It's well-known that George A. Romero's Dead films are works of cultural inquiry: each of them filmed in a different decade (until, that is, Diary of the Dead), each of them taking a hard look a the social mores and movements of the day, bringing them to bear under the light of sometimes gentle, often piercing satire. Thus it is that even though the events described by the series cover a period of only several months or a couple of years, it's quite obvious that Night of the Living Dead takes place in the 1960s, Dawn of the Dead in the 1970s, et cetera.

The same is at least partially true, as it turns out, and certainly by accident, of Night's semi-official, distaff series of sequels; or at least, so I caught myself thinking as I watched Return of the Living Dead III: "My God, this film could only have come out in 1993!" Admittedly, less because writer John Penney and director Brian Yuzna had some particularly keen insights about life in the early 1990s, and more because they were pandering with a cheap-ass zombie movie. But still, for those of us who enjoy watching horror movies for their qualities as time capsules - and I at least consider this one of the chief joys of even the dodgiest '80s slasher; something about the horror genre is inexplicably well-suited for careful observation about the clothing, the decor, the behaviors of a moment in time, and I assume it's probably that these films were all produced so cheaply that they didn't have the luxury of honest-to-God costume and production designers - RotLD3 has some choice stuff hidden in there.

Hidden, and hidden deeply: though one must do the film the credit of recognising that it's a sight better than Return of the Living Dead, Part II. That bogglingly awful sequel to the genuinely great The Return of the Living Dead made the criminal mistake of substituting comedy for horror, and added insult to injury when the comedy in question proved to be of the most dreadfully incompetent sort. The results are hardly the worst of all zombie movies on the books - trust me, you don't want to start thinking about the worst of all zombie movies - but it's pretty much shite anyway. RotLD3 goes exactly the opposite route: it jettisons virtually all of the comedy from the first two movies, and substitutes, of all things, an angst-ridden teenage love story. Which comes much closer to working than you'd believe possible.

An indefinite number of years after the last movie, it would appear that the government finally has control of all the remaining 245 Trioxin, and is now using it in weapons experimentation. Army scientist Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord) has finally figured out enough of the secrets of the Trioxin zombies, enough to make a reasonable test geared towards controlling, not destroying, the creatures (it appears that nobody from RotLD2 bothered to tell them that you can electrocute a zombie to re-death). He is opposed by the icy Lt. Col. Sinclair (Sarah Douglas, whose British accent is a major distraction), who something something metal exoskeletons.

Reynolds has a son, Curt (J. Trevor Edmond - doesn't he sound like the b-story protagonist in substandard '30s romance?), but they're relationship hasn't been very happy since Mrs. Reynolds died; Curt's relationship with "tough" girl Julie Walker (Melinda Clarke, here going by "Mindy") isn't helping matters, either. Which is why Curt swiped his dad's security keycard, and takes Julie with him to spy on the latest experiment, which involves reviving a corpse with Trioxin and then politely looking away to make sure that it gets a good opportunity to savage the lab tech. This incident gets Reynolds bumped from the program, and sent to Oklahoma City (spoken of in hushed tones that make it sound like the worst place on Earth); Curt, who has now well and truly given up on his dad, refuses to come along, and he and Julie go joyriding on his motorcycle to celebrate the freedom of being teenage runaways. Until Curt has to dodge a truck, and Julie gets flung into a tree, snapping her neck. Oho, but didn't they just witness a gas that can bring dead people back to life? So Curt revives his girlfriend, who can't figure out why she's so damn hungry, and they head to a convenience store, where they piss off a Hispanic gang, and in the melee, Julie learns that human blood is exactly what she's been craving.

Now, RotLD3 is no lost masterpiece of horror: it is quite fumbling and bumbling and awkward altogether. There's a fun party game to be had in picking apart all of the plot holes, mostly of they "military bases don't work that way" variety; in particular, it is dumbfounding that Curt can sneak a dead body into the lab mere hours after a major security breach involving a dead body that ate a man's hand off. There's a flimsy line earlier about the base's terrible security that feels like it was studded into the screenplay just so that this gaping error would have a plausible dodge. And that's really the key to the film, in its first half or thereabouts: it's kind of inept, but it wants to be better than it is, and that's sort of charming.

You can pick the exact scene where it all goes to hell: after finding out that she has a taste for blood, Julie and Curt flee into the sewers to escape the gang, and from there on out, it's just one long, mostly boring chase scene, aided and abetted by one of the most impossibly understanding Magical Negroes in cinema history, a kindly homeless gent named Riverman (Basil Wallace). In truth, the film doesn't get any worse at this point, but it goes out of its way to point out a route by which it could have gotten immeasurably better, and the sense of a chance not taken is maddening. Namely, the changes going on in Julie's head: she knows that she's a cannibalistic revenant now, and she discovers that she can stave off her hunger by inflicting pain on herself; but this is not at all the focus of the movie, only something convenient to pull out when the two lovers need to be slowed down in their escape. I cannot imagine but that you would be able to think of a much deeper, sadder, more horrifying film about a young woman sliding into ghoulhood while her boyfriend watches helplessly than the film which RotLD3 proves to be. It is schlocky and clumsy, no more than hundreds of other cheap horror films - but few of them ever made a point of drawing our attention to the far, far richer human story that they weren't telling.

Nor does the film do much to distinguish itself as a schlocky horror picture - and let's be clear, I love schlocky horror. Unfortunately, RotLD3 fell afoul of the implacable MPAA ratings guide, which meant that it had to be sliced and diced to maintain its "R", and in a lot of places the cuts serve to actively obfuscate the flow of the movie. When they don't, all that's left is a bunch of effects that aren't as convincing as they should have been, a clear example I think of ambition outstripping ability (the head-on-a-spine effect in particular deserved much better execution than we see hear). Yuzna, who was more of a producer than a director in those days (he oversaw Stuart Gordon's great Re-Animator), didn't really have much of an eye, maybe; he lets us linger on the problems with his film, rather than quickly moving past the flaws to get to the good stuff.

On the other hand, flaws are really all we're left with, as the movie progresses: Clarke and Edmond are pretty damn uncharismatic leads, and the sewer-bound plot leaves very little room for the film to flourish as a zombie-mayhem picture, like the first two. Nor does its one great innovation, to focus on the transition from living, feeling woman to zombie, get treated with any kind of respect. The few moments that absolutely click do so only momentarily - the best example is when Julie transforms herself into a BDSM avatar of sorts, all piercings and slashed flesh: it's shocking and memorable, but Yuzna plainly has no idea what to do with the figure once she's stepped in front of the camera.

Never more than fleetingly entertaining; but at least, with its emphasis on early-'90s punk and grunge aesthetic, and its proto-X-Files government experiment plot, it works as a curio. Even taken as a zombie film, it's damn better than RotLD2 came even remotely close to being. Unfortunately, it does so much to run away from anything that would separate it out from the great mass of zombie pictures, something true of neither of its predecessors, that it's not really a wonder that it fizzled during its pro forma theatrical run, and has enjoyed no kind of cult fandom on video; and no surprise that for many years, the Return of the Living Dead brand name was quietly, and without fanfare, mothballed for more than a decade.

Reviews in this series
The Return of the Living Dead (O'Bannon, 1985)
Return of the Living Dead, Part II (Wiederhorn, 1988)
Return of the Living Dead III (Yuzna, 1993)
Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis (Elkayem, 2005)
Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave (Elkayem, 2005)