HOUSE OF THE DEAD presents us with an intriguing question. Can a film be so misguided, so insipid, and so completely awful that it winds up being entertaining in spite of itself? Yes, of course. Does that make it a good film? Oh, hell no.
HOUSE OF THE DEAD is based on a popular first person shooter game from Sega. But that is not what makes it so terrible. Actually, as adaptations go, it stood a better chance of succeeding than say, SUPER MARIO BROS. or DOUBLE DRAGON. But when all is said and done, even those look like Ingmar Bergman classics in comparison. I point the computerized roots out to make this distinction early on, as the video game history comes into play here. Also to say to everyone who got on my case for liking RESIDENT EVIL, here's your just desserts.
Here is a film that misfires from its very first word of dialogue. The narration is delivered by Rudy (Jonathan Cherry - THEY, FINAL DESTINATION 2) in a shockingly overdramatic monotone that would be considered a bit too much on an old TRANSFORMERS cartoon. He talks about how his friends are now dead and he's stuck on an island, the only survivor of a massacre. Flash back to a day earlier, where his friends are preparing to meet him at the island. Yes, you read that right. The most basic writing mistake rears its ugly head. You can't give testimony over events at which you were not even present. Yet, that's exactly what Rudy does, for about a half-hour in fact.
We are introduced to his friends. Greg (Will Sanderson - BLACKWOODS, THE MANGLER 2) is a Carson Daly-type pretty boy who spends most of the time making out with his girlfriend, Cynthia (Sonya Salomaa - FIREFIGHT). Rudy sums up Cyn's entire background in three words, "pure eye candy." Simon (Tyron Leitso - DINOTOPIA) is a Josh Harnett lookalike who isn't too bright. But no matter, since we're told "he happens to be the hottest underwear model in America." Simon has got a crush on Alisha (Ona Grauer - BLACK SASH), a fencing expert (ooh foreshadowing!) who used to be involved with Rudy. Meanwhile, Karma (Enuka Okuma) is interested in Simon. Rudy describes her as someone who "thinks she's Foxy Brown." Actually, she does nothing in the film to back that up. She is not a tough, doesn't have a take charge attitude and is not out of a blaxploitation film. Rudy's assessment is inaccurate and actually, a bit racist.
They're on their way to the rave of the year on a tropical island. Unfortunately, they've missed the boat by fifteen minutes. Cut to the rave already in progress. HUH?!? Yes, although we are told they barely missed their transportation, and should probably even see the boat still en route from where they are standing, the rave is in full swing. In fact, it looks as though it has been going for some time. People are dancing and even getting bored enough that they begin pairing off in the woods for some much needed techno-driven hardbody sex.
And let's take this moment to talk about the rave. Now, I've never pretended to be the brightest bulb on the tree, but is this really what raves have become since my teenage years? Allow me to take my twentysomething geezer stance for a moment. I always understood raves to be mostly illegal affairs, set up through word of mouth in warehouses and isolated properties. The surroundings are supposed to be spacious and far from the prying eyes of the law. This rave is hardly spacious. In fact, there seems to be only a few dozen people at "the rave of the year." Moreover, the whole party takes up less than an acre of land. Even with my sorry social life, I would probably leave this party after fifteen minutes as well. It's definitely the first rave I've seen where there are no glowsticks, lights or other effects. In fact, the whole thing happens in the middle of the day (although when the group arrives at night, the place is mysteriously well-lit). Also, don't worry. There are absolutely no drugs in sight at this rave. Nope, everyone's perfectly clean, only partaking in a full keg of Budweiser on tap. To top it all off, this lawless event has corporate sponsorship. The company's logo is emblazoned prominently in the center of the screen for all to see. That company? Sega - the same people who created the HOUSE OF THE DEAD video game.
Back to what we laughingly refer to as "our story." The group charters a boat captained by Captain Kirk (Jurgen Prochnow), a name which only exists for the sake of one lame joke. When he enters, one of the group says, "it's the fucking U-boat captain." No doubt this is a playful reference to Prochnow's role in the classic film DAS BOOT. But given how far Prochnow has fallen over the years, it seems less like a joke and more like kicking the poor bastard while he's down. Clint Howard plays his first mate. What does it say when Clint Howard gives the film's best performance, and he isn't even trying his best? The group is followed by a Coast Guard agent named Casper (Ellie Cornell - HALLOWEEN 4&5, FREE ENTERPRISE). I will admit it's nice to see Cornell back in action, but one would hope for better than this.
When the group gets to the island, they find it abandoned. No one seems to care much, but three of the group go off to do a little investigating anyway, while two others become zombie show. Yes, zombies have decided, much as I have, that a turntable is NOT a legitimate instrument and these wannabe tweakers have to go. As the group investigates, they finally run into Rudy, who is staying in a centuries-old house with two of the other ravers - Hugh (Michael Eklund - the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA miniseries) who documented the initial attack on video and a decked out Asian woman named Liberty (Kira Clavell). They explain what has happened and the rest of the film involves them trying to gun down as many of the living dead as possible.
Some zombie facts to point out here. First of all, the zombies are not the shambling, drooling masses of the Romero films. These zombies run, jump, fight back and even whistle (don't ask). All in all, I didn't mind this much. After all, why do we expect every zombie film to adhere to Romero's classic? No, I'm not making comparisons and I am not defending HOUSE OF THE DEAD. But I figure if we play fast and loose with the rules concerning vampires in the movies, we should be able to do the same with zombies. It should be noted that a few zombies do show skills that they should not possess in this world or the next, but that's beside the point.
I have a message for Christian Slater, Tara Reid and everyone else cast in Uwe Boll's upcoming ALONE IN THE DARK. Run! Get out of it! Find the negative and burn it! Hopefully, Boll will have improved on his next film, but this one didn't give me warm and fuzzy feelings about the future.
Boll's direction is simply the most jaw-droppingly awful stuff I've seen in a theatrical film for years. No kidding, this is as bad as it gets. Now, I remember going to see the last handful or Roger Corman produced quickies to be released in theatres. I enjoyed TIME TRACKERS and CRIME ZONE. But those films cost under a million dollars to make and had a shooting schedule of a couple weeks. In comparison, HOUSE OF THE DEAD cost $12 million and had a lengthy post-production. And while the low-budget Corman films gave the impression of funloving talents working with what they had, Uwe Boll's direction seems to scream that this is a man in way over his head.
Boll has trouble framing a shot, keeping events in order or staying consistent with the basic rules he's set up. He is unable to wrangle a single good performance from his cast, whose entire ensemble makes up the worst acting I've seen in a theatrical release in years.
Boll also retreats from any kind of dramatic tension. There is a clear path as to how he should proceed in certain situations and he chooses the exact opposite path. In one sequence, Rudy sees one of his friends slowly torn to shreds by zombies. How would you show his emotional response? Boll chooses to zoom in on Rudy's closed eye and then give us almost a minute of split-second frames, entirely consisting of stock footage from minutes earlier and placed solely to accompany the escalating techno beats.
It is also here that Boll chooses to do the most wrongheaded move in the whole thing. He cuts to a 360-degree turn of the victim, staring blankly with nothing around her, as the screen goes red. It is amazingly out of place and I'm going to go out on a limb as to why he did that. My guess is that they wanted to recreate the effect of a video game when your character dies. He repeats this effect, not when other characters die, but as they are on the attack. The camera swivels around them in a pathetic imitation of THE MATRIX's bullet time effects. In actuality, it's plainly obvious that the actors are merely standing on a revolving platform. Why he felt the need to include this, we don't know, but it looks terrible.
Boll seems intent on reminding us that HOUSE OF THE DEAD is based on a video game. This consists of random instances where he will interrupt the action to show clips of the video game for no apparent reason! Why would anyone in their right mind think this was a good idea? He cuts to these images from the game repeatedly, no matter what is going on in the film. This would be like having GONE WITH THE WIND interrupted regularly with shots of some idiot reading Margaret Mitchell's book (Pay attention, kids. That's as close as you'll ever get to a comparison between HOUSE OF THE DEAD and GONE WITH THE WIND). Uwe, we know it's a video game. We just don't know why you insist on reminding us of this very basic fact. We don't know why you can't separate the film from the source material.
I wanted to like HOUSE OF THE DEAD. It was produced by Mark Altman and Mindfire Entertainment, the same folks who gave us FREE ENTERPRISE. If you haven't seen that film, you should. It's a romantic comedy for everyone who ever loved cult films and suffered for it. It's nothing less than one of the greatest undiscovered gems out there. HOUSE was also co-written by Dave Parker, who wrote and directed a fun little zombie homage called THE DEAD HATE THE LIVING. In that film, he saluted many of the great zombie filmmakers - Lucio Fulci, George A. Romero, Umberto Lenzi, etc. Sadly, he hasn't brought anything resembling their vision over to this film. I can't imagine how such a talented group could be led so far astray from the word "go."
I don't know how wise it is to completely trash this film, as we do have a contest running in conjunction with it (and go for it - free stuff is free stuff). But hey, we aim to be true here. And it's no lie that HOUSE OF THE DEAD is the worst film I've seen all year.
As I said earlier, the film winds up being mildly enjoyable in spite of itself. Not in anything approaching good filmmaking. No, this is amusing solely because I watched this in open-mouthed disbelief. It was just astonishing that a film could go so wrong in so many different ways. It's a level of ineptitude that I haven't seen on the big screen in a long time. When most films fail, it has more to do with my own personal tastes than anything. And while that accounts for much of what I saw here, this film misfires on several basic levels.
Unlike those Corman-produced films I mentioned, this film cost $12 million to make. But in fact, it looks no better than most of the straight-to-video films you see in the store for under a quarter of that budget. This film doesn't have their charm either. About the only thing I can say in defense of HOUSE OF THE DEAD is that they at least show a few nude shots to momentarily distract us from how awful the rest of the film looks.
HOUSE OF THE DEAD cannot be called a success, even if you have a bit of fun with it's shoddiness (and even then, it would be a one-time deal, likely getting more depressing with repeat viewings). In order to be called a success, the film would have had to succeed in what it set out to do. In this case, the film wanted to give us a fun action film while scaring us with the zombies. It does not come remotely close to doing either.
HOUSE OF THE DEAD is a film so horrible, you actually feel bad for many of the people involved. Surely, not everyone in the film can be this lame. In the cases of Jurgen Prochnow, Ellie Cornell, Dave Parker and Mark Altman, we know they are capable of better things. But someone messed up here, and they messed up big. What we're left with is an unsalvageable mess. In a year where so many great horror films have finally seen the light of day, HOUSE OF THE DEAD remains a black mark, albeit a minor one, on the landscape of the genre.