Where is Linnea Quigley when you need her? She is one of the things we remember and love about 1984's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD. Sure, the film would never be accused of adding the social context that Romero instilled into his series, but then it wasn't supposed to. No, RETURN was a fun romp that took our beloved zombies, gave them a punk rock makeover, kept its tongue firmly in cheek, but still gave us plenty of dread and terror for our money's worth.
Unfortunately, a sequel followed in 1988, helmed by Ken Weiderhorn. He delivered more of the same but without any of the joy or originality of the original. To wit, he expressed displeasure with the whole idea of the film and transferred his gloomy emotional baggage onto the screen. What isn't cited nearly enough is the fact that Brian Yuzna redeemed the series with RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART 3 in 1993. It was a big departure for the series, using the backstory of the previous two films to create a ROMEO AND JULIET-like story crossed with one of the most intriguing and ferociously sexy horror characters of the 1990s.
It took well over a decade for the RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD series to surface again and really, I just wish they had left well enough alone. Because this fourth film in the series, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD: NECROPOLIS brings absolutely nothing new to the table. In fact, it doesn't bring anything even partially enjoyable to the table. It's a film executed in such a hum-drum manner as to suggest that no one on board had any vision whatsoever, except to separate genre fans from their hard earned cash.
We start out at the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Plant. Since we just recently passed the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, this either reeks of unfortunate coincidence or truly tasteless opportunism. A lot has been made out of the latest DEAD films being filmed at the old Chernobyl plant. In NECROPOLIS however, it seems like a waste of money. There is really nothing to distinguish this setting from any other abandoned power plant, water treatment center or industrial complex so often favored in unimaginative horror films. Regardless, by allowing NECROPOLIS' cameras within its gates, Chernobyl can now be known for hosting two disasters.
At the plant, Dr. Charles Garrison finds the last barrels of the chemical that made everyone stop living and become mixed-up zombies (to coin a phrase from another bad horror film). Something you need to know about Dr. Garrison is that he's evil. Did I say evil? I mean EEEEE-VILLLLL! In a series known for its over the top chariactures, Garrison really abuses the privilege, trumping Lex Luthor and the Joker for obvious villainy. Later in the film when he is quizzed on what he would the chemical for, he haughtily replies, "World domination, what is anything for?" And you know, I don't think the line is even supposed to be funny.
Why I lay out Garrison's persona so early is that he is played by Peter Coyote. Now, Peter Coyote is a very talented actor, but you'd never know it from watching this. In fact, I had never seen Coyote give a performance I did not enjoy until now. He will probably be best remembered for his role as Keys, a.k.a. "the good scientist" in E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. But his roles go far beyond that. Really, if you want to see a better side of Peter Coyote, and in a much darker character than even NECROPOLIS offers, check him out as the sexually perverse puppet master in Roman Polanski's BITTER MOON. He's also an activist from way back and once wrote a book I've been meaning to pick up about his time at an anarchist compound called SLEEPING WHERE I FALL.
Now that I've qualified Coyote's talents, let's get back to the film in which he embarrasses himself. Naturally, most of the film does not focus on the tired mad scientist character. It focuses on a group of teenagers. What, you were expecting a group of ex-poet laureates? Given the origins of the series, we could expect there to be some punkers or goths somewhere in the bunch, right? Nope, not a Manic Panic dye-job nor an eyebrow piercing in sight. Instead we get kids who quite frankly would not exist in today's world. I don't pretend to have my finger on the pulse of the nation's youth and I'd probably have to register on an embarrassing database if I did. But if anyone can honestly tell me they relate to these characters, I want to know in which Ovaltine commercial have you been living out your life?
These are kids so squeaky clean, they're almost blinding. Their hijinks include dirt bike racing and telling off bullies. Christ, even their rebellion is G-rated! And yet, the filmmakers feel the need to inject some pathos into their characters. Take this exchange for example:
BIG BROTHER: If mom and dad were alive-
LITTLE BROTHER: Yeah, well they're not, are they?!?
Oooh, tug on my heartstrings. If the parents' fates weren't revealed in the film, I'd swear that they weren't dead, they were just hiding from their annoying Stepford children. We're also given a lame storyline where our head goody-goody Julian is called to task for making moves on his best friend's girl. True, the two broke up a long time ago and the friend seems to have all the charm and subtlety of a Duke University La Crosse player, but drama's drama. The rest of the group is pretty pathetic. We have a guy with a hair-trigger temperament, always willing to beat up or even shoot someone. You can tell he's hot-tempered because he's Latino and the screenwriters obviously don't know how to write him any better. There's also a nerdy girl (read: hot girl with ponytail and glasses - actually, something tells me Aimee-Lynn Chadwick could have what it takes to become a force to be reckoned with in better genre fare), a slut, a guy who's really into electronics and... oh what's the use? One thing I can tell you is that despite being the most mainstream teens on the block, they all seem to know how to use various firearms when the plot calls for it.
I expected this kind of broad and sophomoric characterization from director Ellory Elkayem. After all, this is the same guy who punished us with EIGHT LEGGED FREAKS, a film that should have been about ten times more fun than it was. I was willing to pin that film's failings on a studio unwilling to even take the slightest risk. Now, I'm just starting to think that maybe Elkayem isn't right for horror. But what is truly disheartening about the poor script is that it was penned by William Butler and Aaron Strongoni. Those two wrote a very good chiller last year called MADHOUSE, a film which Butler directed actually. The two have a couple more films in production and I honestly hope these RETURN films are just a bump in the road.
The previously mentioned stalker (I can't be bothered to regurgitate their names) cracks his skull while racing his dirt bike. Or I think that's what happened. Actually, we don't even see him land the move that supposedly lands him with scrambled brains. Anyway, Stalker-Boy is taken to the hospital. There, Julian and his posse, we'll call them the J-Crew, are told their friend has passed away. But actually, he has merely been transported to the local Hybratech plant, sort of an Umbrella Corporation with less funding. I will admit, this was the source of a few clever lines about far-reaching corporations ("We're the most trusted name in toxic waste disposal and we make your favorite snack foods too!"). The J-Crew finds out they've been duped almost immediately and seek to break their friend out. What they intend to do afterwards isn't very clear, but these aren't the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree. Once inside, they discover that Garrison - Julian's uncle, for crying out loud! - has started the zombie experiments again. And of course, they accidentally unleash the undead hordes once again.
Gee guys, way to go.
"They Will Leave You Brainless" shouts the tagline of NECROPOLIS. And really, they shouldn't leave themselves wide open for insult like that.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD: NECROPOLIS is not a bad film in that guilty pleasure sort of way. It's far too boring and prudish for that. There is absolutely no style on display. The people are boring to watch, the story is boring to see developed and the resolutions are so simplistic, you will want to claw your hair out of your scalp.
About the only positive thing I can say is that, yes there is some good zombie action for fans of the genre. But you have to throw away a lot of empty clams before you get to some pretty puny pearls. Even this is inconsistent. I have no problems with films that play fast and loose with the rules. But the people making the film should at least be sure of what the rules are. Some zombies take a head shot to go down, while others twitch while squibs go off in their chest and are vanquished. Still others can't even be stopped by dismemberment. Make up your minds, people!
But what am I saying? For the filmmakers to do that would imply a well-thought out storyline along with some respect for the fans of horror cinema. RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD: NECROPOLIS contains neither. It is a complete waste of time.