House of the Dead 2 – “All guts, no glory”

Now we come to the SyFy contribution to the franchise in this, the second half of the first installment of our second occasional series, Franchise Week. (It is recommended that you read the review of House of the Dead first if you haven’t, as some comparisons will be made.)

There are a few different types of sequels in moviedom, as we all should know by now. Sequels can be in the form of prequels (as in the case of Tremors 4), they can be remakes (as in the case of Rob Zombie’s Halloween or, arguably, Evil Dead II), and of course, they can be true sequels, as we find in House of the Dead 2.

As was the case with its predecessor, House of the Dead 2 fails to take place in an actual house, being set instead on the campus of Cuesta Verde University where a zombie virus has broken out courtesy of Professor Curien, who is using the zombified Alicia (from the first movie) to try to perfect an immortality serum. Naturally, his experiment escapes, turns him into a zombie, and then proceeds to infect the rest of the campus during the opening credit sequence. In an obvious nod to other members of the zombie genre, a team consisting of six special forces soldiers and two scientists is dispatched twenty-nine days after the outbreak to try to recover a blood sample from the first “hyper sapiens” specimen, as they are called, in the hopes of being able to generate a cure for the disease. The scientists Alexandra ‘Nightingale’ Morgan (Emmanuelle Vaugier, CSI: NY, Saw II) and Ellis (Ed Quinn, Eureka, Young Americans) are joined on their mission by all the classic special forces stereotypes – the eager and patriotic new team member, the nervous talkative guy, the strong female second-in-command, the enormous and sinister jerk, the reliable but stupid guy, and of course the gruff and pragmatic squad leader. As you may have guessed, the soldiers completely ignore the warnings from Nightingale and Ellis (the only two people who have dealt with zombies before and actually know what’s going on), and thus Nightingale and Ellis are the only two people who survive to the end.

Left – Ellis and Nightingale; right – Nightingale; bottom – one of the soldiers. I’ll let you guess which one.

As always, this movie suffers from a lack in just about every area – dialogue, special effects, and acting (although, interestingly enough, the acting seemed to improve as the movie progressed, though that could have just been acclimation on my part). I would also have to say that this movie was somewhat more boring than the first one, as well. As far as makeup went in this movie, the zombies over all looked either a lot better, or very much worse, than in the first movie. There were also two parts with noticeable and somewhat laughable inconsistencies in makeup – near the beginning, Ellis is washing blood off his face from a recent kill; as the angle changes, he alternately has a clean face, then one with blood, then a clean face, then one with blood again, before ending with a clean face. Similarly, later on, when they find Alicia the zombie (Patient Zero), there’s a moment when part of her back is visible through her hospital gown, and is distinctly human-looking.

One of the better-looking zombies in the movie.

I’m a biologist by training. As such, when I watch a movie like this, I take special note of the explanation for the various biological phenomena. Insofar as things were explained, they definitely seemed to go off the deep end with the virus in this movie. First of all, they talk about the virus causing mutations in the victims. This is possible, as viruses in the real world are known to cause genetic mutations. However, in a deceased host, the virus would have no way to go about effecting physical change – a virus cannot, in general, cause protein expression independent of the host cell. Normally, when a cell gets infected, part of the infection is the insertion of virus DNA into the host chromosome, to be turned into protein and more viruses as the cell does its normal cell things. In a corpse, though, there are no processes occurring – the virus would have no way to cause genetic insertions to be expressed in the host.

There’s also a moment when one of the soldiers gets bitten by a mosquito and thus is presumed infected. However, the method by which mosquitoes feed on humans prevents the transmission of blood from the mosquito to the human. (For a discussion of why mosquitoes cannot transmit HIV between humans, follow this link – without further knowledge, I have to assume that a theoretical zombie virus would be similar in character.) Therefore, although possible given the virus’ fictional existence, based on real-world observations transmission of the virus via mosquito is extremely unlikely.

This movie uses the idea that zombies can tell each other from live humans through smell, and so when Ellis needs to try to help the remaining people escape, he cuts open a zombie corpse and smears the guts on himself, then safely walks through a room full of zombies. For there to be a sense of smell, the brain of the zombie must be functional, at least in part. Here I would like to give credit to the movie, because there is also a moment where one of the soldiers (at this point a zombie) seems to recognize Ellis, suggesting that some memory remains in the zombies. This idea is also supported earlier in the movie, when Nightingale notices that the zombies seem to be falling into old, ingrained routines. (Both these ideas are considered in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, of course.) Therefore, it seems that this movie has consistent, if unsupportable, amounts of brain function in the zombies. Of course, assuming that metabolic processes are necessary to access memory and recognize smell, and given that metabolism stops after death, brain function of any sort is highly unlikely.

As I mentioned, the mission to the campus was to recover a sample of blood from the initial zombie infection. Along the way, Nightingale and Ellis test several blood samples from zombies, all of which turn up negative. But I have to ask, to what were they comparing these samples? In order to know whether blood was from Patient Zero, they would have needed to have a sample of blood from Patient Zero already on file; in other words, it seems to me that, unless there was some other marker that went unmentioned in the movie, the entire premise makes no sense, as they would already have the blood they need to collect.

Finally, this movie brings back harbor patrolwoman Casper from the first movie, in which she gets her legs severed by a zombie hoard. Accepting that she didn’t get bitten (and therefore she was not zombified), her leg stumps were bleeding for at least ten or fifteen minutes, before the house she was in exploded. She may have survived the explosion (highly unlikely), but I do not see how she could have survived the blood loss, as no tourniquet was applied and it takes only a matter of minutes for a person to bleed out after severing their femoral arteries. So I’m sorry, SyFy, but there’s really no way she could have survived the first movie.

Moving away from pseudoscience now, I must chastise the characters for ignoring the golden rule of situations like theirs, namely don’t get separated. There’s a moment when one of the soldiers hears something, and so goes off on his own to investigate. Naturally, he ends up a zombie. But seriously, he should have known better than to wander off on his own. Also, people in this movie showed a surprising lack of awareness of surroundings. At one point, Ellis and Nightingale meet up with two students who had been living in a science lab for weeks. Initially, the students believe the scientists to be zombies, which makes a lot of sense to me. What doesn’t make sense to me is the way that five minutes in the company of other humans causes the students to forget every rule they must have developed in order to stay alive for twenty-nine days, because not long after they show up, the students get swarmed by zombies who attack from behind. How did the students live that long if they never kept an eye to what was going on behind them?

Why you shouldn’t wander off alone.

Moreover, the final piece of the plot is that the campus is going to be destroyed by cruise missiles, meaning that the mission to find the unnecessary blood is on a tight schedule. But when the missile actually strikes, it turns out to be just that – missile. Singular. As in, one building gets blown up, but somehow someone somewhere thought that would be enough to end the outbreak? I can’t promise that this would be my answer, but I think that, were I the one to make that call, I would say “kill it with fire” and carpet bomb everything within a certain radius, then add napalm, then maybe bunker busters, before ending it all with a very, very, very large boom device. But that’s just me, and maybe I’m more thorough than I need to be.

Almost as good as killing it with fire.

But of course, despite the best efforts of our heroes, they fail to contain the spread of the virus. In fact, they even fail to leave the campus with a sample of blood; but that’s okay, because it turns out that while they were in the campus (for all of maybe six hours), civilization ceased to exist.

I think there’s a pretty clear moral here – don’t try to reanimate corpses. It won’t end well.

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Posted on March 17, 2012, in B-movies, Movies, SyFy Channel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. For other great “Oh hey do the zombies remember things?” discussion, check out Land of the Dead (also from George Romero)

    There’s the slightest, and I do mean slightest, possibility that those idiot students really were just incredibly lucky if they scraped by without actually watching their tails. I’m glad the makeup improved, sort of…

  2. In response to your comments about the virus action; what if part of what the virus does is maintain cell function after brain death? If we accept that not too far-fetched premise, then it works. Besides, a viral explanation is a staple of zombie stories. Sure, most don’t go in depth to explain how said virus acts, but I find it hard to criticize a movie to hard that does.

    However, I have to say I’m liking your blog. The fact that you have the fortitude to actually sit through these POS’s is impressive.

    • I guess part of my issue with the virus is that, in order to maintain cell function, would it not first need to co-opt protein translation in order to create the maintaining proteins? If so, then how could the proteins be created after death? Though I suppose one could argue that the virus infects healthy cells, injects the necessary DNA, and creates the maintaining proteins prior to host death, so that upon the event of host death (brought about by the virus, of course) the infrastructure necessary to perpetuate virus is already in place. And I wasn’t really criticizing the movie for the science-y bits; as you know, I love me a good (or bad) zombie movie. Really, those points were more my own musings on the subject, which I’m thinking I’ll try to expand in the not too distant future into a Treatise on Zombie Biology, or somesuch; though first I’ll need to be able to access a LOT of the literature, which is currently beyond my reach. Glad to hear you’re liking it; it’s definitely been fun writing it! As for fortitude, remember that I voluntarily sat through back-to-back viewings of You Got Served and The Postman. So it’s definitely not an unknown fortitude.

  3. As a student majoring in Biology, I generally don’t worry about this kind of thing when it comes to movies because I believe it’s secondary to the telling of the story. While I would be impressed if a movie got the science right, I don’t penalize it if it doesn’t, unless it’s a really obvious gradeschool thing.

    That said, if I were to write a zombie film, it would be based around a fungus like the ones that force ants to climb up the trees to release their spores from a greater height. It would have a more scientific basis and the zombies would have motivation – spreading the spores of the brain fungus.

    • I may have misrepresented my position somewhat in my post – I have no complaints about movies that get science wrong (unless it’s a big thing), because absolutely, the story is what matters. It’s just hard for me to watch a movie that DOES get the science wrong and not talk about what it’s laughable, outrageous, etc. So my criticisms should be seen more as my own musings on the issue, as opposed to actual criticisms of the story. Except for the part about the woman from the first movie living in the second despite losing her legs. That’s going too far. And fungus is a really good idea; it’s one I haven’t seen used in zombie movies before (though there are plenty of zombie movies I have yet to see), and it definitely helps explain some aspects of zombie behavior.

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