House of the Dead
As this wretched excuse for a movie begins, a party of elderly "teenagers" is making its way to an island off the coast of Washington State, to attend the "Isla de la Muerte Music Festival" performance of an opera by Janacek.

No, no, of course that's not right: they're going to something described as "the year's biggest rave". Being older than your average movie teens-in-jeopardy but not wiser, our group misses the only boat to the island and is forced to charter a ride with the surly "Captain Kirk" and his charm-challenged first mate. The Captain turns out to be a smuggler, transporting arms to... I dunno, drug runners, or the Mafia, or Québecois separatists or something... so he's anxious to outrun the world's least effective Coast Guard agent, a trigger-happy woman called Casper.

There's another curious development: unlike the people who planned and organized "the year's biggest rave", Captain Kirk and his crewman know there's something dangerous and unhealthy about the island. You'd figure that the rave crew, insurance agents, promoters and performers would have checked out the island pretty thoroughly, including the local rumors about the island's unsavory reputation -- or, come to think of it, the tendency for everyone who goes there to be eaten by zombies. But really: who has time for details?

The actual glimpses we get of "the biggest rave of the year" show us that either it's still early January, or that the whole "rave" phenomenon has run its course: there are all of two dozen people twitching listlessly to the "music" (it might be argued that if something is popular with people as old as our heroes, it's certainly no longer cool. What - ever). Anyway: a boy-raver and a girl-raver sneak off for some skinny-dipping, but the boy, fearing George Costanza Syndrome from the chilly water, lets the girl go in by herself. One false scare later, the girl emerges from the water... only to find the boy is gone. Following some kind of trail through the lonely woods, the girl comes across an old abandoned house. She enters... only to stumble into a community theatre production of the last scene from Claudio Fragasso's Zombie 4: After Death.

In the meantime: unhappy about the trip, but pressed by Casper's lackluster pursuit, Kirk takes the "kids" out to the island. When they get there, the "kids" find that the place is deserted, "Marie Celeste" style: the tents are still up, the bar is still stocked, but the other people are nowhere in sight. Our heroes, being idiots, see nothing radically wrong with this scenario, and do what teens-in-jeopardy always do: they split up and mosey around. Two of the "kids" stay behind at the rave site, and seem to be about to have sex. You know what that means: if there weren't any murderous monsters around before, this will draw them like flies to a dunghill.

Or like critics to this movie.

When the others return, they are attacked by the girl they left behind, who has apparently turned into a homicidal maniac. Before she can hurt anyone, Casper shows up and blows her away with some heavy firearms. When the gaping holes in her chest fail to stop the girl, Casper puts a pistol shot through her head. Obviously something supernatural had happened to the her, making it necessary for Casper to give her the full Romero treatment. After all, there couldn't be any other explanation... nobody's ever, say, flipped out on controlled substances at a rave before, right?

Incredibly, Casper turns out to be correct in her diagnosis: the island is swarming with zombies, some of them the recent rave guests. With the help of Captain Kirk and his stash of illicit arms, Casper and our heroes must fight for survival... but as the zombie hordes move in for the kill, one thing quickly becomes clear: this is absolutely, positively the worst Dostoyevsky adaptation ever filmed.

The second-most-obvious question my regular readers are likely to ask at this point is this: Why haven't I included this movie in my survey of movies about horrible houses? The answer is that in spite of its title, this movie has almost nothing to do with a house. Yes, there is a creepy-looking moss-covered manse that blows up at the end, but it's hardly essential to the plot.

The first-most-obvious question is more difficult: why am I bothering to comment on a movie that's already been torn to dripping ribbons by everybody else?

Let me put it metaphorically: Remember John Wayne's last film, The Shootist? Wayne played an aging gunman who only wanted to live out his last days in peace. Unfortunately, he was denied the luxury, since every local punk who fancied himself a gunslinger wanted to call him out and shoot him. As a long-time zombie movie fan, that's pretty much how I feel every time a movie like House of the Dead comes out: just when I figure I've suffered enough indignity at the hands of directors like Andrea Bianchi, Claudio Fragasso or Andreas Schnaas, I hear that familiar, sneering voice behind my back. It's another Johnny-come-lately zombie flick, challenging me to yet another senseless confrontation. Of course, it's my duty to shoot it full of holes -- after which I trudge back to the saloon, soul-sick with the waste and futility of it all.

OK, that was a terrible metaphor. But that's OK, because this is a terrible movie.

I might have left House... alone had it not been for Artisan Entertainment's DVD. Artisan, you may recall, is the outfit that released crappy panned-and-scanned, features-poor editions of Dario Argento's recent nonhosonno and the acclaimed Canadian flick Ginger Snaps. Why does it seem as though the worse a film is, the better treatment it gets on DVD? In this case, not only is the transfer very good, but we're also treated to a generous selection of Special Features. While the "Stacked for Zom-Bat" featurette is as inane as the movie itself, the interviews and commentary with the writer and director reveal how much of a catastrophe the movie really is. Having suffered through these features (and incidentally, having had to go through the movie three times in order to do so), I find I can no longer ignore House... Anyone can make a bad zombie movie -- but this crew has made more deliberate miscalculations and mistakes along the way than the idiots in front of the camera in any zombie movie ever made.

I place most of the blame squarely on the shoulders of would-be director Uwe Boll, whose stated goal was to make a movie that resembled the experience of a first-person shoot-em-up game. Why anyone would think a feature-length video game was a good idea, I don't know; but in any case, he failed. He brought to the style of the film all the shallow, irritating visual tricks typical of soda commercials and music videos -- tricks which keep the audience from identifying with the human characters the way they would with the unseen protagonist of a first-person game. Admittedly, the kind of "identification" you get in a game is totally different from the kind we normally experience in the movies, but at this point I'll take anything.

Having done his best to alienate both horror fans and gamers, Boll has had to rely for support on those moviegoers who found Darkness Falls too great an intellectual exercise. Unfortunately, there seem to be an awful lot of people who fit this demographic. House... apparently did well enough at the box office to inspire talk of a sequel, and if that doesn't sound bad enough, it's also launched a whole spate of other Boll-helmed video game adaptations. This brings up a nightmarish thought: what if other film-makers take Boll's work as a template for commercially-viable cinema? What if House of the Dead becomes the de facto standard for video game adaptations? I can see it now: the Nouvelle Plague. The Dogmeat school. The Boll Movement.

I blame Boll especially because I see an awful lot of wasted talent in the rest of the crew. The set design and photography are both good -- per se -- but the horrible editing ruins our appreciation of both; and though the technical quality of the lensing is not an issue, cinematogapher Mathias Neumann is asked to capture such idiocy on film that it really doesn't matter how well it's achieved or how good it looks.

Then there's the cast: does anyone remember when The Keep seemed like the biggest embarrassment on Jürgen Prochnow's résumé? Clint Howard's role is at least brief, which saves him from too much indignity. However, Howard's role seems enormous compared to the bit parts played by two non-actor "guest stars", rocker Bif Naked (as "the DJ") and Playboy model Penny Phang (as "Tyranny"). Naked's only lines were cut from the completed film; while Phang, who in real life apparently heads her own multinational conglomerate, never had any lines to begin with. Phang appears as background eye-candy for perhaps two seconds; the topless shot which was probably her entire reason for being in the picture was also cut from the final print.

As for Kira ("Liberty") Clavell, it's hard to tell what impact House... will have on her career. Clavell is an up-and-coming actress who's had a few decent parts in small & independent films. Apparently her role in House... was expanded when the film-makers realized that aside from Jürgen and Clint, she was the closest thing to a genuine actor they had. But increased involvement with a movie like this may not turn out to be such a good thing for her in the long run.

(You'll note I haven't addressed the principals directly. Let's just say they're mostly on par with their material. Ona Grauer, the film's distaff Lara Croft, apparently has quite a following among young men [I call them Onanists]. There are two outstanding reasons for her popularity, and her acting ability isn't one of them. The most astonishing effect in the movie is a slow-motion shot of Ms. Grauer running away from an exploding building. It's really indescribable: she, er, provides a fascinating illustration of the effect of gravity on the motion of fluids in containment. I don't want to suggest that Ms. Grauer is completely incompetent; like too many action movie heroines, she's fine when she's facing combat... just don't ask her to emote convincingly.)

And then, there's the truly tragic case of writer/producer Mark Altman. Altman was responsible for the 1998 movie Free Enterprise, which I enjoyed very much. Free Enterprise had a wry, self-deprecating humor. I appreciated its references to such targets as Charles Band's Full Moon studios and the movies of Amando de Ossorio, even if I didn't get all the Star Trek in-jokes. I found it to be a charming and sympathetic film, aimed less at a specific fetish (i.e., Star Trek) than at people like me, whose lives are ruled by genre film and television. Thus I was taken aback to find out that Altman -- from whose imagination came Julius Caesar: The Musical, starring William Shatner in all the male roles -- was in part responsible for this mess.

When you listen to Altman's commentary track, you get the impression he's gritting his teeth over the way his original treatment was eviscerated to comply with Boll's "vision" for the finished film. He seems resigned to the fact that Boll was intent on making an action film, rather than a (mere) horror film... we all know how that usually turns out, and House... is no exception to the rule.

You do have to feel sorry for Altman when you realize all his character exposition was reduced to a few seconds of dry voice-over. That voice-over also manages to give away most of the ending in the first few seconds of the film. But Altman goes on to explain some of the things that got left out, and our sympathy starts to wear thin. For instance, he says that his original draft had established that Ona Grauer's character was an expert fencer, and that this explained her skill at swordplay later on. The trouble with this is that Ms. Grauer has to fight with a broadsword, not a foil. You don't fence with a sword of that size; you cleave with it... and let's face it, Ona Grauer doesn't need any help with her cleavage.

Altman had also originally planned Clint Howard's character to be a spiritually-wise Native American who was naturally "tuned in" to what was really happening. Yawn. He also tells us that he'd deliberately written his "teen" characters not to react naturally to their friend's gruesome death, because he felt the audience would find it ridiculous.

(As opposed to...?).

It's sad to see otherwise-intelligent writers get suckered into perpetuating idiocies. I'm really starting to get worried about Mark. Once Hollywood bites you on the ass, it seems like nothing can stop that creeping zombie infection.

Altman does try his best in his commentary to put a positive spin on the film, and I suppose I really can't blame him for that -- I know too well how seductive the promise of continued employment can be. But this still leaves plenty I can blame him for: specifically, the contempt Altman occasionally displays for his audience in his remarks, and his apparent ignorance of the genre he claims to be re-inventing.

As far as the first point goes, in one segment he whines that he expects hardcore horror audiences to complain about his zombie-killing methods. Well, why shouldn't we complain? It's not as though there's any consistencey to these methods: some zombies require the standard shot to the head, merely shrugging off any other injuries; while others take a bullet to the gut or the thorax and drop for the count. I don't care how you dispatch your ghouls, as long you do it with conviction. The old "shoot 'em in the head" rationale seemed logical: these were walking dead people, after all, and it seemed as though it should take an extraordinary injury to make them lie down again. But if your zombies are as vulnerable to injury as their victims, it makes them much less effective.

Then there's the fact that Altman lards his zombie script with Star Trek in-jokes, which are about as out-of-place as Lucio Fulci jokes in a Star Trek script. Take Clint Howard's character, Salish, for example (and with all those Germans around, I thought his name was "Selig", which sounds about the same): we're supposed to "get" that he's named "Salish" after a Trek character, and this is supposed to be doubly funny because Howard played a bit-part in an early episode of the original series. Also, he's first mate to "Captain Kirk", ha-ha. So why, in a movie where practically every single line of dialog is a reference either to a clichéd line from another movie or to a song lyric, are there practically no such references to classic zombie films? OK, a character mentions George Romero explicitly, and there are plenty of out-and-out plagiarisms, but none of the same sort of knowing asides that might have helped endear the movie to horror fans. Thus I have the uncomfortable feeling that I'm being condescended to by a Trekkie ("Man, those zombie movie fans... what a bunch of geeks!").

As for my other point, which feeds off the first: never mind that in an interview, our would-be expert refers to Danny Boyle's recent masterpiece as 48 Days Later (sic). Nor am I particularly distressed that nobody involved with the Special Features of a zombie film -- a zombie film, for crying out loud -- caught the slip and suggested an edit or a retake. No. To me, the most appalling thing is Altman's proud statement that he and Boll were attempting to do things that had never been done before in a zombie film.

What is it that's so special, so new and different about this "non-horror" approach to the Undead? What are some of the things Altman promises us that have never before been seen in a movie about the walking dead? Let's make a little list:

  • Never Before Seen! Zombies that run fast and fight furiously. As opposed to the "traditional" kind, who move... really... slowly.

    This is an original development? Haven't we seen this sort of thing before in, say, Lenzi's Nightmare City (made all the way back in 1980)? or Return of the Living Dead? or Zombie 3, or Zombie 4? or 48 Da... oh, never mind.

    Actually there's a reason why most effective zombie films use shambling cadavers: they're scarier that way. They are more convincing as re-animated dead people if they're stiff and uncoordinated. If they move like normal people in make-up, then (surprise!) they tend to look like normal people in make-up.

    If, on the other hand, you want to waste the efforts of your special effects team by making it impossible for the audience to see their handiwork, then by all means: speed up your dead folk. You can make things even worse by using such a jarring style of photography that no details are visible in your zombies.

    And here's another heartbreak that's revealed by the Special Features: the SFX team spent a good deal of time, effort and money building a zombie bust that moved its head and face in a very realistic manner. In the actual movie, the prosthetic head is popped up out of a hole and blown away so quickly that it might as well have been a solid piece of styrofoam.

  • Never Before Seen! Zombies who fight underwater!

    Oh, come off it: even Disney managed this more effectively than Altman and Boll did, in Pirates of the Caribbean. And if I'm watching a zombie movie, and I'm given a setup in which a girl strips down to her g-string and dives into the water... well, if I get anything less than a battle between a zombie and a shark as the payoff, then I'm going to feel seriously let-down.

    Once again, you wonder about the lack of research that went into the movie. Altman is convinced that underwater zombies are some sort of novelty. The only precedent he can come up with something from an unnamed Dario Argento film -- I presume he means the underwater ballroom sequence from Argento's Inferno, though that's not strictly a zombie scene; the floating corpse that surprises Rose never comes back to life. There is the horrifying possibility that Altman is really referring to the zombie/shark sequence in Zombie, but I'm unwilling to admit that Altman might not know the difference between Argento and Lucio Fulci.

    But there are underwater zombies in the repertoire -- plenty of them. Need I mention one of the grand-daddies of Bad Zombie Horror, Zombies of Mora Tau from 1957? Moving up the food chain, let's not forget Shock Waves (1977) and the aforementioned Zombie (1979); not to leave out Zombie Lake (1980), the movie that best explains why there aren't more underwater zombie flicks, and why most directors should leave the sub-subgenre studiously alone.

  • Never Before Seen! Spanish conquistador zombies!

    Right. As though Mr. Altman was somehow unaquainted with ol' Worm-eye, the single most famous spokescorpse for the genre...

    To make things worse, the movie mixes up its history. The conquistadors flourished in the 16th century, but the sailing ship and its crew that we see in the flashbacks are all no earlier than late-18th century.

  • Never Before Seen! Fight scenes in "bullet-time"!

    Guh. This technique was pioneered in the original Matrix, where it served an important role in the whole texture of the film. We were supposed to understand that the nature of reality was being manipulated, and that time and space, cause and effect, were being distorted and made meaningless. But in all the other films that have ripped off the technique, including the Matrix sequels themselves, it's been used just because it looks, like, sew kewl. Thus it's now the audience that's being manipulated, and the film that's being distorted and made meaningless.

    Why are we seeing such flashy, acrobatic effects in these fight scenes? It makes no sense that a bunch of kids, trapped and brutalized on a strange island, should suddenly turn into a crack combat team, skilled not only in the use of some pretty heavy firepower, but also in martial arts. Realistically, if these people had gone into a fight doing the things they seem to be doing -- the MTV-gone-Matrix visual style makes it hard to see -- half the team would have been mown down instantly by friendly fire, and the other half would have been zombie food in just a few moments.

  • Never Before Seen! Helicopter shots over water that pull up suddenly to reveal... land!!

    If you really, really want your film to compare unfavorably with (to name only some more recent examples) Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, or Tomb Raider 2, then go ahead. Knock yourself out. Give us the helicopter shot early in the movie, then give us a similar shot in reverse after the first zombie attack. Then, just for good measure, give us another helicopter shot at the end, this time revealing... can your heart stand the suspense? A city!!

  • Never Before Seen! A movie based on a video game!

    Believe it or not, they may have a point here. As far as I know, no other game-based movie has actually gone so far as to include shots of the actual game itself. At first, these inclusions are only used as transitions, but by the time we get to the first big battle, the game clips are used to supplement or even replace the effects shots. I can't imagine how insulted the effects team must have felt by this point, as they watched their work get replaced, overlapped or otherwise obscured by computer screen captures. I'll bet the pixellation was horrendous on the Big Screen.

    Another thing the movie has in common with the game is the easy availability of ammunition. During the big attack scene, our heros use up a small army's worth of bullets, yet I don't see them reload; nor do I see them overburdened by spare clips. Certainly the girls' costumes don't leave any room for hidden toothpicks, let alone ammo. As I recall, in the arcade game, all you need to do is point the pistol off screen to get more shots. Maybe the same is true in the film. And let's not forget that, as in the game, grievous injury doesn't slow anybody down until they're actually dead.

    There's also a gimmick used when some of the characters -- not all, by any means, nor even the major characters -- bite the biscuit. First, there's a rapid-fire montage taken from the movie so far (though if you watch carefully, you may notice that the scenes may not include the recently-deceased); and then we're given a mournful solo shot of the character as the screen goes blood-red. It's just like a computer game's cinematics when your character gets offed.

    And then there's the narrative. In a game like House of the Dead, for each level you play you usually have a goal. You shoot your way from Point A to some unspecified Point B, where chances are the Level Boss is waiting with some particularly nasty tricks up his sleeve. Your object is to get to that Point B more or less alive, but Point B may not be the most obvious place for you to go. In the movie, the survivors are wending their way through the woods to get to the boat they think will take them to safety. When they get to the shore, the boat, the water and the beach are all swarming with undead. By some astonishing chance, the kids manage to defeat the monsters, and there is a lull -- which might well correspond to the pause you get when you clear a level. Now: the kids could get to the boat and possibly get away with their lives. In the Real World, this would make perfect sense. But they decide not to do this. Why? Because they're afraid there may be more zombies in the water or on the boat. Fine. What's their alternative plan? Go back inland -- where they KNOW there are zombies -- and hole up in a house, which is as likely to be infested with ghouls as the boat, but which offers them no possibility of escape. In game logic, this works, because when you clear the level, you will be magically transported to the next one, no matter where you were before.

    The main difference between the arcade game and the movie is simple: if you put eight bucks into the game, you might actually be entertained... or even scared.

And, of course, our movie incorporates a never-before-seen, totally unexpected twist ending that leaves the door open for a sequel. Who knew? And here too we have a huge miscalculation (pardon me while I reveal details about the ending, because if anyone dares to call this a "spoiler", they're going to get a good swift kick in the slats):

Boll and Altman kill off their curvaceous babe-heroine in a swordfight with the Level Boss. Er, sorry: the Lead Zombie, Castillo.

(Castillo, in case I haven't mentioned it before, is the never-before-seen mad zombie scientist who lives under an old house and keeps himself alive with pieces of his victims. Several examples of the movie's poor dialog have been quoted by reviewers ["This book looks old... it may help us!"], but I'm very surprised this Abbott-and-Castillo exchange late in the film hasn't attracted any attention:

HERO: You! You've created all this to become immortal! But... Why??
CASTILLO: In order to live forever!!
I may not have the exact words here, but they're pretty close. Really. Who would have connected immortality with eternal life? It's just another one of those innovations that Altman, Boll & Co. have come up with.)

Where was I? Oh, yeah: the dead Hot Chick. I'm willing to bet that nobody in the audience cared if the nominal hero got out alive. They were all rooting for the girl with the enormous breasts. Who's going to come see the sequel if the Hot Chick isn't in it? OK, she's supposed to have been zombified, so she could technically participate in the sequel, but let's think about it for a moment: the girl was killed with a sword, not by a zombie bite. There's no real reason why she should be reanimated, since we've seen that the zombies are created by contact with some sort of unexplained glowing fluid. Also, let's not forget that Casper was mutilated by the zombies, but she didn't return from the dead. But even granting that she has become a zombie, given the fact that it's been some time between the final fight and the convenient arrival of the "secret government agents" -- why hasn't she turned into a ravening, bloodthirsty fiend? And considering that -- somehow -- the "secret government agents" are clued into the presence of walking dead (talk about "too little, too late"!), why is it that nobody suspects the mortally-injured girl leaning on the hero's arm might be one of them?

And on top of all that, let's not lose sight of the fact that the whole final plot-twist is stupid.

So here you have it, ladies and gentlemen: the movie that makes its source video game look smart and tightly-plotted by comparison. I bought my copy cheap out of a used bin, and I'm extremely glad I did: I don't want my purchase to be recorded in the official tally for this thing's gross. My biggest reason for this, other than the obvious, is inspired by a brief interview with George Romero that's included in the DVD. Romero mentions that he's still having trouble getting the funds for his fourth "Living Dead" film. Let's put this in perspective: the IMDB says House of the Dead cost twelve million dollars to make; producer Altman says the real figure is closer to five. Considering that the film took in about ten million in theaters, and that Boll is still getting work, I'm inclined to take Altman's figure; in any case, that's several million dollars that could have gone to Romero, but were instead wasted on this piece of crap. That's really intolerable. House of the Dead is a cinematic crime and punishment for the audience. I'd like to find the idiot who released this to theaters... and after I get through with him, any further suggestions he has will be strictly notes from underground.

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