I wouldn’t hesitate to say the first Return of the Living Dead movie is one of my favourite horrors of all time. The tightly controlled mix of comedy, original ideas for the zombie genre, rising tension, incredible effects, and a number of other components make it so. However, as a long-time horror fan I’ve become accustomed to dramatically lowering my expectations with progressive sequels. This was proven with the second ROTLD which juggled a mediocre, less comedic re-treading of the original with largely poor writing and some original, yet rather odd, ideas. After ages spent avoiding buying the third installment’s out-of-print, overpriced DVD I was overjoyed to see it screening on the Horror Channel. With hindsight, watching it for free on TV was definitely a good decision.
Telling a mostly standalone story, this film feels like a pre-existing script was adapted to include a few references to the previous films. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing, because it allows fresh characters and locations to be brought in. Following the trend of the second movie, this film has practically no (intentional) comedy, but doesn’t entirely manage to pull of the dramatic edge it was trying to achieve. Telling a disappointingly Disney-Channel-with-zombies style story it tells of Curt, son of an army Colonel stealing a security card to sneak his girlfriend Julie into his father’s top-secret base to see the experiments they’re carrying out on the dead with the familiar Trioxin gas of the previous installments. Thrown in are some mentions of the absent mother being dead and some ‘father issues’ scenes which could at best be a little out of place in this sort of film, but thanks to the appalling writing and acting proved less entertaining than the advert breaks.
I normally avoid spoilers in my reviews, but since every poster for the film features a zombie Julie, it isn’t a massive surprise to know that she dies shortly into the film. Returned to life by Curt using the Trioxin gas, the most interesting plot thread is introduced, as they try to run away while she is slowly becoming one of the living dead that they saw at the beginning. Thankfully the only good actor in this film is Melinda Clarke, playing Julie, meaning the scenes showing her struggling with ‘the hunger’ and coming to terms with her death & impending zombification are actually quite good, but only where the supporting actors and/or script don’t jump out to ruin any drama that may have been built up. As well as this, there are a couple of scenes in the first hour featuring some truly disgusting zombie effects. However, these brief glimpses of ‘guite-goodness’ do very little to push the first hour above being more an endurance test than entertaining.
The final half hour is where the film takes a turn of sorts. Themes, logic and plot cease to have any real bearing for all but a couple of scenes, making way for quite a long duration of all-out madness. Featuring some of the most sadistic, hideous creature effects I’ve seen outside of the likes of Tokyo Gore Police etc, it’s certainly entertaining if nothing else. And it really is nothing else in all fairness. It’s the sort of bizarre horror that, provided you aren’t at all squeamish, is unavoidably funny no matter how serious the tone of the scenes, which really dampen the attempts to regain the dramatic elements of the film (whether or not they had any impact to begin with could be debated).
This film is a real shame – it has some decent ideas and the bare bones of a pretty good plot are all there but from the offset it is just carried out badly. The script is awful, characters range from non-existent to two-dimensional, creature effects aside, most action scenes lack any menace, and I spent much of the duration waiting for it to end. Unmet potential aside, the outrageous final act, with some sadistically imaginative (if rubbery) creature effects are the main positives though I’d still question whether it was a worthwhile way to spend 100 minutes.