Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Film Appreciation - Romeo and Juliet with Zombies

Cody Hamman has love and Film Appreciation for Return of the Living Dead III.

Dan O'Bannon got the Return of the Living Dead franchise started with a film that was a punk rock riot, its perfect mixture of creeps and laughs resulting in one of the best zombie movies not made by George A. Romero. With Return of the Living Dead Part II, Ken Wiederhorn made a movie that has a much goofier sense of humor than its predecessor had. Tasked with making the third film in the series, Brian Yuzna pushed things in the opposite direction, making Return of the Living Dead III much more serious than the previous two.

Yuzna had already made some classics before becoming involved with Return of the Living Dead III, as he produced Re-Animator and Dolls, produced and co-wrote From Beyond, directed Society, and produced, co-wrote, and directed Bride of Re-Animator. With those credits to his name, he was clearly an awesome choice for this one. There wasn't a script in place when Yuzna was hired, and he and the producers ended up deciding to move forward with an idea pitched by John Penney - an idea that, at its core, was inspired by the fact that Penney had recently lost his father and knew how hard it is to let go and move on from the loss of a loved one. With that as the inspiration, you can see how III ended up being a more serious film.

Rather than tell the story of a father and son, Penney took an approach that would be more appealing to a wider audience, making his script a sort of "Romero and Juliet with zombies".

The film stars J. Trevor Edmond as Curt Reynolds, a teen whose mother has passed away, so he's being raised by his father John (Kent McCord), a Colonel in the Army. The military keeps sending John to different places, so he and Curt are always on the move. They ended up in Los Angeles just six months ago, and during that time Curt has turned rebellious because he has gotten mixed up with a wild girl named Julie Walker, played by Melinda "Mindy" Clarke. Julie has even convinced Curt to steal a key card from his dad so they can sneak into the Army base and see what kind of twisted experiments he's taking part in.

The production design in the Army base is quite unique, as Curt and Julie find that John is working in a laboratory that's hidden within these small, connected, cube-like rooms that are inside a much larger space. It would be quite effective at keeping the activities in the lab a secret, if not for the slats at the tops of the cubes. All Curt and Julie have to do is climb on top of the cubes and look through these slats, and they see everything. And they have gotten there just in time to see something mind-blowing.

John has been working with 2-4-5 Trioxin, the gas that the previous movies showed us can turn corpses into the living dead. This chemical was created by the Army in the '60s, and it was only supposed to be something the authorities could spray on marijuana in an attempt to win the war on drugs. Instead, they found it had some troubling side effects. Now the Army is trying to turn this blunder into something they can benefit from... Perhaps they can use Trioxin to create an army of living dead soldiers they can send into enemy territory. But how do you control zombie soldiers? Lieutenant Colonel Sinclair (Sarah Douglas) suggested surgically encasing the zombies in mechanical endoskeletons that the military could control. John pitched a more popular idea - let the zombies run loose, then neutralize them by firing a projectile into their head that will cause them to go dormant.

As Curt and Julie watch from above, John's methods are tested. A corpse is brought to life with Trioxin, it flails like a maniac for a few seconds, then a lab technician fires a projectile into its head, and the projectile does what it's supposed to do. The test is a success, but it's a hell of a sight. Curt and Julie now have the knowledge that the dead can be resurrected, and it's not pretty. This sequence is made all the more disturbing by the look of the zombie, who looks completely disgusting even without the aid of extensive makeup effects. This is truly one of the most unnerving zombies I've ever seen, and it's only a sickly-looking middle-aged man.

Curt and Julie leave the base after the zombie is neutralized. Curt is deeply disturbed and regrets seeing all that, but Julie is fascinated. She can't stop talking about it, even when she and Curt are in bed. She wonders if the man was in Hell before he was resurrected, and thinks it must be awful to be dead.

They don't even see that the test actually goes terribly wrong, as the zombie regains consciousness while the lab technicians are preparing to take it out of the room. It attacks, resulting in a couple deaths before another projectile can be fired into its head. John is taken off the Trioxin project. The Army will go ahead with Sinclair's idea after all.

John goes home and notifies Curt that the Army will be moving them to Oklahoma City. But Curt doesn't go along with his dad's plans this time. He packs a bag and rides off into the night with Julie on the back of his motorcycle, heading for Seattle. Julie is just a bit too happy about this turn of events, though. Her roaming hands affect Curt's riding skills and they end up getting in an accident - with Julie being thrown through the air. She slams into a light pole, her neck snaps. She's dead.

But Curt can't let go of the girl he loves. And he just saw that there's something at the Army base that can bring the dead back to life. So he makes the mistake that many people have made in horror stories and decides to resurrect his loved one. He knows the Trioxin turns corpses into monstrous beings, but he figures that won't happen to Julie. Julie couldn't become a monster. And her body is fresh, surely that will make a difference. Curt returns to the Army base, uses that stolen key card to sneak into the lab, and sprays Julie with Trioxin.

Well, her freshness does make a difference. Julie doesn't come back as mindless, brain-munching ghoul. She is able to hold on to her humanity... She just has an intense hunger, one she can't seem to satisfy. The convenience store junk food Curt gets for her just doesn't taste right. That's not what she's craving.

Things really fall apart when Curt and Julie get caught in the middle of an armed robbery carried out by Santos (Mike Moroff) and his pals Mogo (Fabio Urena), Felipe (Sal Lopez), and Alicia (Pia Reyes). Before leaving the Army base, Curt and Julie witnessed a zombie - one Curt accidentally set loose - attacking and feasting on a soldier. Julie asked, "Is that what I'm going to become?" And yes, basically, it is. As the robbers rush out of the store, Julie grabs Mogo and takes a bite out of his arm. That's the sort of thing she has been craving. When overzealous police officers kill the store clerk, who had already been gut shot by Santos, with a shot to the head, Julie can't help herself. She starts digging into the guy's brain. That really hits the spot.

With the police, the Army, and Santos and his gang - out for revenge since the bite wound is making Mogo very sick - on their trail, Curt and Julie escape into the L.A. river and sewer system. They're taken in by a kind homeless guy called Riverman (Basil Wallace), who lets them stay in his subterranean hideaway. During this time, Julie begins turning herself into a character that is a horror icon as far as I'm concerned.

Since Julie was brought back so soon after she died, and because her connection to Curt is so strong, she is able to control her zombie urges to a degree. She just needs other sensations to help distract her from the hunger. Having sex with Curt is one tactic. But even more effective than that is the act of piercing and slashing her flesh. Julie starts sticking any sharp object she can get her hands on into her skin - pins, rings, springs, broken glass, nails. She ends up with these things sticking out all over her, and it is a stunning visual. Yuzna partially saw Return of the Living Dead III as his chance to make up for how little screen time the Bride had in Bride of Re-Animator, and pierced Julie does make up for that. She doesn't have a whole lot of screen time in this condition, but the minutes she does have are very memorable.

Julie's fully pierced look is introduced in a fantastic hero moment. Santos and his crew have caught up with Curt and Julie, they're causing a lot of trouble for Curt and Riverman... then a door swings open and there stands Julie, rocking her new look and ready to do some damage.

Helping Julie achieve icon status in my mind is the incredible performance Clarke delivers in this film. When we meet Curt and Julie, they're a pair of dumb kids embarking on a relationship that I would expect to be doomed even if it weren't for Julie's untimely death. But once Julie is resurrected, the film gives her more depth and Clarke does a perfect job of conveying the emotions of this character who is both dead and alive, and terrified of what it's going to be like to be a zombie. Edmond's performance as Curt also gets a boost once he's dealing with issues of life and death. I come to care for these two, and get wrapped up in the drama of their relationship. These characters would have been a drag if they had just made it to Seattle and joined the grunge scene, but this whole zombie business made them much more interesting.

I first saw pierced Julie in the pages of Fangoria in 1993, in an awesome issue that also had a nice article on the 25th anniversary of George A. Romero's Night of the Living Dead - which is where I first learned that Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead also existed. I was already a fan of Return and Return II by then, so reading that Return III article got me very hyped to see the movie. When I managed to see it soon after, I found a new film that I could add to my long list of horror favorites.

I was so impressed by Return III and by Mindy Clarke's performance as Julie that I soon had a Return III poster - featuring pierced Julie - hanging on my bedroom wall, and when we added a couple cockerspaniel puppies to our family in 1995 I named one of them Mindy in honor of Clarke.

Return III is very different from the previous Returns, and there may be some fans out there who don't feel that it fits in. It tells a great story involving Trioxin and zombies, though, so I welcome it into the franchise and am very happy to have it. I have been a fan of Return III for 26 years now, and still find it to be as fun, gross, and emotionally effective as ever.

Its one failing is that it lacks a variation on the "Tarman" zombies that were seen in the previous two movies. There are some freaky zombies in here that come climbing out of Trioxin barrels, but there's not a proper Tarman among them. I wish there was... and that's the only thing I feel Return III is missing.

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