Hollywood’s relationship with Shakespeare has been marked by odd, sometimes outrageously bizarre collaborations. None, perhaps more curious than Brian Yuzna’s exceedingly gory tale of a love-struck youth and his undead sweetheart, Return of the Living Dead 3.
Having recently helmed the ghoulish Re-Animator follow up and a feeble Silent Night, Deadly Night sequel, journeyman director Yuzna was tapped to advance the Return of the Living Dead series in late 1992. Four months, five effects crews and a few barrels of Trioxin later, Return of the Living Dead 3 was ready for release.
Foregoing the slapstick humor and whimsical tone of its predecessors, Return 3 maintains the punk nihilism and allusions to death seen in the original. Having witnessed the tragic death of his girlfriend (Julie Walker), military brat Curt Reynolds (J. Trevor Edmond) uses a top-secret chemical to bring her back to life. Problem? Her reanimated corpse seems more interested in consuming brains than loving her boyfriend.
Linnea Quigley dancing naked on a tombstone in The Return of the Living Dead (1985) was classic horror titillation. It also screamed an undeniable “fuck you” to Reagan’s America. Her character, Trash, extolled the beauty of the cemetery and the industrial park that surrounded it when she wasn’t unabashedly quizzing her friends about their preferred manner of death. She recounted dreams of men eating her alive with immense gratification. Yuzna takes this fascination with death a step further. Walker’s Julie envisions government agents utilizing experimental chemicals to revitalize dead beings while having sex with Curt. She exclaims, “I wonder if “he” felt anything” while climaxing.
Later, a zombified Julie uses a stake to penetrate the fleshy palm of her hand while grinding against a horny Curt. Her eyes glaze with euphoria; her lips quiver with ecstasy. We stare in amazed anticipation. It’s a high water mark in an otherwise banal middle act. Curt and Julie befriend a bum called Riverman (Basil Wallace) who shelters them from a trio of stereotypical hoodlums furious with Julie for taking a bite out of one of their members. It’s a “lifeless” sequence that runs way too long.
Yuzna cuts away from the make out session just before the couple gets into heavy petting. He fails to satisfy the lewd expectations of his viewers. He also misses an opportunity to one-up the thematic mingling of sex and death set forth by the original film in the series. I can think of no better way to trump Quigley’s nude striptease than to have a topless zombie humping her living boyfriend.
Yuzna exploits 90s trends to speak to the cynical disposition of his characters. The rebellious nature of Trash and friends expressed via dark clothing and brightly colored hair is heightened in Return 3 via the depiction of body piercing. Julie bores shards of twisted metal into her soft flesh and sinks bundles of gnarled wire into her skin in an effort to clear her head of negative thoughts. It is a grisly sight that echoes the body horror films of David Cronenberg and Yuzna’s own batshit gore show, Society. Julie quivers with pain and pleasure, her body limned by soft light as she rakes a jagged stone across her thigh, the sound of her muscles rupturing as she drives a steel spike through her hand is absorbed by the haunting notes of the score. The process is sexualized. You alternately cringe and gawk. This sequence is a big part of what makes the movie so strong. It speaks to the strength of Yuzna as director and Clarke’s natural beauty.
And praise for Clarke shouldn’t stop there. She simultaneously paints a portrait of teen angst while also utilizing a sensual energy to create a false façade. She depicts Julie as both erotically attractive and madly frightening. “Should I be turned on by this? Should I be freaked out? What is going on?”
Placing Julie at the center of the story is a novel approach. She is dead, but she also preserves the essential qualities of her living self. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead shed light on man’s inhumanity against his fellow man. Return goes further in demonstrating just how cruel people can be to other humans, no matter the race. Julie says, “The living dead aren’t just animated flesh. They have an inner life.”
Like Shakespeare did with Romeo and Juliet, Yuzna creates a violent world where young people cannot trust those tasked with feeding and protecting them. His film retains the thematic issues raised in the famed play concerning love and fate. Curt and Julie must overcome giant obstacles in order to be together. In the end, they follow the path set by Romeo and Juliet, choosing death over a life apart.
I saw Return of the Living Dead 3 on VHS at fifteen. I was in love with grunge rock music and horror movie franchises. The film seemed as if it had been made with me in mind. The gothic shot of Melinda Clarke bathed in blue light with shards of glass and metal protruding from her worn jeans and baggy flannel shirt thrilled me to the core. It wasn’t until years later that I realized just how new wave the image was. Deemed trite by many critics upon its initial release, the movie actually has a lot more to offer than most films of its type. Now, twenty-five years after first gracing the silver screen, I hope audiences take the time to rediscover this underrated zombie flick.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Yuzna has not directed a film in a number of years, although he has a handful of projects in development under his Dark Arts banner. Melinda Clarke experienced a highly successful career in television, which included recurring roles in shows such as The O.C., Entourage, Gotham and The Vampire Diaries. The Return of the Living Dead series went into hibernation following part 3 but returned in 2005 with a pair of sequels subtitled Necropolis and Rave to the Grave. The movie is available on blu ray as part as Vestron Video’s collector’s series.