|Melinda Clarke plays Julie, who hates herself and what she has become in Return of the Living Dead III.|
In addition to our regular programming, every day this month, Last Cinema Standing will be bringing readers recommendations from the best of the horror genre as we make our way to Halloween. This should not be treated as a “best of” list but more as a primer. You can read the full introduction to Last Cinema Standing’s 31 Days of Horror here, and be sure to check back each day for a new suggestion.
Day 26: Return of the Living Dead III (1993)
The Return of the Living Dead series starts out as essentially fun horror-comedy in its first two installments, but the third entry almost demands that you sit up and take notice. I will say right off the bat: Things are going to get pretty dark in this post. We are going to talk about depression, self-harm, and the Holocaust. If you want no part of it, I understand. No hard feelings.
Zombie movies are at their best when they reflect something back about our culture, be it consumerism, racism, proclivities toward war, or anything in that realm of social consciousness. We have strayed from that ideal lately, thanks in large part to straight-to-video cheapies trying to turn a quick buck on an easy premise – coming to mind immediately are Zombie Strippers!, Zombies vs. Strippers, and virtually any title that comingles the promise of nudity with the promise of flesh eating.
The Return of the Living Dead movies, parts one and two anyway, were fun horror parodies of George A. Romero’s classic Dead films. They never forgot the horror aspects and featured a ready-made punk attitude that fit the early 1980s like a glove. I liken the evolution of Return of the Living Dead III from its predecessors to the way one might compare grunge to its heavy metal and hair metal forefathers: The fun is replaced by full-bodied nihilism, and the attacks on who we were and who we are now come fast and furiously.
Director Brian Yuzna and writer John Penney did not leave a big footprint on the film world, and stars Melinda Clarke and J. Trevor Edmond are probably more recognizable from their television work. But, for one film, they proved masters of macabre social commentary in ways the genre has been sorely lacking since.
Clarke and Edmond play lovers Julie and Curt. Curt’s dad, Col. Reynolds, is part of a U.S. military project testing a serum that will reanimate the dead with the goal of providing cheap, disposable meat for the American war machine. Already, we are into some pretty heady stuff, and the plot has not yet begun. As Col. Reynolds and his group continue their experiments on the undead, Julie dies in a motorcycle accident with Curt at the helm. Using his father’s serum, Curt brings Julie back to life, whereupon she becomes a self-hating flesh eater.
That is a lot to chew on, and this movie is often wrongly dismissed as the big-budget, needlessly weird cousin to the first two films in the series. So let us break this down slowly and try to see where its greatness lies and from where its critics are coming.
We will start with Clarke’s Julie, who has become something of a cult icon, and it is not hard to see why. While the first two installments have the punk walk and talk down, they lack the feelings of self-loathing, self-doubt, and nihilism behind the familiar pop culture tropes. This film brings all of that back in spades within Julie.
Julie does not want to hurt anybody, but as a zombie, it is in her nature. In an effort to avoid acting out and harming those around her, she resorts to self-harm. Raise your hand if this sounds familiar and not in a fantasy, sci-fi way. She hurts herself to fight the urge to hurt others. She hates who she has become but cannot fight it.
If this reminds you of a teenager you know – or, hell, even an adult – this is not by accident. The pain is a release, as it is for so many people like this. I know because I have walked up to that edge and stared into that abyss. There is nothing there but darkness, and no matter what beauty lay behind or in front, it is impossible to stop staring down into the pit, so you dive in.
This film is commendable for having the courage to go there, and when it does, it just keeps going. Yuzna and Penney venture all the way to the darkest period of our shared history, which you may recognize in the abstract but will be struck by if you choose to see it.
The zombies are in this place because the military has brought them here. The army performs experiments on them that force you to question what humanity is capable of when it classifies another group as less than human. It is nothing less than torture for the sake of seeing how far torture can go. The unsuccessful experiments, along with incalculable others, go to the furnace – the crematorium if you will.
Maybe it will seem like a stretch to compare the third film in a zombie horror series to the Holocaust, but if you can watch the army experiments, the prisons, and the abuse of a misunderstood and vilified minority without thinking of Josef Mengele, Adolf Hitler, and the one of the greatest atrocities of our time, you are not watching closely enough.
Perhaps you do see it, and it offends you. You may think films have no right to trade on the murder of millions of innocents. Well, wake up. We live in a culture in which violent crimes and serial murders are no longer shocking. They are primetime television, fictional and not. We filter everything through sound bites, pop psychology, and end-of-the-world drum beating. Return of the Living Dead III is a violent, angry critique of humanity’s past crimes and a warning for what the future could become. Unfortunately, it is a future we were unable to avoid.
Tomorrow, we try to recover with one of my favorite films of all time from any genre.