In 1985 Dan O'Bannon brought a new vision of the zombie film with Return of the Living Dead. It was a fun movie that successfully melded horror with comedy. The end result was a film that works successfully in both worlds. It was so successful, in fact, that it spawned a sequel three years later, written and directed by the mind behind the Nazi zombie film Shock Waves, Ken Weiderhorn.
Five years later, a third film arrived from horror veteran Brian Yuzna (From Beyond, Bride of Re-Animatior) and writer John Penney. This third outing was something of a departure from its predecessors in that it loses the comedy element, replaced with a Romeo and Juliet-style romance. Does it work? Of course it does. It is definitely a different film than the other two, with only the zombie lore carried over, but it still makes for an entertaining movie.
As the film opens, we learn that the government is experimenting with Trioxin gas. They are looking for ways to weaponize it, using reanimated corpses as soldiers. The man in charge is Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord), and he is on the verge of losing his post, unless he can make this project work. Meanwhile, his son Curt (J. Trevor Edmond) is hanging with his girlfriend, Julie (Mindy Clarke), and planning to show her the inside of Daddy's facility. This sets in motion a sequence of events that will lead to certain doom.
This leads to the first zombie, a tall, lanky, and impossibly skinny man. He is the latest experiment gone awry, and his existence is witnessed by Curt and Julie. Upon fleeing the facility, tragedy strikes in the form of a car accident, killing Julie. This proves to be the single moment that will define the movie and forever change the existence of our star-crossed lovers.
Knowing what the gas can do, and unwilling to lose Julie, Curt returns to the base where he exposes his beloved to the gas. What follows is a frenzied pursuit from the military and an ever-growing horde of the brain-seeking undead — all this while Curt is trying to keep Julie from turning into what they both fear is inevitable.
Considering that this is a sequel, it is surprisingly good and well-rounded. It stands apart from the rest of the series (especially the latter two, which went straight to television). It retains much of the established Return lore, while also expanding on it and bringing in a stronger emotional element. It is this growth of lore, development of character, and emotional involvement that make this film really work for me.