In 1993, Brian Yuzna was the perfect fit for Return of the Living Dead 3; in fact, he had already accomplished a similar romantic horror film in 1989 with Bride of Re-Animator, another film about people coming back from the dead only to find that it actually kind of sucks. For Return of the Living Dead 3, Yuzna was given the task of bringing the Return of the Living Dead series to a relatively serious tone after the comedic Part II in 1988 shambled even further away from its roots. The result is a Romeo and Juliet story that wavers uncomfortably between horror, drama, and somewhat unintentional comedy, with John Penney’s script often layering on melodramatic romanticism in every scene.
The film follows Julie (Melinda Clarke) and her boyfriend Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) as they sneak into a poorly-guarded government base where Curt’s father Colonel Reynolds (Kent McCord) works. Inside, they find experimental operations where Trioxin is being used to create zombies as bio-weaponry, a grisly discovery that bothers Curt and excites Julie. Eventually, Julie dies in a motorcycle accident and Curt brings her back to life with Trioxin, prompting the Romeo and Juliet story where the main antagonist is zombie-ism stealing Julie’s faculties and giving her an insatiable hunger.
It makes sense that Yuzna and Penney would want to break down Return of the Living Dead 3 into a more individualized version of the zombie outbreak. In the first and second installments, the films give a more widespread view of the Trioxin outbreak, but Yuzna’s version gets more personal, exploring how one person’s attempt to revive the dead can set off a problematic series of zombie attacks that spirals out of control.
The problem is that Return of the Living Dead 3 doesn’t do a great job translating Julie and Curt’s relationship; for the most part, Yuzna simply shows a physical attraction between the two (and hey, I’m not complaining when we get to see Clarke naked) but fails to cement their love. Curt’s stupid decision to bring Julie back to life is believable, but it’s also difficult to root for these two passionate but misguided lovers when they so knowingly cause chaos that could lead to a mass apocalypse.
Still, Yuzna covers a lot of ground in the film, even if the Romeo and Juliet retread doesn’t work as strongly as it should. While Return of the Living Dead 3 remains steadfastly stoic throughout, there are a number of funny sequences – presumably intentional, but certainly muted – that add to the storyline. Basil Wallace’s Riverman is a standout, as is store robber Santos (Mike Moroff).
Even with those humorous sequences, though, the film manages to craft some disturbing moments thanks to Steve Johnson’s special effects makeup. The movie is surprisingly brutal despite its romantic leanings, and one scene in particular – involving a store owner who means to help Julie and Curt – is curiously mean-spirited. The zombies, too, generate some sympathy; the government’s manipulation of the reanimated dead certainly demeans the humans they once were, a sentiment expressed later in the film when Yuzna reveals that the zombies retain some of their humanity.
There are also some themes about pain and suffering, especially concerning Julie. In the end, Yuzna’s characters come to the conclusion that sometimes dead is better than the grisly alternative; self-harm is a big part of that, since Julie eventually begins to pierce herself with glass and metals in order to quell the urges.
There’s a lot to like about Return of the Living Dead 3, but as a whole it’s not as cohesive or impacting as it could be; its Romeo and Juliet subtext primarily falls flat due to problematic characterization, and ultimately Julie and Curt are to blame for a wide-spread catastrophe. We’re left with a mediocre story that gains points for its effects and buried themes, but it can’t match the ingenuity of the original Return of the Living Dead.