This week's release PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES is certainly a unique approach to combining a love story with a zombie movie, dropping the living dead into Jane Austen's public domain source material, but it is far from the first project to mix romance and zombies. Horror fans can probably think of several movies where characters are trying to develop or sustain a relationship as zombies shamble around them, and there are even movies where someone is in love with a person who becomes a zombie, like the pair of films chosen for this week's Face-Off: Brian Yuzna's RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III and Michele Soavi's CEMETERY MAN (a.k.a. DELLAMORTE DELLAMORE.)
When the romance of star-crossed teenage lovers Curt and Julie is cut short by her accidental death, Curt sneaks Julie's corpse into the military base where his father has been experimenting with the reanimating gas 245 Trioxin and uses the chemical on his girlfriend. As Julie slowly, painfully turns into a zombie, Curt tries to get her to safety while evading police, soldiers, and gang members. There is actually a really great love story told within the context of this gory zombie flick.
The caretaker at the Buffalora Cemetery is his town's first line of defense against the "returners", dead people who rise from their graves as flesh hungry ghouls. When he spies an attractive young widow at a funeral one day, he instantly becomes obsessed and goes to great lengths to pursue her - through life and death, and a couple more lives. The fact that he hooks up with multiple women who look identical to each other kind of takes away from the romance of it all.
Curt is your typical, rebellious, petulant teenager, but what is admirable about him is his dedication to Julie. This girl has rocked his world, and he will do anything for her, as he proves throughout this film. When you're willing to risk your life for your girlfriend even after she has become a walking corpse that tears into people and gulps down brains, that's a love beyond even the kind they write songs about. If only he weren't so bland otherwise.
Francesco Dellamorte is a simple man who only reads the phone book and spends his evenings gunning down zombies. At first, he comes off as a cool badass, but as the film goes on and he keeps running into terrible obstacles that keep him from being with the woman he loves (in her various guises), his mental state deteriorates until he's gunning down random people as well. As he goes on this tragic journey, his likability gradually dwindles.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III is carried by the character of Julie, a wild girl turned on by danger in life who becomes an extremely endearing character in death; understandably disturbed by the knowledge that she is one of the living dead and struggling as hard as she can against the intense hunger she is beginning to feel. When she discovers that pain briefly distracts her from the symptoms of being dead, she goes a little overboard, and ends up turning herself into what I believe is one of the great horror icons of the '90s. The image of Julie with slashes on her body and various metal objects and shards of glass stuck through her skin is an incredible visual that I'm left wishing we could have seen a lot more of, but as it is this memorable look is featured in a great sequence.
Dellamorte is clearly only drawn to the object of his affection because of her beauty, since not much of her personality is ever revealed. We don't even know her name. When she gets turned on by entering an ossuary, it appears that the cemetery man will be with the woman of his dreams after all, but then her husband rises from the grave and tragedy strikes. After she has died, twice, Dellamorte meets two more women who look exactly like her, who may somehow be her, but they both turn out to be rather awful. Our lead is infatuated with her, but the audience is given no reason to like her. When she rises from the grave, though, Dellamorte's reanimated beloved is the most impressive zombie in the film, with leafy roots tangled around her body, her white robe blowing in the wind.
This film has some great, nasty zombies, most notably an emaciated, jaundiced, nearly nude fellow that I find to be one of the most disturbing zombies ever. There's a blood-drooling ghoul that can only drag itself along, one whose melted flesh has fused into an awkward position, an exceptionally disgusting one with the back of its head missing, one that's nothing but a head and spine, and one that has had a metal exoskeleton drilled on it. The military comes up with some strange ideas during their zombie experiments.
The characters may be questionable, but CEMETERY MAN does feature some very cool zombies. There's a good variety of these always filthy, frequently hideous flesh eaters, which often have vines growing on their bodies. In addition to the usual people dressed in their best, you also get some zombie Boy Scouts; a zombie nun; a sweet, talking severed head; and even a zombie that was killed in a motorcycle accident, so he has bike parts smashed through him and goes ripping around the cemetery on his motorycle.
Curt and Julie may not be the best couple, they're a pair of dumb kids, but their love is real and the intensity of the performances delivered by the actors gets me very strongly invested in their story. I care about them, I'm touched by their final moments together, and I feel that this is a fantastic horror romance.
CEMETERY MAN doesn't really tug on my heartstrings at all. It's an off-the-wall, irreverent film that glides along with a dreamy atmosphere and never allows me to get emotionally invested in the characters. I watch the events play out without really caring about what's happening, and there is no real love here.
RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III
In the battle of zombie love stories, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD III comes out on top. While CEMETERY MAN is a fun and well made movie in its own right, the emotion on display in ROTLD3 and the pure awesomeness of the Julie character makes it a much more satisfying viewing experience for me.
Do you agree that RETURN is the better of the two, or does CEMETERY MAN strike a stronger chord with you? Speak your mind and spit some bullets in the comments section below! Do you have a pair of movies in mind that you'd like to see fight it out in a Face-Off? Point me in the right direction by sending your suggestion to CodyHamman@joblo.com.