Eight years elapsed between The Return of the Living Dead and Return of the Living Dead III; it then took a further twelve years before somebody finally worked up the unmerited bravery to take the series out of mothballs for one last bow. It was not, as you could probably guess, worth the wait, although the true measure of how godawful the fourth - and fifth! - RotLD features turned out can be readily guessed when you learn that the films' premiere wasn't theatrical, nor even on video; they were first screened for the general public in a content-edited form on the Sci-Fi Channel on October 15, 2005.

(Actually, they first screened at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, which is a fact that my brain flat-out refuses to allow as a real possibility despite three sources of confirmation).

The first half of this bitter little double feature, Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, opens with one of the most instantly dispiriting scenes you could hope to see, if somehow the combination of "Sci-Fi Channel premiere" and "mid-'00s zombie movie" and "shot in Romania" hadn't bashed the last little trace of hope out of you that it would be even marginally worth watching. We're faced, right off the bat, with a promotional video for a company called Hybra Tech - I can't shake the feeling that something is just damn wrong about that name - but really, they might as well just announce at the start, "This is EvilCo" and be done with it. They're a multinational, cross-industry company, and despite being worth theoretically billions of dollars, their commercials are filmed, edited and narrated exactly like a high school video project. Seriously, there's cheap and then's oh my God, so cheap. In this video, by the way, we learn that apparently the regular outbreaks of zombie activity are a widely-known phenomenon, and that Hybra Tech took the lead in containing the situation when it last cropped up, ten years ago.

Cut to: the Ukraine, and specifically the abandoned Ukrainian city Chernobyl. Believe it or not, Necropolis actually managed to shoot in the very same power plant that suffered the must infamous disaster of the nuclear age in 1986, and what do the filmmakers do with it? Fuck all. It's the site where Hybra Tech has been storing some canisters of 245 Trioxin - renamed Trioxin 5 in this new chapter - and besides some effective shots of the surrounding city that I assume were captured and left in the film by accident, there is nothing about the setting that couldn't have been achieved in that exact same abandoned factory in Vancouver that was always redressed as a missile silo in The X-Files.

Anyway, a Hybra employee named Charles (Peter Coyote) - "Charles Garrison" according to the Wikipedia, but I'm afraid I didn't catch it myself - is in Chernobyl to bring the canisters back; one of them obligingly leaks to turn one of the local guards into a zombie. Charles takes quick control of the situation by coolly taking aim and shooting the monster in the-

There is ONE RULE in the Living Dead franchise, and it was established in one of the funniest, geekiest scenes in the original movie: you can't kill a Trioxin zombie by shooting it in the head. That, and Trioxin itself, are pretty much the only thing to separate the first three films, as a whole, from every other zombie movie out there (don't say, "they're funny"; the third one isn't and isn't meant to be). So yes, please screenwriters - William Butler and Aaron Strongoni, who have done enough other shit that I assume they don't even consider this a low point, let alone an embarrassment - definitely remove one of those two distinctive points in the very first scene of your movie.

Back in the States, doubled by Romania, we find that Charles is the guardian of teenage Julian (John Keefe) and tween Jake, or "Pyro" (Alexandru Geoana), whose parents died in a wildly incomprehensible, ill-edited scene that comes right after Charles shoots the zombie. And from here, I'm not even going to bother: suffice to say that a bunch of Jake's friends pop up and they go dirtbiking for about fifteen minutes as terrible rock plays, and then we find out that Hybra is conducting evil tests involving zombies, and the kids all band together to sneak into the lab, where by chance one of them, Katie (Jana Kramer) happens to work as something not terribly well-explained. They sneak in, they find an army of zombie fetuses, then they find some zombies in metal suits (probably meant to remind us of the exoskeletons in RotLD3) that make the zombies look exactly like Borg. And then a system security failure takes place because one of the kids, Carlos (Toma Danila) was shooting off door locks to move around the facility, and that means all of the zombies escape and some of the teens are eaten and a lot of stuff blows up.

It's a film in which the best scene involves a Trioxin leak reviving the roasted rat that two homeless men were about to start eating. That's the level of absolute barrel-scraping tedium we're discussing here. Every incident in the plot is marred by outrageously flimsy logic, and director Ellory Elkayem - his only previous credit of note was on the pleasingly trashy Eight Legged Freaks - manages to keep driving the thing forward with only the thinnest kind of basic competence. It's not very interesting to look at, coated in a layer of darkness and moody blue lights, and at every new turn the soundtrack blares forth with some new, horrible song. That's to say nothing of the shoddiness of the make-up effects; give me $500 and a strip mall with both a Home Depot and a Hobby Lobby, and I hope that I could do at least as well.

The acting is almost uniformly terrible; Jana Kramer is by far the worst, and I like to assume that her character's death (which feels for all the world like it was meant to end in her miraculous recovery in the last scene) was added because the filmmakers were sensible enough to know they didn't want her in the next movie. On the other side, Peter Coyote is so obviously full of the deepest self loathing: every line delivery sounds like he's about to break out crying, and whenever he doesn't have to hold the camera's attention, meaning pretty much every time someone else is speaking, his face goes absolutely slack. I have seen few if any performances that reveal in such undisguised detail the actor's disgust with the part he's been compelled to take, and the outright misery on every line of his face is the one and only real human emotion anywhere in the unwatchable morass of Necropolis. It's horrible to imagine that a series which began with a film good enough that it deserves a place in any conversation about the best zombie movies ever should have eventually resulted in something this brutally bad.

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)