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).
Shot concurrently in Romania and the Ukraine, by the same crew and some of the same cast, it seems fair not to bother treating the films as two separate objects; and given how fuckawful bad they are, I'm happy to dispose of them both in a single review. That's right, as joyless as Return of the Living Dead, Part II is, it's right in the middle of the series, quality-wise. Think on that a moment, and despair.
The first half of our 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.
Maybe I was easy to please after all that, but Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave didn't depress me to nearly the same degree. It's still the second-worst film in the franchise, but only by a little; just a few tweaks and it would be every inch as good as Part II. Which was still a movie I didn't like at all, but at least it didn't put me in as profoundly foul a mood as Necropolis. Part of it is because in a very flaccid way, Rave to the Grave takes the series back to its roots: for the first time since the second film, it's an out-and-out comedy, though a very bad comedy. Butler and Strongoni apparently think that there is no form of comedy richer than slapping two... Italian?... Interpol agents (Claudiu Bleont and Sorin Cocis) into lady opera singer costumes and have them bumble around. Bumbling! Man, how great is it to see unabashed bumbling cops in a movie of relatively new vintage? It's like having a gumdrop tree in your backyard, and the gumdrops all taste like dead baby unicorns.
The two agents are introduced as mobsters that are meeting with Charles (poor damn Peter Coyote, it would have been easy just to kill him in the last film) to buy some of the Trioxin he spirited away last time. His demonstration goes awry, to say the least, and Coyote at last gets to drop out of the project, with whatever dignity he has left. Haha, I kid, he has no dignity left.
Back home, Julian - now a college freshman - gets to deal with sorting out his dead uncle's affairs, which involves finding a hidden room, as he declares to his new girlfriend Jenny (Jenny Mollen) "I've lived in this house 18 years, and never once did my parents even talk about this room". Here and elsewhere, it's very difficult to say whether the gleefully horrible dialogue is accidental or deliberate, part of the "joke". Probably the former, and it's certainly funnier that way.
In this room, Julian finds some Trioxin in large cans, and doesn't figure out what it is. Apparently he wasn't paying any more attention to Necropolis than I was. So he's obliged to take it to the techie Cody (Cory Hardrict), also a survivor from before - then he was a hacker, now he's a chemist, same difference - who can't quite figure it out either, but Jenny's brother, the DJ and all-round drug fiend Jeremy (Cain Mihnea Manoliu) decides that the right thing to do is ingest some of the liquid they've drawn from the can, and declare that it gives him a truly legendary high. It shall be perfect, he concludes, to sell all around the campus. As luck would have it, it's a few days before Halloween, the night of an epic rave that Jeremy is DJ'ing; he annoyingly and repetitively refers to it as a "rave to the grave", and in meeting with the local drug dealer Skeet (Catalin Parschiv) - yes, "Skeet" - dubs the drug "Z", because it makes you feel like a zombie. Hoho, the irony.
So the ingredients: bumbling Interpol agents, a whole lot of college kids ready to trip balls on Trioxin at the Biggest Rave Ever, and in a repeat of the last film, the best scene involves a rat given Trioxin (it's a lab rat named Mr. Stinky this time, not a hobo banquet). Also, one of the Trioxin vats busts open to reveal, for the first time since Part II an honest-to-God Tarman zombie (there's a sort-of Tarman in the third film), who gets saddled with a positively unendurable gag in the last scene, but hey, it's Tarman.
Anyway, you see where all this is going, right? Well, it goes there. The body count is marvelously high, the gore is generally more visceral and convincing than in the last one, and there are lots of topless women. So if your needs are as barbarously low as you can get them, Rave to the Grave will at least prove more satisfying than Necropolis. On the other side, Elkayem had by this point in the production cycle given up entirely on making Romania look like the U.S., the film is overlit and dreadfully flat, and the comedy is played in the broadest, most grating way that it could be.
Even so, at the very least it's got a whole lot more mayhem and carnage than its sibling, which for a solid half of its running time watched as a lot of indistinguishable teens sneak into a lab. Here, a lot of indistinguishable teens get their skulls chomped off, as two Romanians playing Italians with Russian accents tromp about, mangling English. It's cheesy and squirrelly, but at least it's not wretched. If that sounds like the faintest praise with which I can damn something, it's meant to be, and my single response to Rave to the Grave is relief that I have no more painfully diminished Return of the Living Dead knock-offs to weep through.
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)