Uwe Boll takes a lot of heat for his craptastic movies. In most cases, it's well-deserved. But House of the Dead is a fucking masterpiece. This is the epitome of a movie that's so bad, it's good. There's nothing intentionally worthwhile here, but if you don't have a good time while watching this movie, you're just not going in with the right attitude. Any movie that features a zombie slaughter at a rave, Clint Howard wearing a hook for a hand, and a cigar-chomping, gun-smuggling, crusty old sea captain named Captain Kirk is one that I'll gladly watch.
Well, as long as I have enough beer.
This film begins with bad techno music, a sure sign of doom. We then segue into the most overwrought narration ever, as Jonathan Cherry -- best known as the junkie who gets trisected by a flying barbed-wire fence in Final Destination 2 -- tells us, "It was a nightmare. so many dead people. So many victims. It all started a few days ago, when I came here for a rave. And now all that remains is the rotten smell of death."
So, in case you're lazy and wondering who survives, now you know. But we don't actually meet Cherry's character (named Rudy, presumably because he can't fail) just yet. He's just here to narrate the next few scenes, because otherwise we'd have no way to figure out that this is an island and that there are zombies on it.
I kid. Rudy narrates the very important next scene, in which he explains who these crazy kids trying to come to the island. See, there's Greg, who's got no personality because he's played by perennial Boll castmember Will Sanderson. There's Greg's girlfriend, whose name I can't remember because she dies first. There's Simon, who's a goofball and played by the guy from Wonderfalls, who's way better than his material here. There's Karma*, who has a crush on Simon. And there's Alicia, Rudy's ex.
They missed the boat to get to this super-special rave on an island**, and now they're desperate. And what do desperate ravers do? They find the first disreputable-looking sea captain they come across (our buddy Kirk), and pay him lots of money to take them to the island! Kirk's mate isn't Spock, but the hook-handed Salish, who is creepy in a way that only Clint Howard can be. There's about twenty minutes worth of these kids getting on the boat, outrunning a Coast Guard inspector, throwing up, and other fun stuff, but none of it's worth spending time on.
Let's see what's happening on the island. Oh, hey! It's Erica Durance, TV's Lois Lane! She demonstrates that cell phones don't work on the island, then she and her boyfriend go off to cuddle while the ravers keep raving. Oh, did I mention that this rave is in the middle of the afternoon? No glowsticks, either.
Anyway, Erica and her boytoy head off to a secluded beach, where she promptly strips naked*** while her boyfriend, for reasons that make no sense, decides to wimp out and lie on the beach. Erica goes swimming, and Boll, with his usual subtle hand, gives us about ten minutes of Stalkercam, with the inevitable result being that the Gaze aimed at naked Erica is actually just the cameraman, and the real danger is aimed at the boyfriend! When Erica surfaces from yet another dive, her boyfriend is gone.
Naturally, she decides to search the woods, where she finds a house****. She looks inside, and sure enough, there's her boyfriend. With a zombie's hand stuck through him! Oh noes! Erica tries to run, but she gets surrounded by zombies and chomped*****.
And her is where the movie shifts from "meh" to brilliant."
You see, House of the Dead is based on a rather famous rail shooter of the same name. So when Boll licensed the rights, he decided that half-second clips from the game were the best way to segue from scene to scene. Really. After Erica gets killed, we get a flash of animated zombie, and pretty much every scene shift from this point forward features one. It's either proof of Boll's genius or his insanity, but either way, it's wonderful.
The next fifteen minutes are a prime example of how to stretch out some slow scenes. We see another couple making out on the sand, we see the teens land on the beach, we see the couple making out some more, we see the teens start to walk, etc. Suddenly, and without warning, there's a total eclipse of the sun!
Oh, wait. Sorry. It's just that the walk from the beach to the rave took so long that it's now completely dark. Since the sun was high in the sky when they landed, figure they had to walk a good twelve miles or so. Fortunately, they're not tired. Unfortunately, the rave appears to be deserted. Greg and his soon-to-be-dead girlfriend decide to drink free beer and make sweet love while the others, slightly smarter and aware that the rave probably shouldn't be deserted, head off in search of other folks.
While his soon-to-be-dead girlfriend waits in a tent, Greg goes to take a leak. Just as he enters the port-o-potty, we (and the soon-to-be-dead girlfriend) see silhouettes of shambling folks outside the tent******, and as we cut away to yet another clip from the video game, she becomes Greg's now-dead girlfriend.
Back on the beach, Salish is unloading boxes, and gets attacked by a wild videocamera (or possibly a zombie using a videocamera). Have I mentioned that Boll does whatever he can to scrimp the f/x? Why waste time showing someone die, when they can die offscreen?
Anyway, let's get back to Simon,
Anyway, the videocamera guy shows them the Cannes-winning documentary he was working on, called "look, lots of women at a rave showing their breasts." Eventually, we get a couple of clips of people running around as if they're being attacked, and we're told that it was like "a Romero movie*******." Also, we learn that the boat they arrived on is mysteriously missing, presumably off somewhere cavorting with the screenplay, special f/x, and acting talent the movie's also sorely lacking.
The kids head back to the scene of the rave, and find that Greg has been trapped in a port-o-potty that was knocked over, thus proving that Boll's zombies aren't afraid to swipe ideas from Beavis and Butthead. As the kids talk, the zombified corpse of Greg's now-dead girlfriend arrives and snaps the neck of the videocamera guy (who, having provided exposition and a Romero reference, has nothing left to do but die). Just as she's about to attack the rest of the group,
I do want to take a moment to note that the Coast Guard officer is played by Ellie Cornell, who is best known as Rachel Caruthers in Halloweens 4 and 5. I'd love to say that she's way too good to be in this movie, but sadly, she hams it up as poorly as anyone else here.
The officer's name is Casper, and she initiates one of those awful exchanges of dialogue that you just know the writers thought was brilliant when they were penning it:
Casper: What the hell was that thing?
Karma: Our best friend.
Casper: Not anymore.
Seriously. You know it took screenwriters Mark Altman and Dan Bates hours to come up with that sequence, and when they did, they were probably ecstatic to the point of masturbating.
Anyway, Casper gathers up the kids and they head for the boat.
Meanwhile, at the boat, Captain Kirk is fully aware of the fact that Things Are Not Right, and has prepared by lighting up a stogie and getting out his trusty handgun. When the zombies swim out and start climbing onto the boat, he calmly shoots them, but eventually more and more of them board, and by the time the others gets to the shoreline (after a lengthy and silly chase scene through the woods), the boat's overrun with zombies.
But wait! Kirk survived, and is on the shore. After a silly, stupid, convoluted fight scene in which Liberty and Simon jump in the water and attempt to take back the boat, the group regroups on the island. Simon, for reasons that don't really make sense, starts kicking a zombie, who turns out not to be dead, and who sprays Simon in the face with acid. He's not dead, but he is hurt (as are Kirk, who got bitten in the hand, and Greg, who took a nail through his hand back during the chase through the woods).
Speaking of things that don't make sense, Casper and Greg decide that the right thing to do is to split up the party, so they head off in search of "help" (and Casper's fellow Coast Guard members) while the rest of them get exposition from Kirk. See, way back in the day, there was a ship hauling an evil priest named Castillo who was experimenting with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. And that prisoner, by an amazing coincidence, was the strange zombie-like creature who we've seen wandering around the woods. In the flashback, he strangles the ship's captain, and we then learn that he murdered the crew, enslaved the natives, and settled on this island.
Meanwhile, Casper and Greg fail to find help, but they do find zombies. They get split up, and Greg gets surrounded by zombies as the screen fades to red.
Casper heads back to the rest of the group, and they decide to hole up in the house. Kirk reveals that he's actually been smuggling guns, and they break open a cache. And we now get a wonderfully awful semi-montage as each survivor grabs eight or nine guns, lots of ammo, and a few grenades and sticks of dynamite. As they check them out, Kirk provides commentary: "Ah the Mossberg! Good Choice! Ah, the Desert Eagle! Good Choice! Ah, the Tiny Penis Overcompensator 9000! Good choice!"
But now, folks, comes the money shot. The following moments are actually the best eight minutes of filmmaking ever. Really. I can't find a clip on Youtube, and I don't have any DVD ripping software, but if you get a copy of this, fast forward to 50:56 and watch the next eight minutes
Rumor has it that after this scene was filmed, dozens of fight choreographers retired rather than work in a world that allowed a scene like this to be made. Others use it as their inspiration, the fight choreography equivalent of the Goofus to the more proper Gallant that good fight choreographers aspire to.
As the heroes cross the fifty feet from the forest to the house, they start to walk in a Tombstone-esque straight line in slow motion. Zombies gather around them, but never once think to take the chance to rush in and attack someone from behind, merely waiting their turn to be shot. Each member of the group gets a close up, after which the camera freezes on them, then rotates as the techno music blares. With each of them, we get a few shots of them using their weapons of choice, even as the zombies mill about, doing nothing. Boll intercuts nearly fifty scenes from the videogame during this time, too.
After each cast member has gotten his or her spotlight action sequence, we get a few secondary ones, like Karma shooting through three zombies with a shotgun - filmed with a grey smoke streak behind it, so we get a full view of what happened. Liberty does a Matrix-esque backwards bend to dodge a zombie attack, and Alicia starts using the hand grenades. And I can't even begin to comprehend the scene in which a zombie throws an axe, Karma jumps in the air, shoots, and we see the shotgun pellets break up, miss the axe, and penetrate the zombie, even as the axe, for no good reason, just falls to the ground like it's just discovered gravity.
Really, I can't put how wonderful this scene is into words. I haven't even mentioned the crawling zombie without legs, or the way the zombies form a circle around folks and wait to rush in one at a time, or the kung fu Liberty practices, or the sudden appearance of Casper's fellow now-zombified Coast Guard buddy. Not to mention how the entire group of heroes scatters, pays no attention to each other, shoots guns and launches grenades, and never suffers a single casualty from friendly fire. And I haven't even mentioned the way wisps of smoke are artfully frozen during each of the freeze-and-scan shots. Or the blank look on Jonathan Cherry's non-emotive face.
Just watch this scene. No words can do it justice.
And then, just to top things off, Liberty finally gets killed when a group of zombies jump her. Rudy sees this, and then has a flashback in which we get every single scene from the movie fast-forwarded, like the flashback Bayliss has at the end of Homicide. Because, you know, it's not like we didn't just suffer through those scenes for the last hour anyway, right? After that, we get the obligatory video-game scene in which the camera rotates around Liberty and the screen goes red, just like the deaths in the original videogame.
Finally, Rudy and Casper get to a window on the side of the house, and he breaks in, but poor Casper gets her legs ripped off before she can make it. He gets to the front door and lets the others in, although Captain Kirk is wounded. While he lies and recovers, the other search the house and find two things: a lab that verifies their suspicion that Castillo has perfected a way to to extend life and animate the dead, and small courtyard with huge barrels of gunpowder. Also, we get the immortal line, "Check out this book. It looks pretty old, maybe it'll help us." If this line had been uttered by, say, Xander on an episode of Buffy, it would have been funny, and gotten a snarky response from Giles. Here, it's actually treated as a really good idea.
(That said, the book just confirms that Bad Shit is Happening, and doesn't actually help beat the bad guys.)
We also get a wonderfully emo scene in which Simon bemoans the fact that his face is scarred from the acid, and shouts, "Don't look at me -- I'm the fuckin' elephant man." However, Karma makes it clear that she still wants him, and we almost get some Inappropriately Timed Sex before they remember that there are more important things to do********.
Back in idiotville (aka the main room of the house, featuring Captain Kirk), he hears Salish whistling outside, and even though everyone knows that Salish has to be a zombie now, he goes outside to investigate. He shoots his zombified partner, but quickly gets surrounded by zombies. So, what does he do? He stands right in front of the door, lights a stick of dynamite with his cigar (because he's just that kind of guy), and blows himself up, promptly blowing down the door and sending a stream of zombies into the house.
The four surviving kids hole up in the courtyard, but the zombies soon break in, and they overwhelm Simon. Fortunately, the other three discover a trap door, and head into the tunnels just as Simon, in a moment no one could possibly have seen coming, shoots the barrels of gunpowder and nobly sacrifices himself to save his buddies. Naturally, the three survivors dive in slow motion as the explosion goes off behind them.
In the tunnels, Boll decides to remind us that House of the Dead, the video game, was a rail shooter, and spends the next few minutes having the characters imitate this, with a first person perspective only showing the gun as Rudy and Karma shoot down zombies, intercut with the exact same shots from the game itself. The saving grace is that it's about half the length of the similar scene in Doom, which makes it about half as annoying.
Finally, they get overwhelmed, and Karma, no longer having anything to live for now that Simon is dead, sacrifices herself so that the other two can go on. Just as they think they'll never get out of there, who should come along but Greg! In a cowl that covers most of his face. Carrying a sword. Not saying anything. And a foot taller than when we last saw him. But Rudy and Alicia don't question any of this, and they follow Greg into a secret room filled with dead bodies. Rudy finally looks at a skinned body hanging upside down, and realizes that it's the real Greg, and that the person who guided them into this room was actually Castillo, wearing Greg's face! What a shocking twist!
While Rudy and Alicia are stunned at the sheer stupidity of the movie they're stuck in, Castillo and his zombie minions capture them. We get a brief Villainous Gloating speech in which Castillo rambles about how he'll use their body parts to extend his own life. And then, because he's just That Kind of Villain, he tells Alicia, "I just want your flesh," as he sticks out his tongue and licks her cheek. It's like watching Malkovich at his finest.
Eventually the kids break free, grab a grenade, and lob it behind them as then escape through a door leading out of the tunnels. And just as naturally, the explosion doesn't kill Castillo. He chases after the kids, and after an awful sword fight, stabs Alicia through the chest before Rudy decapitates him with an axe. But decapitation won't keep an evil Spanish priest down! Castillo's headless body starts to strangle Rudy, but Alicia gets up and squishes Castillo's head, uttering an Arnie-esque, "game over, fucker," before falling back to the ground.
As Rudy hovers over his once and future love, we fade to black, and then into the sight of helicopters landing on the island. Two special agents do absolutely nothing to help Rudy and Alicia (hobbling and leaning on Rudy for support), but we do get two ZOMG Twists!
First, they ask Rudy his name, and it turns out to be Rudolph Curien! Roy Curien, of course, is the mad scientist in the first HotD arcade game. Wow! What a shocking twist! That no one will care about!
But that's nothing. As the movie fades to black one more time, we get more of Rudy's emotionless narration. After bemoaning the loss of his friends, he talks about Alicia: "Whatever she is now. Whatever I've created." Yes, he's turned his girlfriend into a zombie! Holy necrophilia, Batman!
This is, to date, the only Uwe Boll film I've watched more than once. It's gloriously, fantastically wretched. Sure, it's got the bad acting and awful screenplay, but it's also got that amazing mid-movie action sequence, one of those rare times when Boll clearly stamps a film with his unique artistic vision. It deserves to be taught in film school as a shining example of what not to do, but it also deserves a full MST3K treatment (or Cinematic Titanic/RiffTrax, as it were), as well as late-night screenings at sci-fi conventions. With lots of alcohol.
*Who might or might not deserve what's going to happen to her.
**It's actually called "Isla del morte." And no one thinks there's anything wrong with hosting a rave there.
***Yes, you get to see Erica's durances, if you know what I mean. And by "durances," I mean breasts, and not what the word actually means.
****Of the Dead.
*****By "chomped," I certainly don't want to imply that there's arterial blood spray or gore. For a zombie movie, this is about as gore-free as you get, as Boll's budget clearly had limits.
******As you probably figured out from the previous footnote, almost every zombie scene in this movie is filmed with the sole intent of saving money. Silhouettes are cheaper than actors in makeup, of course.
*******And indeed, if we assume he means "Cesar," this movie is every bit as believable and scary as Skidoo.
********Although there really aren't. I mean, both of them will be dead before the next ten minutes are up. And they die un-nookied. It's kind of tragic.