Oops! I Hope He Was a Zombie (Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave, 2005)

rotld_rave_to_the_grave_posterThis was filmed back to back with Necropolis and feature much of the same cast and crew. The kids from Necropolis are in college and getting their learn on or whatever.  Uncle Charles is in Russia trying to see the Trioxin gas to Russian mobsters or something.  The deal goes bad, and eventually, a canister of Trioxin ends up in the hands of his nephew Julian and his friends.  They start experimenting with it, resulting in a potent hallucinogenic drug creatively called “Z”.  Of course, the drug has a side effect…it turns you into a zombie.  I am sure there is a subtle metaphor there.  The finale plays out against a big rave with Russian mobsters blowing stuff up.

It is pretty clear that this was an attempt to capture the spirit of the first two films.  And there are minor chuckles to be found, but nothing particularly memorable.  The movie makes the zombies less threatening.  In the first three films, head woulds and being shot did little to nothing.  Zombies in Necropolis and Rave to the Grave are pretty easily taken down.  This film brings back the Tar Man (seen in the first two films) but even there it feels like a cheap imitation.  The Tar Man of Parts one and two had a disjointed yet fluid set of movements, like he was on the verge of falling apart.  The Tar Man in this film lacks the movement, at one point walking with a pretty regular stride.

The movie is not a return to the fun monster-fest of the original, though it wants to be.

In Case You Hadn’t Noticed, I’m Already Dead (Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, 2005)

rotld_necropolis_coverIt took twelve years before this franchise lurched from the grave.  Interestingly, it ties itself loosely to the first three films, introducing us to a company Hybra-Tech.  They are the go to guys for stopping zombie outbreaks.  According to the opening commercial, the last zombie outbreak was twelve years ago, suggesting this is the same universe as the previous films.

A group of teens are racing on their bikes when one of the kids gets into a severe accident.  The kids run to the hospital after their friend only to find out he never arrived at the hospital.  Katie (one of the friends and a potential love interest for Julian), who works at Hybra-Tech to raise money for college, calls to say she saw their friend brought into Hybra-Tech’s fortress of a building.  Julian has an Uncle working at Hybra-Tech.  Uncle Charles has cared for Julian and his little brother since their parents died a year prior.  They sneak in with Katie’s help.  Of course, things go very wrong, zombie get loose and most devastating for Julian, Uncle Charles had Julian’s dead parents exhumed and used in experiments to weaponize zombies.

The movie is still a pretty serious affair, centered around gore and people running away from zombies.  The zombies are mostly verbally inarticulate except for the friend who was hurt, he has a lot of personality as a zombie, gleefully eating brains and conversing with his friends.

The zombie effects are decent enough, though not quite to the level of, say the Walking Dead.  The story, on the other hand is cobbled together from previous films, substituting Hybra-Tech for the military.  This is not a problem if the film is interesting, but that is not the effect here.  This is a pretty sub par sequel and a pretty dull affair.

The Pain Keeps the Hunger Away (Return of the Living Dead III, 1993)

rotld_3_posterThe third sequel in the franchise departs from the previous two films.  It is more horror and less comedic.  It has some macabre humor, but it is primarily about the gore this time around.

The story centers around a young man, the girl he loves and military experiments on zombies.  So, based on a true story. Curt and Julie are a passionate new couple.  Curt is way into Julie, who is way into morbid stuff.  Curt’s dad is a colonel who works with Colonel Peck (Played by Frazier’s Dad!) experimenting on zombies, trying to make them into fighting machines.  Curt decides to impress Julie by taking her to see the zombies.  As they flee the base, Julie is killed.  You can likely see where this is going.  After she is resurrected, she struggled to not give into the desire for brains, but constantly gives in, and creates more zombies.

This being a Yunza production (director of gruesome body horror films Society and Bride of Re-Animator) it is a gooey and gut filled affair.  When it comes to the central zombie and her victims, rather than be rotted corpses they are just grossly distorted.  Ripped out spines and the like.  In Julie’s case, she fight the hunger by extreme body piercing.  This results in her looking monstrous with claws and spikes.

The visuals are very good, with some really strong and scary makeup effects.  The film has little connection to the previous two films.  There is zero carryover, other than you have the military experimenting with zombies.  The tone is far more serious.  It is, really, Return of the Living Dead in name only.  On it’s own, it works, but when set in as part of a franchise, it seems less effective.

It’s Only a Severed Hand (Return of the Living Dead Part 2, 1988)

rotld_2_posterThe thing about horror movies, they do not have to be smashing successes to get a sequel.  The first film gained a cult following long after this sequel.  Return of the Living Dead 2 had no

involvement from Dan O’Bannon, and instead was written and directed by Ken Wiederhorn.  Wiederhorn wrote and directed a Nazi Zombie movie starring Peter Cushing called Shockwaves eleven years prior. The last film he directed before Return of the Living Dead Part 2 was 1984’s Meatballs 2 (first of three sequels without Bill Murray).

The only link to the first film is the cannisters of zombies.  This time one falls from a truck and lands in the sewer near a new housing development.  Jesse is a kid bullied by Billy and Johnny.  They discover the canister and release the gas.  Elsewhere we meet Ed, Joey and Brenda.  Ed and Joey are bumbling grave robbers and Brenda was tagging along because she is Joey’s best girl.  Ed and Joey are exposed to the gas while in a mausoleum.  They are terrified as they see the dead arise around them.

The fun conceit of Ed and Joey is they are played by James Karen and Thom Mathews…Frank and Freddy.  Their performances are just as fun this time around.  In this film, they are the side story.  The central story follows Jesse, his sister, her boyfriend and an older neighbor trying to get out of the housing development alive.

Although it follows a lot of the same beats of the previous film, the ending has a decidedly different tone.  The humor sticks pretty close to the first film, and they find a new way to use one of the best gags in the first film.  The end result is a decently entertaining follow up.  It is not quite as good as it’s predecessor, but it is a pretty admirable attempt to recapture the fun.

I Try To Not Think About Death Much (Return of the Living Dead, 1985)

rotld_posterIn 1986, Alien Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon made a deal to direct (he had directed a short film seventeen years earlier) a film.  He was to make an unofficial sequel of sorts to Night of the Living Dead.

An effects heavy zombie film, the big twist of the Return of the Living Dead is it is a comedy.  A gory one, but a comedy none the less.  We are quickly introduced to Frank and Freddy, employees of a medical supply company.  After Burt (the boss) leaves for the weekend, Frank starts to show Freddy around, skeletons, half dogs and cadavers and the like.  He also tells Freddy that they have some canisters with real zombies (and proceeds to proclaim the Night of the Living Dead was a real thing, just altered for the film).  They look at the canisters and accidentally release an ominous gas.  When they wake up, they find all the dead things seeming to be alive.  This leads to some hilarity as they call Burt in and the three try and fix the problem.

Meanwhile, Freddy’s girlfriend Tina is hanging out with her friends (a bunch of punks) in a graveyard waiting for Freddy to get done with work.  This includes a bizarre moment Trash (Scream Queen Linnea Quigley), obsessed with death starts expressing a fantasy of being eaten alive (foreshadowing, folks)…she then strips and dances upon a tombstone.  Burt, Frank and Freddy go across the street with a cut up cadaver and check in with mortician Ernie.  They ask to use the crematorium to dispose of rabid weasels.  But as the body burns, it creates more ominous smoke which causes a storm and in turn the rain soaks the ground, re-animating the graveyard.

What follows is the characters trying to survive the hoards of zombies.  Everyone gets trapped in the mortuary or the medical supply warehouse.  The film finds a lot of humor in it’s gruesome subject.  Thom Mathews (Freddy) and James Karen (Frank) have a great rapport and are very entertaining as the two discover they are slowly turning into zombies.  Really, the entire cast is entertaining.  Along with Mathews and Karen, Clu Gulager (Burt) and Don Calfa (Ernie…get it?) are very funny.  It helps that everyone seems to be in on the joke, leading to fun performances.

The effects are terrific, still holding up for the most part.  There is one especially well done zombie effect with a “half” zombie.  Another memorable character is the Tar Man…a slimy decomposing zombie.  The actor in the outfit moves with a creepy fluidity.  The film actually pays little attention to traditional film zombie lore.  They cannot be killed by damaging the brain, even cutting them up, the zombie parts all act independently.  The zombies can also talk.  This is one of the first incidents of zombies being focused on eating brains (In Romero’s films, they just want to eat flesh).  And they constantly announce “Brains!”  But they can form sentences.  One zombie even explains why they  desire to eat brains.

Oh, there are some question to ask…for example, why, after being eaten alive, is Zombie Linnea Quigley have not a single bite…instead she has perfect porcelain skin.  How can the zombies with no lips (some zombies do, some don’t) say stuff like “Brains” and “More Brains”?

Shout!Factory released a Blu-Ray special edition through their Scream!Factory imprint.  It is loaded with special features.  There are four audio commentaries (two are brand new), zombie subtitles (which is an amusing feature for a short time, featuring subtitles like “Arggh” whenever zombies speak), an extensive documentary “More Brains: Return to the Living Dead”, a final interview with the late O’Bannon and many more features.

The picture (from a 2K scan) is clean and looks good.  The two disc set is worthy of any fan’s collection.

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