STARS/**** Image B Sound A- Extras B+
starring Jonathan Cherry, Tyron Leitso, Clint Howard, Ona Grauer
screenplay by Dave Parker & Mark Altman
directed by Uwe Boll
by Walter Chaw With Jürgen Prochnow (the production too cheap and/or ignorant to provide him even his umlaut in the closing credits) dressed like his Das Boot U-boat commander and Clint Howard dressed like the Morton's fisherman, Uwe Boll's wearying House of the Dead positions itself as one of those snarky post-modern slasher flicks that isn't nearly so smart as it thinks it is. An early gag about Prochnow's sea captain being named "Kirk" is one of those lifeless jokes that speaks to the desperation and incompetence driving the piece in equal measure; sad to say that after its unpromising opening minutes, the film defies the odds by getting progressively worse. I don't really know how House of the Dead found distribution--pictures piggybacking on the success of both a video game franchise and another film that piggybacked on a video game franchise (Resident Evil) usually go straight to video. But as one of the death rattles of Artisan Entertainment, 'nuff said, I guess.
When some meat bags make their way to an imaginary island in the San Juans (actually Vancouver) for some rave sponsored by, yes, Sega, they discover that the moniker "Isla del Muerte" wasn't just charming tourist flavour. Encountering a band of survivors led by a body-suited Asian woman named "Liberty" (Kira Clavell), as well as a cache of weapons provided by Captain Kirk, the meat bags proceed to run around in the dark improvising flat dialogue while second-unit inserts of people in cheap costumes provide alleged menace with the kind of silhouette shot used to better satirical effect a couple decades ago in Michael Jackson's "Thriller" video.
I can appreciate that House of the Dead is a self-knowingly bad homage (and "homage" is a word that the director and producer like to use a lot in their commentaries) to all the "bad" zombie films sprouting in the noisome wake of Night of the Living Dead, but the fact of the matter is that knowing something is bad is not the same thing as having a clever take. There's a point where bad is bad (I'm thinking of They Call Me Bruce and Scary Movie 2), intention be damned, and House of the Dead is just awful. It doesn't understand the spirit and context that made the Italian George Romero knock-offs so uniquely fragrant, and it certainly doesn't understand the sociological genius of Romero himself. The picture even fails as exploitation: two topless girls and a lot of zombie-clad extras jumping on trampolines is neither titillating nor the slightest bit subversive.
This is not to say that films cobbled together from bits and pieces of dozens of other identical films can't be fun (Cabin Fever), just that House of the Dead is incompetent on so many levels that watching it inspires irritation at being taken for granted, exorcising any possibility for prurient gratification. The problem with the film is that it's the product of genre poseurs: aficionados won't laugh conspiratorially because there's more to Romero than splatter. It's hard to "get" an off-target reference--case in point, executive producer/co-screenwriter Mark A. Altman points out the underwater zombie in Romero's Zombie when even cursory fans of the genre know that the legendarily schlocky Zombie (actually Zombi 2) was directed by Italian eye-trauma maestro Lucio Fulci. A small gaffe in the grand scheme of things, this becomes writ large as Altman and his crew use love and knowledge of the genre as excuse and explanation for the excrescence of House of the Dead--no wonder they have one of their characters utter "this is like a Romero movie" (before, of course, explaining the meaning of the phrase to an audience that supposedly is only there because they're already fans of the genre) with a straight face. If you think that Romero directed Zombie, then of course you think that House of the Dead is like it; you'd still be wrong, but less wrong, if you know what I mean.
Artisan releases House of the Dead as one of their last hurrahs, imagining a special edition of sorts by packing this dud with a ton of extras. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is indicated by edge enhancement problems, some brief haloing in night scenes, and dark levels that seem flat and without any kind of elasticity. Grain is minimal, however, and colours are vibrant. Overkill is redefined in no fewer than two state-of-the-art audio mixes, one in DD 5.1 EX and the other in DTS-ES 6.1. Both are booming and unimaginative in the way of modern horror filmmakers who don't have the first idea of how score and soundtrack can do more for an audience than deafen it. The best use of the 6.1's rear channels occurs in a climactic sewer stroll, the worst in spreading its speed-techno garbage throughout the overtaxed soundstage.
Because no good deed goes un-bludgeoned, Artisan provides two commentary tracks for House of the Dead, the first from director Uwe Boll, post-production supervisor Jonathan Shore, producer Shawn Williamson, and actor Jonathan Cherry, the second from Altman. Boll begins his Bavarian diatribe by patting himself on the back for getting Prochnow to wear his hat from Das Boot, proceeds to congratulating himself on his clumsy ape on Jaws (still waiting on the zombie movie reference), and then malaprops (or not) through priceless bon mots like "this film is redolent of the game." Boy is it. The actor has some sort of weird fixation on fellow House of the Dead star Will Sanderson and so spends the bulk of the track talking about how much he likes him and how sad it is that his character dies. Boll speaking of mise-en-scene meanwhile caused me to snort in a superior way that I find most unbecoming in others, though, in retrospect, it appears I got more enjoyment out of the commentary than I did the film.
Altman's track is slightly more apologetic as he complains that there's not enough action and that Boll's choice to splice in actual footage of the arcade game was really stupid. The creator of Free Enterprise goes on to note all of the references within the film to "Star Trek"--a franchise decidedly not part of the zombie tradition--before mentioning said "homage" to Romero's Zombie. If I feel a little bad for attacking the seemingly affable Altman at length for his Pollyanna-ism regarding this picture, he asks for it in a case insert wherein he celebrates Uwe Boll's "strong auteurist vision for the film" and excuses the stilted acting as lifted from the pixel-thesps of the source material. He then offers that the film isn't "Citizen Kane nor was it meant to be"--which is exactly what's wrong with our culture of lowered expectations. The axiom that nobody tries to make a bad movie flies right out the window when you watch something as dedicated to being bad as House of the Dead.
The joy continues with a "Stacked for Zom-bat: The Sexy Babes of House of the Dead Prepare for Battle!" (6 mins.) featurette that shows the sexy babes of House of the Dead preparing for battle by playing the video game before paintballing unarmed extras in undead makeup. It was an unforgivable waste of my life, but it did explain the performances a little. More of a puzzler is a second featurette--"Behind the House: Anatomy of the Zombie Movement" (18 mins.)--that actually features interviews with Romero and Tom Savini expounding on the zombie genre. (Here, Altman amusingly acknowledges that the nerve centre of any successful zombie flick is its sociological mooring.) More than just a waste of life, this docu is a frustrating waste of time for the appearance of two of the genre's progenitors. There's an explanation as well of how Boll et al achieved a cheap version of the bullet-time effect (it has to do with a turntable)--something that Altman in his commentary track admits was overused. Honest, sure, but grossly understated. Clips from Romero's Dead trilogy decorate the piece, reminding of why it was I actually requested this title to review. In the last couple of minutes, Savini and Romero talk about the possibility of a fourth Dead film, with Savini, somewhat shockingly, suggesting that CGI is the way to go to achieve the next generation of grue. As Altman interrupted their reverie with hints of a second House of the Dead flick, I was overcome with an almost uncontrollable desire to throw something heavy at the television.
Three storyboard comparisons come with commentary from Altman, who first explains what a storyboard is then narrates the comparison. Unless you're a fan of the film, you get it already, which probably explains this feature. There doesn't appear to be an option not to listen to the commentary. Three deleted scenes make a stab at character development, demonstrating Boll to be almost as bad at shooting dialogue as he is at shooting action. Ritalin blowdart comes to mind as a potential two-word cure--that or "arsenic-laced." The House of the Dead trailer, trailers for Betty, Cutthroat Alley, Dracula's Curse, Devil's Pond, The Punisher, and S.I.C.K., and a preview for Sega's Nightshade round out the platter. Incidentally, the DVD features one of the least navigable scene selection screens in memory. Originally published: March 3, 2004.