House of the Dead (2003)
House of the Dead is Uwe Boll’s first foray into the video game-to-movie niche he’s carved himself. It’s based on a first-person-shooter by Sega that lets players blast their way through a haunted house and its undead tenants. There’s not much to the game. In interviews Boll has remarked at how he hated the film’s jokey script and rewrote much of it on the fly, trapping the film between the genres of horror and action. In the DVD jacket, executive producer/co-writer Mark A. Altman says, “House of the Dead is no Citizen Kane.” This may be the understatement of the millennium, comparable only to Napoleon saying Russia might be a tad cold.
Matt (Steve Byers), Greg (Will Sanderson), Simon (Tyron Leitso) are meeting with fellow college students Alicia (Ona Grauer), Karma (Enuka Okuma), and Cynthia (Sonya Salomaa). They’re ready to party at the rave of the century. This rave of raves takes place on the ominously named Isle del Muerte (The Island of the Dead). I suppose this proves that no one on the rave planning board speaks Spanish. The kids eventually hitch a ride to the island from Captain Kirk (Jurgen Prochnow) and his first mate (Clint Howard). Hot on Kirk’s heels is Casper (Ellie Kornell), a border agent after Kirk for gunrunning. Once they arrive at the island, the kids are shocked to find the rave site vacated, destroyed, and swarming with zombies. Everyone makes a run for it and regroups with some of the rave’s survivors, led by Rudy (Jonathon Cherry). The groups team up, armed by Kirk, and set out to shoot their way home. But there’s also a very evil figure roaming about that has more sinister plans for the island’s fresh meat.
House of the Dead isn’t a horror movie at all. Boll has no idea how to stage scenes with tension. He has no feel for mood or atmosphere, which are the foundations of a good horror flick. So instead, House of the Dead is a riotously dumb action movie. But under Boll’s direction, it’s not even good at that. The action is repetitious and pedestrian. Boll’s big melee sequence becomes boring because it doesn’t progress. There’s just ten minutes of wall-to-wall shooting zombies, but there isn’t any order to it, no rhyme or reason. If you want a perfect example of Boll’s inept staging, skim to 47:20 into the DVD and watch. You’ll see a zombie leap onto a jumping platform and launch himself into the air. House of the Dead actually has scenes where we see exposed jumping pads and landing mats.
Boll gets drunk on special effects very easily. He loves the bullet time effect and throws it in at odd points. Every single character gets a tiresome slow-mo camera spin as they fire a gun. After the ninth and tenth time, the thing gets old. The characters don’t even have the same weapons in the shots before the slow-mo jazz. Boll doesn’t use flashy effects to benefit his narrative, unlike The Matrix. Boll actually thinks using clips from the actual video game is a good device to transition between scenes. There will be moments where screen shots of the game just pop up. Boll is a kid with toys and no clue when to put them back into the box.
This movie’s silliness is jaw dropping. The so-called rave of the century seems to be poorly attended, and the better for it since it takes place on the Island of the Dead (Isle del Muerte). Is that really the best place to host a social gathering? Perhaps everyone gets what they deserve for being stupid. Kirk, after shooting several zombies, limply remarks, “Now I know why they call this the Island of the Dead.” The line should be accompanied by a rim shot. The movie doesn’t even live up to the lofty ambitions of its title.
By far the most ludicrous story element is the film’s villain, Castillo (David Palffy). It seems that before he stalked the island in a hooded cloak, looking like Robert DeNiro in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, he was a Spanish pirate/doctor. He tried to experiment on living tissue in order to unlock the secret of how to be immortal. He was imprisoned on a Spanish ship and was shipwrecked on the Island of the Dead (what are the odds?). He’s concocted a special Kool-Aid that will bring the dead back to life, though I don’t know why he’s still stuck on an island if he can’t drown. I guess he’s been biding his time and waiting for stupid college students so he can see some T&A.
The characters are made up of people interested in attending a rave, but when the action hits they’re all instantly adept at weaponry and kung-fu. That’s not the typical raver I know, and these people must be super ravers if they’re going to the rave of the century. Simon is described as “the biggest underwear model in America,” and for all I know underwear models encounter a lot of gunfire on the runway. The DVD jacket has character profiles where it lists their name, age, weapon of choice, and skill. After having watched House of the Dead, the skills are laughable at best. Simon the runway model’s skill is “tactical planning.” I also seriously question Rudy’s “leadership” skills since he gets everyone killed.
Of course everyone in the movie is profoundly stupid. While trapped in the island’s only house, Rudy says the kegs of gunpowder are useless without a charge, and then he walks past a series of lit candles. The whole house upon arrival is filled with lit candles (who has the time for that, by the way?). Alicia is convinced that the rave site being deserted, destroyed, and zombie-infested is all a practical joke, as if Ashton Kutcher is just around a tree poised to yell, “You suckas just got punk’d!” There are numerous moments where a character will wander into the dark and say, “[Insert name], is that you?” Kirk takes the last stick of dynamite and plans to sacrifice himself by blowing up some zombies good. He lights the stick, wanders outside their barricaded stronghold, and blows himself sky high. What Kirk failed to do was move far enough from the house, because he also blows the front door wide open and the zombies filter inside.
The acting doesn’t even rise to the level of camp. The actors feel unrestrained and marooned, typical of a Uwe Boll film. The man has no feel for actors and this explains why his films have some of the worst line readings I’ve ever heard (2000’s Dungeons and Dragons is still the worst). Casper acts like a crabby fitness instructor. The dialogue is bad as is, but when added with the poor line readings it turns every spoken sentence into something of unintentional hilarity. Take this nugget from Simon: “We got to the boat but it wasn’t there.” Well, then did you actually get to it?
House of the Dead can be enjoyed for the depths it plumbs. The dialogue is cheesy and leaden. The movie is bad enough that if you have some friends over, drink steadily, you’ll have a blast laughing and hurling popcorn at the screen. The movie does have a decent amount of blood and gore and the make-up effects are good but limited. You can enjoy House of the Dead in a fun derisive way, and it’s hard to argue with the price some retailers charge (I bought it on Amazon.com for 75 cents plus shipping). The DVD commentary is also good for a laugh, that is, if Boll’s self-flagellating remarks are serious. At one point he compares his zombie action movie to Schindler’s List. Boll also marvels at an actor’s ability to carry objects and make them seem heavy. I’m not sure if Boll is serious or just making fun of the movie like everyone else.
House of the Dead is a dull action movie within the framework of a horror flick. The characters are powerfully stupid, the action is redundant, the effects are chintzy and overused, and the direction is lackluster. Boll has added little in transitioning a game about poppin’ zombies onto the silver screen. The video game is flimsy and the movie based upon it manages to be even flimsier. House of the Dead is incredibly dumb entertainment and the fact that a sequel is well underway cannot be a good sign for human existence. I never thought I’d utter these words but . . . Clint Howard, you’re too good for this.
Nate’s Grade: D
Note: Boll re-released a recut House of the Dead as a comedy. I haven’t seen “the funny version” but I can’t imagine that it could possibly be any funnier than the original.