House of the Dead – “You won’t last the night”
So this is going to be the first installment of the second occasional feature here at Jumping Sharks – Franchise Week! It’s important to remember that not all the movies of a given franchise will be SyFy Originals; but it’s just not right to start watching a franchise partway through. You’ve got to watch them all to get the full flavor of the series. And as always, I will try to avoid giving away plot points, but it’s going to happen, mainly because there is just so much that I need to talk about for this movie. So let’s just jump right in and try to outrun the sharks, shall we? Because it’s gonna be a long swim…
House of the Dead is directed by Uwe Boll. For those who don’t know who he is, follow that link. For those who don’t follow that link, he’s a German director who has made many movie adaptations of video games. Some of his directing credits include BloodRayne, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, and Alone in the Dark. And, significantly, his movies have the tendency to be universally regarded as awful, awful creations. House of the Dead is basically classic Uwe Boll, complete with occasional clips from the source material.
Before I continue, I need to confess that I have never played any of the games in the House of the Dead series. Therefore, my commentary cannot make any firsthand comparisons between the movie and the source material. However, a quick search of Wikipedia shows that the movie is actually set as a prequel to any of the video games. The film opens with five college students trying to get to a rave on an island in the Pacific Northwest. Having missed the scheduled boat, they charter Captain Kirk (Jürgen Prochnow, 24, Das Boot), a local smuggler, to take them over, ignoring the warnings from his first mate that the island is cursed (after all, it’s called Isla del Muerte; there’s no way anything good can come from having a rave on an island with that name). As they pull out of the harbor, they choose to ignore calls to stop from Casper (Ellie Cornell, The Thirst, Halloween 5), an agent with the harbor patrol who then follows them to the island. Once on the island, the students head into the woods to find the rave while Captain Kirk and his first mate unload the contraband on his boat to prevent Casper from confiscating it.
Left – Rudy; right – Alicia
Left – Karma; right – Liberty
Top left – Simon; top right – Casper; bottom left – Captain Kirk; bottom right – Captain James T. Kirk
When the students arrive at the rave site, the find it trashed and abandoned. After looking around a little for anyone who might still be there, Alicia (Ona Grauer, Intelligence, Catwoman) finds a bloody shirt, causing her to go off looking for people in the woods accompanied by Simon (Tyron Leitso, Being Erica, Wonderfalls) and Karma (Enuka Okuma, Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye, Dragon Ball Z); the other two students stay at the rave site (given the number of characters in this movie, I’m trying to only mention by name those who survive for a significant portion, which these last two fail to do). Alicia, Simon and Karma find a decrepit church and graveyard in a clearing in the woods, wherein they find Rudy (Jonathan Cherry, Goon, Final Destination 2), Liberty (Kira Clavell, Frankie & Alice, Saban’s Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation) and another ravegoer who videotaped what happened. His tape shows zombies attacking the rave and killing everyone. After seeing the tape, they all decide they have to get off the island as soon as possible, resulting in the next hour or so of the movie being about what would be expected – people killing zombies in all kinds of new and creative ways (kill it with fire!) while the humans slowly die one by one.
Now, on to the good stuff.
First off, for those whose first reaction is ‘why are there islands with Spanish names in the Pacific Northwest?’ (I know that was one of my first thoughts while watching), it turns out that not only did Spanish lands go that far north, but they also had explorers sail up the coast into present-day Alaska. So I’m willing to accept the plausibility of islands in that region having Spanish names, regardless of the likelihood of those names being Anglicized over the years.
Moving on, there were two words that kept coming to mind during this movie – act harder. Act harder. For the love of God and all that is holy, act harder! Most of the actors were about what you would expect from this caliber of movie, but every now and again there would be a truly wooden, bland and completely forced line delivery that made it impossible for me to not ask them to act harder. Also, the makeup effects left a lot to be desired – the zombies typically looked like either they just had white/pale blue face paint on or they were wearing burlap bags over their heads that then had decaying faces painted onto them. Beyond all that, the soundtrack was nothing special, though by the same token it wasn’t distracting. Nothing worse in a bad movie than a distracting soundtrack that takes focus away from the awful acting, dialogue, and special effects. However, the opening credit sequence in this movie does deserve a call-out as a refreshingly new, if trippy and psychedelic, visual sequence. It was a sort of neon silhouette of images from the game, which was definitely a nice retro touch, in my mind.
Left – a probable zombie; right – an unfortunate man in a burlap hood.
One of the early scenes in the movie features a woman skinny dipping in the ocean while her fling watches from the beach. When she comes out of the water, he is no longer there, so she heads into the woods to look for him, finding the decrepit church and graveyard that our heroes later discover. Now, I’m a sane, rational person (or so I like to believe) who has never been in a situation like that, but I do believe that I would feel nervous to the point of going to look for someone else to help me find my lost companion before I went into the church. So I have to ask – are horror movie characters crazy or particularly irrational? It’s like when the basement lights go out in the middle of a storm and the flashlight batteries die and there’s a mysterious thumping and an unknown smell rising up the stairs – you don’t go down there! It’s a similar thing here – we have a woman on her own, already lost in the woods, walking blindly into a very creepy-looking church with an ancient graveyard out front. Did she think things would end any differently than being torn apart by zombies?
Another probable zombie. Possibly also a Buffy: the Vampire Slayer reference.
As I’ve mentioned, a hallmark of Uwe Boll movies is various homages to the video game inspiration for the film. In this one, those homages start with the credit sequence, then continue throughout the movie, often using clips taken directly from the game. But there’s also a great scene in arcade-shooter style wherein Captain Kirk is on his boat shooting zombies as they appear from around doors, or over the side of the boat, or from the rigging, just like in a classic light gun arcade game (which is the classification for House of the Dead). There are also a couple moments when characters die where, instead of showing them getting ripped apart, motion freezes and they drift upwards in a red mist, another classic video game influence.
DEFINITELY a zombie.
But all this brings me to a series of very important points that made me rather angry at this movie. Captain Kirk was shooting zombies as they came onto his boat. But how did they get there, you ask? They swam. That’s right. Zombies in this movie are incredibly agile – they can swim, they can run, they can (and do!) use weapons, they are able to actually fight (block attacks, strike back with attacks of their own, etc.), and they can jump seven to ten feet in the air in a single bound. I’m something of a purist – I realize that allowing zombies to run adds something to the tension, and is arguably biologically defensible, but I do prefer slow zombies (I’m a sucker for inevitability; what can I say?). But I cannot, in any way, defend the ability of zombies to swim, to jump, or to show evidence of intelligence in combat (blocking attacks, using weapons, etc.). I’m sorry, but part of the point of zombies is that they’re mindless. If you give them back their minds, even in a rudimentary regard, they cease being zombies and instead become something else, like a Wight or a ghoul or something (not to be confused with the ghouls from Ghouls). So there’s that, which I would argue takes away from the zombies in this movie, at least to a certain extent.
Apparently, reanimated corpses can swim…
At one point, our heroes (Rudy, Alicia, Karma, Liberty, Simon, Casper, and Captain Kirk) are making their way through the graveyard to hole up in the church, trying to find the most defensible place they can. What follows is a ten to fifteen minute shootout in which the camera speeds are constantly changing between real time and bullet time, while our heroes do all kinds of acrobatics and martial arts and general cliché action movie badassery. I think the best way to describe this scene is a completely unapologetic, shameless, totally self-indulgent action sequence that almost borders on mockery through imitation of movies that include such scenes in a completely serious manner. If you are at all interested in bizarre, over the top action sequences, it might – and I can’t stress that might enough – be worth looking into, as it really is a fascinating example of gratuitous self-indulgence. It’s almost otherworldly.
…and use weapons.
Then, during the aforementioned sequence, we have some interesting questions arise. For one, how is it that Liberty (who spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots, as I’m sure you guessed) manages to do all kinds of martial arts, acrobatics, and running, given that she spends the whole movie in an American flag jumpsuit and go-go boots? I’ve never worn the things, but I can’t imagine that go-go boots would allow someone to high-kick a zombie in the face, especially when that person is standing on loamy, graveyard soil. Furthermore, before they storm the church, Captain Kirk dips into his personal supply of smuggled weapons to make sure that each and every person has at least three different kinds of guns and two different kinds of explosives, then they have a brief montage wherein Kirk and Casper show the others how to use the various weapons. Then they storm the church like they’ve all spent ten years or more in special forces. How do they go from five college students who have no clue how to turn the safety off to stone cold killers who can hit their target every time when using such weapons as an Uzi and dual-wielded Desert Eagles? Which also raises the question of who would ever choose to voluntarily shoot two Desert Eagles at the same time in an actual life or death situation? (If you believe this is a rational course of action, I would direct your attention here, which is a bunch of anecdotal evidence as to why that’s a bad idea.)
The sort of thing one could realistically do in a jumpsuit and go-go boots.
There are, of course, a variety of other moments here and there that make no sense, like seeing a weird zombie-eel-thing in a tank of red liquid (“blood”, or so they would have you believe) and deciding that shooting it makes the most sense, ignoring the fact that it can’t hurt you in the tank. Or like hearing your former first mate whistling for you and then going to him despite knowing that he must be a zombie. Or like watching zombies swim towards your friend who stupidly jumped in the water, then stupidly deciding to jump into the zombie-infested ocean yourself for some absolutely unexplained reason. Or like finding a book explaining everything that’s happening on the island, but deciding to leave it behind, because how can actually knowing what’s going on help you? Basically, this movie is a series of bad choices with just enough good ones to keep the plot moving forward.
“It can’t possibly harm me! I must destroy it!”
So there you have it. The first installment in the new Jumping Sharks occasional feature Franchise Week. Stay tuned for the conclusion of the House of the Dead series, and keep swimming – the sharks might give up eventually!
I’m sensing an Evil Dead nod…