Zombie films are too numerous to count, biting flesh from the living and eating brains in every way possible. Even zombie love stories are common now. I’m thinking of movies such as Warm Bodies, Zombie Honeymoon, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Life After Beth, Maggie, and the list goes on. However, what was the first and arguably best zombie love story of all, in the genre of pure horror–the one with undying fidelity, truly extending to death…and beyond? It is one that certainly tops my list of all-time favorite zombie films (and horror films in general)—Return of the Living Dead 3. It’s a vastly underrated movie that did more than light the fire of romance in zombie films for the first time. Yes! How do I love thee (and your brains)? Let me count the ways!
Return of the Living Dead 3 is a zombie love story about a boy who gets the idea to reanimate his dead girlfriend with an experimental chemical called trioxin–a chemical used in a military research facility where his father (Kent McCord) happens to be the colonel in charge. Having broken in the facility earlier in the day, he and his girlfriend had just witnessed the effectiveness of the chemical; out of desperation and love, reanimation seems the best course of action. Events thereafter will cause the army brat in love (aka lead-character runner up) to have second thoughts about his decision.
Return of the Living Dead 3 (ROTLD, henceforth) goes a step further in first-time, zombie-horror romance. The love between Julie (Melinda Clarke) and Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) is exceptionally well developed and believable, before and after the horror of the story. What’s more is that their relationship holds its own as a compelling element in an otherwise over-the-top horror film. Yes! In this one, romance doesn’t heed the zombie warnings and go into hiding! While many films of this sort forgo as much romantic realism, ROTLD 3 ramps it up, instead giving us love with intensity, passion and fidelity. Even the zombie urge to kill and eat brains is kept in check, with the love we have here. Oh, “And how does a boy gain access to a secured military facility,” you ask? With enough love, there’s always a way!
“The pain… The pain keeps the hunger away…” ~ Julie
ROTLD3 is also the first zombie film that has a zombie (and a woman-zombie, no less) in the lead role. Furthermore, it is a zombie with whom we can identify as humans. Melinda Clarke is perfect as Julie Walker, the red-headed wild child and future masochistic zombie girl/lead character. She portrays her as a living person in the beginning, bonding with the audience early in the story. As a human, Clarke is vulnerable and innocent, while also rebellious and edgy (much like the typical teenager). She fleshes out her character well, allowing us to see complexity and depth, as she transforms. Even as a zombie, she never loses her humanness, making the movie always more than a monster movie or typical horror film. Clarke is not just a token zombie vixen/victim. She’s not just another pretty face–eye candy for fans, not taken seriously. No. Clarke makes the most of her role with superb acting and intensity, raising the movie to a level far higher than films of its kind often achieve.
In an interview about the ROTLD3 (on the Vestron Video, unrated Blu-ray), director Brian Yuzna talked about how Melinda Clarke was utterly into her character during auditions. He remembers giving her a plate of spaghetti and asking her to eat it as brains…and that she did, exceptionally well! Clarke’s first appearance in the peak of zombie glory occurs at the 1:07:41 mark. A door opens as she moves upward and out, with rhythm, bloody and mutilated, back and neck arching in ecstasy with the thought of her next meal. With this movement, Clarke is more graceful and captivating than any zombie in film history. Never have I seen a more grotesque but beautiful image of a woman! As a poster girl of zombies, Clarke (as Julie) is another first…and, in my dreams, the one and only! As the tag line on the movie poster says, “She’s to die for.” Indeed, she is! Over and over! Yes! It’s no wonder that Julie’s image alone is the poster for the movie!
Masochism? Hell, yes! ROTLD3 is also the first zombie movie (and the only one I know of) with a zombie masochist. Julie, shown holding a lighter flame on her hand in life, goes to gory extremes for pain in death. She self-inflicts pain as a zombie, as she says, because it distracts her from feeling hunger. What she doesn’t say, but knows, is that it also keeps her from craving brains and eating her boyfriend. During sex, she shoves a shard of glass through her hand. This, in addition to curbing her need to eat, gives her feeling (pain rather than nothing), as an orgasm of suffering. A masterpiece of beauty and masochism occurs when Julie emerges from Riverman’s home in the sewer, ready to crack skulls for a buffet. Wired to the palm of her hand is a stone she will use, much as you would use a similar tool to crack open a clam. Her abused body is grotesque and bloody, with weaponry and armor almost organic. Wires run through fingers, shards of glass protrude from the skin, nails are driven through flesh, and breasts are bared and cut, with nipples pierced and bleeding! Yes! Mutilated, she has returned from the dead, all the more beautiful and erotic in her resurrection! With graceful movements, blood, and gore, Julie is more than the first to make a zombie truly sexual and alluring. Her intercourse with Curt makes Return of the Living Dead 3 also a first for human/zombie sex! Yes! This is necrophilia, zombie style! Julie attempts to regain humanity through sex and pain!
Speaking of extreme blood and gore, masochism and more, be sure to seek out Vestron Video’s unrated version of the film. While only a minute longer (the rated version is 96 minutes, and the unrated is 97 minutes), the extra minute is well worth it. All of the scenes with objects being run through the body are closeups in the unrated version, but cut out in the rated version. A great added scene shows a chain being laced through bloody holes in Julie’s neck! Another scene not to miss shows Julie biting and pulling the lip (and lower face) off of a Latino victim in the sewer. Yes, for all of the masochistic (and sadistic) firsts in zombie horror, the unrated version is the one to have!
“How could you… eat that man?” ~ Curt
What’s more? A lot! I have also not seen another movie with the idea of weaponizing zombies for warfare. In ROTLD3, zombies are discovered by the military, while using a chemical called trioxin. They notice that, as a side effect (and a REALLY big one), the chemical reanimates the dead. The first plan is to use the undead as soldiers–killing machines requiring no batteries or sources of power. However, to keep them from getting out of control, government researchers have developed a metal exoskeleton, uncomfortable even for zombies. Luckily (or unluckily, as it is) Curt’s father has developed a more “humane” alternative…if that seems possible. With his plan, zombies will be unrestrained on the battlefield. A gun attached to a gas tank (another first in zombie films) fires acid projectiles like a tranquilizer gun, paralyzing zombies and freezing them for future use. Does the freeze gun work well enough to treat the dead more humanely? Does it keep them down for the count? Or, must zombies be restrained in metal skeletons to fight our battles, void of human rights? Without revealing answers directly, one thing is certain. From zombie weapons and undying love, comes a brain-eating plot too hot to freeze.
ROTLD3 is also the only film I’ve seen that fleshes out the reason zombies crave brains. Previously, this has been more of an EC-comics horror trope without explanation. Zombies just eat brains as a given. In ROTLD3, zombies eat brains because they need the neurons and electrical energy in the brain. As Yuzna explains in an interview, the zombie nervous system is the first to go. As a result, zombies are hungry for the part of the body with the most nerve cells. Logically, that part is the brain. Yes! It makes sense, at least in the world of zombie horror!
“…we can put those bio-units in and have them run roughshod over the enemy, then just stroll on in, freeze them up, pack them away until the next time.” ~ Colonel Peck
I must also applaud the performance of J. Trevor Edmond as Curt, producing another zombie first. Edmond is under more than usual pressure to do an exceptional job being the boyfriend. He is on screen a lot, otherwise eclipsed in the presence of Julie–the beautiful, half-naked zombie girl, literally bleeding with personality. He’s such a normal human guy, almost too ordinary to be interesting. Fortunately, Edmond transcends his generic role with an outstanding performance. He holds our attention, not just because he is on par with Clarke as an actor, but also because he is always in danger. Yes! We never know if and when Julie will kill him and eat his brains, or when she may bite him, making a zombie of him as well. (I suppose it’s much like the subconscious attraction we have to dangerous sports–partly for the possibility of something tragic.) Curt also remains compelling, simply because he is in love with Julie, doing so much to prove it, time and again. Despite his father’s disapproval of their relationship, he does what it takes to stay with Julie, even if it means staying in Washington after his father is reassigned elsewhere. Later, when Julie becomes a zombie and begins falling apart (decomposing mentally and physically), Edmond’s character still refuses to let her go. Undying love, along with Edmond’s ability to compete as a co-star with a beautiful, brain-eater, gives him another first-place award from me–an award for surviving as an interesting character, when the odds are against him.
It is no surprise to me that my favorite zombie film is directed by Brian Yuzna who directed another of my favorites—Re-Animator. Yes! He is a director whose movies, more often than not, do things exceptionally better than the rest. For one, Yuzna never fails to deliver the goods—which, in horror (particularly zombie films) is gore—lots and lots of it! What’s better is that it’s all done with old-fashioned practical effects, using props and zombies that are really there! Yes! Here, we have skin really bitten and torn from faces, heads bashed in, skulls broken open, eyes gouged out, and spines ripped from the body. Bolts are shot into heads, causing even zombies to scream in agony! We have all of this with the grotesque masterpiece of Julie…and it’s all very much alive and real. In a particular scene, a head is jerked from a body, pulling the spine out with it; the zombie continues attacking, with its head extended on the spine, as if on a pole. Such over-the-top, on-set gore could only happen in horror, and only Yuzna could do it so well! As he says himself in an interview (on the Vestron Video, unrated Blu-ray), “There are certain things in horror films that you can just do,” regardless of how possible they are in the real world.
“…these poor, dead bastards crave brains, so they can get electricity from the neurons.” ~ Colonel Peck
In the end, ROTLD3 does something else I have never before seen in a horror film (although I cannot be sure it is the first to do so). As soon as the screen fades to black, the first credits on screen go to the special effects artists. While unusual, it is very appropriate here, in a movie so heavily relying on special effects. Film credits should more often show such appreciation for those who work the magic, behind the camera. Without them, horror is only an idea.
ROTLD3 features another minor, yet noteworthy first-time occurrence in zombie horror (or at least any that can be confirmed). Clarence Epperson, the first zombie appearing in the movie–as the corpse reanimated with trioxin–is also likely the first homeless person to appear as a zombie in a horror film. (Biting off a researcher’s finger, Epperson marks the beginning of the movie’s true horror, with an epic bloody event.) In the interview on Vestron Video’s unrated Blu-ray, Brian Yuzna talks about how Epperson was a homeless person they found hanging out at an airport, used as the actor because he was extremely thin, just as they wanted the zombie to be. Yuzna says they put Epperson up in a hotel, worried that they might otherwise be unable to find him for the duration of the filming. (Without a real person as perfect as Epperson, Yuzna says they would have needed to make a zombie puppet.) Ironically, Yuzna explains how Epperson surprised everyone by showing up at the cast party for the film, passing out headshots and marketing himself as an actor. Sadly, according to his IMDb filmography, Epperson never appeared in another film of any genre. Luckily, however, we have him forever in film as arguably the best, most memorable reanimated cadaver (homeless, renting, or owning)!
Also appearing in ROTLD3 is Dana Lee as the “store owner” and first-time Korean actor in a zombie film, becoming a zombie himself. In the interview, Yuzna talks about how excited Lee was to get the part in the film, being the first Korean in such a role. Yes! What small, first-time things excite some people! However, with the popularity of zombies, I’m not surprised.
Also in the Vestron interview, Brian Yuzna says he believes that Return of the Living Dead 3’s title hurts it. This, he says, is because it is a sequel to a sequel, with the same name as the two movies preceding it. I agree! ROTLD3 is only distinguished by the number “3.” It also contains nothing of significance related to the prequels: Return of the living Dead and Return of the Living Dead II. Only the chemical trioxin, as a reanimator of the dead (and the typical brain eating, of course), connect the three in any way. Otherwise, ROTLD3 is a totally self-sufficient, stand-alone movie, better than the two that preceded it. The Spanish release is appropriately titled Mortal Zombie, with Return of the Living Dead 3 appearing only as a subtitle. A title like that would likely have been better for the movie’s U.S. release, as well. So, with ROTLD3 I have seen another first. This is, perhaps, the first zombie film that, as the second sequel to a sequel, should have been more harmed by the title–a movie that defied its fate to become a classic in spite of it all. Perhaps that is even its most important accomplishment, if not the first in achieving it. Brains or no brains, we’ve got winner here for sure!
Like Romeo and Juliet, Curt and Julie are “starcrossed lovers” kept apart by a disapproving father…and, ultimately, forces that define us all as mortals, as much as the fated zombie. In being so, they again do something not done before–add an element of Shakespearean romanticism to Lovecraftian horror. What happens to Julie and Curt in the end? Does Curt become a zombie too, creating a classic couple like Caplet and Montague? Do Curt and Julie live happily ever after as zombies, together, eating brains or mutilating themselves to stifle the urge? Julie and Curt? Where art thou, Julie and Curt? For the romantic horrorphiles yet to see the movie, these are questions I will leave unanswered!
“God, Curt, that was incredible! Let’s do it again! ~ Julie
Return of the Living Dead 3 is a masterpiece of masochistic horror and romance. A zombie girl eats brains, while reminding us she is still human and passionate, all the more beautiful being grotesque…all the more dangerous being beautiful. With this, we have a zombie’s zombie movie as well as one for the human of humans. As the Romeo and Juliet of undead films it is epic, allowing humans and zombies to connect, viscerally and emotionally. The fire of originality burns, with flames of romance ever brighter to the end! Be it pain or pleasure, love, brains, warfare, creature effects, or credits, in Return of the Living Dead 3, there’s something epic for everyone!
Return of the Living Dead 3 also stars Kent McCord as Colonel John Reynolds, James T. Callahan, Sarah Douglas as Colonel Sinclair, Abigail Lenz, Jill Andre, Mike Moroff, and Basil Wallace as Riverman. It is written by John Penney (with a cameo role as an unnamed sergeant) with special effects by Steve Johnson, Kevin Brennan, Timothy Ralston, Christopher Allen Nelson, Wayne Toth, Thomas C. Rainone, Rodney Petreikis, Lisa Buono, and Shauna Giesbrecht. Cinematograpahy is by Gerry Lively, with editing by Christopher Roth, and music by Barry Goldberg. The unrated verion of the film (the best one to have) is availbable on Blu-ray and DVD now!