ESSAY: Dead at 55: Return of the Living Dead 4 & 5 (2005) - WWAC % (2024)

Continuinga series that celebrates the fifty-fifth anniversary of Night of the Living Dead with a look at the classic zombie film and its many follow-ups.

With the twenty-first century zombie boom having brought Romero’s official Living Dead series out of retirement for 2005’s Land of the Dead, it should come as no surprise that Return of the Living Dead was close behind. Less expected was Return’s millennial revival taking the form of two made-for-TV movies that premiered simultaneously on the Sci Fi Channel, airing October 15, 2005, in an attempt to revive the science fiction double features of days past. The films in question were initially entitled Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis and Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave, although later reissues have added the numerals 4 and 5.

Both films were helmed by Ellory Elkayem, who on paper was an entirely logical choice as the series’ fourth director. He had previously written and directed Eight-Legged Freaks (2002), a goofball monster comedy in which a toxic waste spill creates a swarm of giant killer spiders: replace the spiders with zombies and this could have been a Return of the Living Dead film.

And yet, things did not come together as smoothly as might have been imagined. Perhaps it was the fault of the scripts by William Butler and Aaron Strongoni; perhaps it was the strain of making two films together; perhaps it was the rather dubious cast with which Elkayem was saddled; or perhaps it was a combination of all three factors. Whatever the exact reasons, the living dead were hardly in good shape upon their latest return.

Granted, Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis gets off to a promising start. It opens with a spoof advert for Hybra Tech, a corporation that has taken credit for mopping up the previous zombie outbreak and presents itself with lashings of unconvincing corporate cheeriness (“We’re the most trusted name in toxic waste disposal, and we make your favourite snack foods too”). Sadly, the satirical promise of this sequence goes unfulfilled, the film instead contenting itself with borrowing ideas from earlier instalments.

Although all zombies have been wiped out, some drums of the chemical that created them are still lying around (in Chernobyl, of all places). Hybra Tech scientist Charles Garrison gets hold of the substance and takes it back to his laboratory, hoping to create some zombies to use as guinea pigs. Meanwhile, Charles’ teenage nephew Julian (John Keefe) is oblivious to all of this and simply wants to have fun with his high school friends, a plot point apparently lifted from the father-son dynamics in Return of the Living Dead 3. Julian’s best friend Zeke has a motorcycle accident that leaves him concussed, and he is rushed to hospital (another detail eerily reminiscent of Return 3, where the protagonist’s girlfriend dies under similar circ*mstances).

Julian later hears from hospital staff that Zeke has died; but his friend Katie, who happens to work at Hybra Tech’s security department, calls him to report having seen Zeke being transported, alive, into the company compound. And so Julian teams up with his friends – one of whom happens to be an ace computer hacker – to infiltrate Hybra Tech and rescue Zeke. In the process, he learns just what dastardly deeds his Uncle Charlie has been involved with.

A major flaw with all of this is Necropolis’ lack of empathy for its young characters. The original Return loved its punk gang: when it made fun of them, the parody was clearly fond. Return Part II loved its preteen underdog hero, and for all of its flaws, Return 3 loved its bodymod zombie antiheroine. Indeed, Elkayem’s earlier Eight-Legged Freaks also loved its nerdy, arachnid-obsessed boy hero. Necropolis shows none of this affection.

The sequences of supposed teenage banter are straight out of the blandest children’s sitcom, and worse still are the tediously drawn-out motorcycling sequences. To judge by the blaring rock soundtrack, we are intended to find these shots of motorbikes revving through a nice, green woodland on a pleasant summer’s day to be the height of countercultural cool, but all they achieve is to show how far things have fallen since Trash performed her naked dance in the cemetery twenty years before.

The film’s editing is also sub-par, leading to some oddly disjointed storytelling. One plot point, involving two homeless men eating chemically-tainted meat, would have worked fine as a single sequence; yet it is inexplicably edited into chunks and peppered through the action. This results in an utterly pointless scene that consists of two hobos sitting around a spitroasted armadillo bantering about nothing in particular.

If nothing else, Necropolis’ zombie make-up and associated gore effects are competently pulled off. Even this can be no more than an underhanded compliment, though, as the earlier Return of the Living Dead films were more than merely competent in this area: they were genuinely inventive, mixing weirdness with cartoon humour to create unique specimens of ghoul. The zombies from Necropolis are purely generic, right down to the unveiling of two cyborg soldier zombies that are clearly just eighties-nineties throwbacks, created by blending Robocop, Star Trek‘s Borg, and Hellraiser III‘s techno-Cenobites into a slurry.

Necropolis also nixes one of the most novel traits the original Return gave its zombies: their near-indestructibility. The ghouls in the first film could survive being dismembered, with each severed limb still squirming with life; this was the basis for some memorable gross-out humour. The zombies in Necropolis are a feeble lot by comparison and can be slain with only a few Buffy-style martial arts moves. It is unclear if this change was made so as not to tax the effects budget, or for fear of the zombies becoming too comical; if the latter, then the film defeats the object by having its zombies moaning “brains, brains” as they did in the earlier, sillier instalments of the series.

This raises another question: is Necropolis supposed to be a comedy? It has scenes that are clearly played for laughs, such as the aforementioned zombie armadillo attack and a later sequence in which a man is eaten by ghouls while making an obscene phone call, but these are spread thinly. For the most part, the film achieves the general ambience of a horror-comedy not by being funny but through a failure to be scary. It rehashes stock zombie-film plot points with no stakes and no suspense, and so inevitably defaults to silliness.

The notion of someone making it through Necropolis and wanting to immediately watch another Return of the Living Dead film by the same cast and crew is hard to swallow, but any Sci Fi Channel viewers willing to do so on that fateful October night would have been greeted by Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave.

The plot this time sees Julian nosing around the home of his deceased Uncle Charlie and finding canisters of the zombie chemical. This falls into the hands of Julian’s less-than-responsible friends, who manage to synthesise the substance into a recreational drug right in time for a Halloween rave. Meanwhile, two bungling Interpol agents try to reclaim the chemical before hell breaks loose.

While this is faint praise, it has to be said that Rave to the Grave is nowhere near as big a disaster as Necropolis. This time around, Ellory Elkayem and company abandon all pretenses towards making a straight horror film and revel in broad, goofy comedy. Once we clap eyes on the half-melted zombie standing by a sunny roadside holding a hitchhiking sign that reads “RAVE OR BUST” it should be clear that this is a Return of the Living Dead movie after all – albeit one in which the original’s black-clad Gen X aesthetics have been replaced with a brighter millennial palette.

The trouble is that the film never manages to be particularly good zombie comedy. The previous year’s Shaun of the Dead set a high bar for this genre, and Rave to the Grave fails to match it in terms of dialogue, physical comedy, observational wit, or performance. Various subsequent zombie comedies, such as Tokyo Zombie (2005), Zombieland (2009) and The Dead Don’t Die (2019), have likewise offered more imagination and bigger laughs, leaving Rave to the Grave a largely forgotten relic of the millennial zombie glut.

The double-bill was meant to be a triumphant comeback tour for Return of the Living Dead. Instead, it became a pitiful endpoint and a sad reminder that the series never managed to recapture the countercultural chic of its debut instalment.

Next: A long-awaited third volume…

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ESSAY: Dead at 55: Return of the Living Dead 4 & 5 (2005) - WWAC % (2024)
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