scenarios, be, if people could be relied on to demonstrate the tiniest bit of common sense.
The story in Return of the Living Dead 3 is really that of a succession of bad ideas. Whether it's Curt Reynolds (J. Trevor Edmond) stealing his father Col. John Reynolds' (Kent McCord) security key card, so he and his girlfriend, Julie Walker (Melinda Clarke) can break in to the top secret military base to see what they're all up to, or speeding down a highway helmet free in the centre of the road at night with your crotch being fondled, it's one moment of stupidity after another. In fact the whole idea, that there could still be a practical use for Trioxin, the highly volatile and dangerous zombie resurrection compound responsible for all the trouble and death in part's one and two, is itself a really bad idea. But as I said earlier, it doesn't half lay a great foundation for another good zombie horror film.
I didn't really like part II; I felt it was watered down and excessively family friendly-goofy with a Goonies vibe and too much focus on the teen audience. Right a way I'll say part 3 is back to where I feel it should be. It's visceral, it's depraved, deaths are plentiful and nasty and there's an abundance of gratuitous blood and gore thanks to some down right imaginative and gruesome brain eating zombies.
If Curt didn't take Julie's death well the same can really be said of Julie's reaction to being brought back to life. Sequels have a fine line to tread balancing respect and homage with telling something new, yet with the toy box provided. Part II got it wrong, losing focusing too hard on having fun and thinking re-filming verbatim scenes from the first was what fans would want to see again. Part 3, by spinning a tale that references all that has gone before, subtly using imagery and the zombie set of rules Dan O' Bannon set out, yet telling something unique in content and style demonstrates with confidence how a sequel should be done. At heart what we have is a story of love, forgiveness and redemption; a Greek tragedy. Julie isn't upset to be reunited with Curt, she's upset because she knows a line that should not have been crossed has, and the story is their journey to accept the mistake and forgive each other and accept the inevitable however painful it will be. It's stylish, at times poignant and what's most important, it works.
I should also mention that along with the sad tender journey, there's also the fair bit of action, blood and gore and Brian Yuzna isn't afraid to crank things up. As well as being sought by his dad, the base commander, and the morally unscrupulous Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas), the love-struck duo manage to upset a local gang of four Mexicans lead by Santos (Mike Moroff), get a shopkeeper killed and even manage to find room to return some hospitality shown on them by a homeless river-man (Basil Wallace) by seeing ultimately turned into the worlds first prototype zombie cyborg. It's quite the trail of destruction all delightfully presented and paced.
When Julie first comes back, with a pulse we might add, she's coherent, her memories of the bed they shared just before the accident are still in her mind and she's walking and talking as if nothing is really wrong. It doesn't take long however, with the onset of numbness and cramps for her to tell Curt she can tell something definitely is amiss though. Melinda Clarke is exceptional as Julie, authentically portraying a woman slowly deteriorating in mind and body and desperately grasping on to what little humanity and self she has left, all the while fighting off an insatiable hunger that promises to consume her entirely. Cramps and a general feeling of unease turns to stiffness, pain and ravenous hunger which after failing to satiate with snacks at a 24 hour convenience store, she realises her hunger is actually for brains. It all stays true to Return of the Living Dead zombie lore, this time we're told by the military scientists the zombie craving is for electricity, from the neurons in the brains rather than endorphins, but it's still brains and this time we get to see a lot more of them, both splattered about and being chewed on. Another thing still firmly entrenched is the idea that the dead undeaded (should be a word) are in a lot of pain.
The hunger is the pain but fortunately for Curt, Julie has also worked out that actual pain, most of which is brutally and sadistically excessively self inflicted, can be temporarily relieved. It in some way's goes to alleviate the discrepancy why she alone is able to fight off turning full on zombie but it doesn't do so, if I'm honest totally convincingly. Other than Julie, a whiff of Trioxin or a bite and transference of the compound and you're turned, groaning and bashing at doors and walls as if the old self and all humanity has been extinguished like a flame. This disparity between 'good' dead and 'bad' dead doesn't detract too much if taken for what it is and understanding Yuzna still wanted to fashion a good old zombie film with zombies in it. In many ways, the film shares much with Warm Bodies, albeit this time Juliet plays the zombie-aberration, and it perhaps, as Col. John Reynolds comments near the end, introduces a new element to the given rule-set, as the old self might not actually be gone after all.
The franchise is renowned for it's fast pace, over the top presentation and slightly camp tongue-in-cheek undertone. Return part 3 has embraced all these, albeit with less overt playfulness, and fashioned arguably the most complete, original and cohesive horror narrative of the lot. With brilliant acting, a tight cohesive story, an abundance of over the top make-up, prosthetic and gore excessiveness, and an explosively satisfying ending, I'm surprised this isn't more highly regarded. It's certainly re-peeked my interest in in parts 4 and 5 and I'll even be taking a more active role in looking at Brian Yuzna's other work. Extremely satisfying, 8/10.