Blog Archives

Mongolian Death Worm – “Death rises from deep below”

So these past two weeks I dealt with ghost ships, philosophy, religion, and not much science at all. Getting away from my roots, I know. Well, this week should be back to normal, and not just that, but I think it’s safe to say that this will have more science stuff than any other review I’ve written. Now, I’ve got a lot to talk about here, so I’ll get started; and while I’ll do my best to avoid it, if you’re not careful, you just might learn something.

Mongolian Death Worm takes place, as you might have guessed, in Mongolia. Daniel (Sean Patrick Flanery, The Boondock Saints, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles) is a treasure hunter searching for the tomb of Genghis Khan (more on that later), when he encounters Alicia (Victoria Pratt, Kraken: Tentacles of the Deep, Mutant X) and her assistant, doctors stranded while on their way to the village of Sepegal to help fight an outbreak of an unknown illness. Meanwhile, Patrick (Drew Waters, Friday Night Lights, Inspector Mom), head of an experimental oil drilling plant, is working with shady persons unknown to move a mysterious shipment out of the plant before his corporation sends people to the site to figure out what’s causing widespread machinery malfunctions. Oh, and Mongolian death worms appear randomly throughout the movie to kill people.

Top left – Daniel; top right – Alicia; bottom left – Patrick; bottom right – Mongolian death worm

As far as SyFy Channel movies go, the acting in this one was mediocre. (For reference, the best acting in a SyFy original would roughly correspond to “mediocre” in the real world, maybe a bit better than that.) The script, on the other hand, ventured solidly into the unfortunate, with many phrases repeated between scenes, little natural flow in conversation, and a general lack of evidence of effort. Of course, the line delivery was oftentimes wooden as well, making it hard to distinguish where the problem truly lay. The CGI was standard, though it seemed to get worse as the movie went on, until in the last scenes, the drilling plant “exploded” without any debris or shrapnel and without any semblance of real fire. (Speaking of explosions, we again encounter in this movie the moment where a gas tank gets hit by a bullet and the whole vehicle goes up in a fireball. Because for some reason, apparently everyone in these movies uses incendiary bullets, I guess? I dunno. Something like that.)

All rifles use explosive rounds all the time always

In addition to death worms, we also encountered a number of clichés in this one. For a start, there was no attempt whatsoever to leave the audience guessing as to who would die next – a person would wander off alone, hear a strange noise, and get et. By the middle of the movie, I was already waving goodbye to characters as they found themselves in such a situation. Additionally, there was the mercenary-with-a-heart-of-gold cliché so common these days. Daniel initially charges Alicia and her aide for a ride to Sepegal, predictably setting off a discussion about how he only looks out for himself and how he’s such a scoundrel etc. At the end, he returns all the money and has earned the admiration of Alicia (though he does have another reason to return the cash, to be explained below). Finally, there’s heavy environmentalist overtones throughout the whole movie. See, it turns out that the drilling plant is using heated water to melt the permafrost in the soil so as to be able to access oil. This melting causes the worms to wake up from hibernation and start terrorizing everyone, and the only way to stop the worms from continuing to hatch is to destroy the plant. We get it. Humanity is killing the planet and will eventually cause its own demise. Can we go back to watching worms kill people now? Thanks.

No situational awareness at all; is it any wonder he dies?

Normally, I’d bring up small continuity points here, like how we’re supposed to believe that Daniel gets the stuffing beat out of him but two minutes later shows up looking untouched, but I’ve got a lot to talk about that’s more interesting, so next up, some folklore and legends.

As I mentioned above, Daniel is searching for Genghis Khan’s tomb, a site which is to this day undiscovered (despite extensive desire and use of diverse methods). In the movie, death worms are supposed to be the guardians of the tomb, so naturally, when they start killing everyone, Daniel gets excited. In actual folklore, there is no connection I could find between the worms and the Khan; however, at least one hypothesis posits that the worms (generally agreed to only live in the Gobi Desert and not in Central Mongolia, where the movie takes place) could be guardians of a lost culture that once thrived in the desert area. The movie also has the worms interfering with electromagnetic signals, lining up with legends that say the worms can possibly kill via electric discharge. (Along these lines, the movie implies a link between the worms and the illness in Sepegal, which jives with stories of the worms’ ability to kill from a distance.) Conspicuously absent from any story I could find was mention of a buried treasure, which, as the plant explodes at the end of the movie, comes raining down around Daniel and Alicia, and which was the mystery shipment Patrick was bent on moving and the reason Daniel returns Alicia’s money.

“Should I spit acid at or electrify my prey today? So many choices!”

Now on to the real science!

Let’s accept, for a moment, that these worms exist in all their Mongolian deadliness. The movie presents them as man-sized (at the smaller end), segmented worms which live in a colony, have vaguely prehensile tongues, hibernate when frozen, attack prey from the front, and can be killed with gunfire. I’m going to explore these aspects one at a time, starting with the size.

It doesn’t look so tough!…

How big do worms get? I mean, really. Worms are small, right? We fish with them. They help our gardens grow. But they don’t get huge, right? Right? Yeah, not so much with the small worms. For example, some sea worms can grow to be four feet in length; some earthworms up to 22 feet; and there’s at least one species of worm found off the coast of Britain that can grow up to 180 feet in length, and emits toxic mucus, to boot. So I’m going to go ahead and say that the worms in this movie can be as long as they want, thank you very much, please don’t eat me. As for the thickness of the worms, I have my doubts that they would be able to breathe efficiently based on the surface-area-to-volume ratio. See, the larger an object gets, the more its surface area and volume increase. The problem is that volume increases as a cube, while surface area only increases as a square. This means that, at some point, diffusion of gas across the skin will not be able to occur quickly enough to supply oxygen to the body. Since many worms rely on this method of respiration (certainly many annelids, which is my best placement for the worms in this movie), there is a necessary upper limit on the surface-area-to-volume ratio, above which oxygen could not be absorbed quickly enough nor carbon dioxide expelled quickly enough to sustain life. I can’t guarantee that these worms would be above that ratio were they real, but I do feel comfortable guessing that they would be. Also, without a rigid skeletal structure, they would most likely either collapse under their own weight (this gets at why, say, ants can have such large ratios between body size and leg size but humans can’t) or would have skin so rigid and thick it would be difficult to move. Also, the one thing I feel I can say with certainty is there is next to no possibility that worms of this size could crawl across the ceiling, though they could have some sort of adhesive or such that went unmentioned in the movie.

“Look, ma! No hands!”

Spider-Man this ain’t

Next, do worms live in colonies or nests? While I could find no evidence supporting the idea that worms form nests, I also could not find much contradicting that idea, other than the abstract of an article about one species of polychaete, a class of annelids, wherein worms fought invading worms in various circumstances, implying that, at least in that species, there is a certain amount of territoriality which could be common to annelids in a larger sense. On the other hand, here’s one (admittedly discussing trematodes, a class in phylum Platyhelminthes, or flatworms) which not only talks about the parasites forming colonies, but about pretty epic battles between warriors from different colonies. So it’s anyone’s guess whether the death worms in the movie would actually live in a colony society.

Dinner at the Deathworms’

Do worms have tongues? Well, yes and no. Some species of annelid don’t have tongues so much as the ability to essentially turn their “throats” inside out, a process called eversion. They can use this to capture prey, some even being known to have sticky pads for just such a function. And of course, leeches sometimes have teeth. So while the movie worms could be accused of combining features of different classes and subclasses of annelids, the idea of a projectile tongue that can be used to grab prey is sound.

Left – eversion; right – not his best day

Can worms hibernate? First of all, the movie did not talk about hibernation, but rather cryptobiosis. The main difference between the two is that, in hibernation, metabolic activity gets depressed but continues; basically, the organism continues to function “normally”, but at a much slower rate. With cryptobiosis (a whole category of various states, including cryobiosis, wherein inactivity is stimulated by low temperature; for a more technical example of cryptobiosis, click here), metabolic activity stops; the organism doesn’t breathe, doesn’t eat, doesn’t grow, and can’t repair damage to itself, among other things. Cryptobiosis is typically in response to severe environmental conditions, such as desiccation or a lack of oxygen, and the state can persist indefinitely. Most people are already slightly familiar with cryptobiosis, as that is the phenomenon whereby brine shrimp can be mailed to, for example, pet stores to become fish food. So what does this have to do with worms? As it turns out, pretty much nothing, at least not earthworms (part of Oligochaeta, a class of annelids). See, earthworms do one of two things, typically, when temperatures get cold enough – they either burrow deep into the soil (up to six feet or so) and make a mucus-lined chamber for themselves (as a side note, this is not hibernation, as the worms will return to the surface if it gets warm enough regardless of how much time has passed since entering the chamber), or they die from the cold but lay eggs in protective cocoons to prevent freezing. Is cryptobiosis unheard of in annelids? I don’t know. Is it common? I suspect not, though I can’t find any evidence one way or another. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely the worms would exist indefinitely in permafrost (presumably the species would have evolved to take permafrost into account rather than enduring it via cryptobiosis), and it is unlikely, were the eggs to persist in a cryptobiotic state, that the worms would grow as large as they did as quickly as they did in the movie. Not impossible, necessarily, but unlikely.

Take away the cryptobiosis, and this animal is entirely plausible in every other way

On to hunting. Do worms hunt? Short answer – yes, some do. Given the huge amount of diversity within phylum Annelida, it’s no surprise that some hunt while others don’t. In fact, there are even some worms in the phylum which have jaws with which to seize prey. On the other hand, plenty of worms in the phylum sit still and wait for food to wander by, so let’s agree that death worms could actively hunt prey. I still have an issue with them, though – multiple scenes show them attacking prey from the front. Given that I have no idea what normal worm predatory strategies are, I’m going to draw comparisons to other predators for a moment. Many big cats (lions, cheetahs, etc.) get as close to prey as possibly before attacking, but don’t pursue for long distances. Dogs (wild dogs, wolves, etc.) tend to hunt in packs, and are more suited to longer chases. In either case, though, the most successful predator is one which stays hidden until striking. Now we look at our worms, which, on multiple occasions, reveal themselves to their prey for a couple of seconds before striking. In all cases, of course, the victims stand petrified with fright, but still, it doesn’t seem to me to be terribly efficient predatory behavior, especially considering that the worms can’t move all that quickly. So I’ve got to say that the way the worms hunt doesn’t really make much sense, though the fact that they hunt is plausible.

“Staring contest! Go!”

“Hey! Wormy! Down in front!”

Finally, the humans in the movie start shooting worms left and right and naturally (at least for our heroes), all it takes is one gunshot to the head and the worm’s down for the count. But does that really make sense? Let’s start here, wherein we learn that there are at least moderately reliable accounts of some species of worm growing into two worms after being bisected. There are two points of significance with that. The first is that cutting a worm in half is a much more serious wound than a gunshot (relatively speaking, it’s the difference between, say, cutting a common earthworm in half and poking a hole in it with a needle, or maybe a nail or something). In other words, if a worm can survive being cut in half, there’s no reason to assume it can’t survive a gunshot. The second point here is that destroying the brain won’t necessarily kill the worm, as cutting it in half can just lead to two worms (the origin part of one of which must, of necessity, have lacked a brain). Now, not only do worms not necessarily need brains in order to survive and regenerate, but the brain would be (presumably) extremely difficult to hit with a bullet if you didn’t know exactly where to aim. Thus, I have to conclude that shooting a giant worm to death really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly not if you’re using a handgun. On the other hand, suffocating a worm should be pretty easy. As discussed above, worms breathe via transdermal intake of oxygen. For this to work, at least in earthworms, the skin must remain moist (which is why worms die soon-ish when they’re above ground). So if giant earthworms were rampaging through Mongolia, they couldn’t spend too long at all above ground, especially given the (previously discussed) surface-area-to-volume ratio. In other words, really all the people needed to do was outrun them. But that makes for a lame movie, I suppose.

“Come and get me, copper!”


So that’s that. Science in death worms. Now, let’s get out there and see what kind of sharks we can catch with them as bait!


Ghost Voyage – “Seven strangers awaken on a ship adrift at sea. Each has one chance to solve its deadly riddle. And if they don’t… there’ll be hell to pay”

Normally, I wouldn’t start a review with a bit of critique, as I prefer to ease into the discussion of the movie. But I feel that this needs to be pointed out right away – there are nine strangers who awaken on a ship adrift at sea, not seven as the movie poster would have you believe. I have no idea (obviously) who made that mistake, but he or she should probably review counting again. I might recommend that he or she also watch this movie again, but honestly, I can’t in good conscience wish that fate on anyone.

Ghost Voyage tells the story of nine strangers who awaken on a ship adrift at sea. They each have one chance to solve its deadly riddle. (Who would’ve guessed, right?) Michael (Antonio Sabato Jr., The Bold and the Beautiful, Earth 2), Serena (Deanna Russo, Knight Rider, The Young and the Restless), Nicholai (Nicholas Irons, Wicked Wicked Games, Berkeley Square) and the others find themselves on a ship sailing to an unknown destination. They meet the Steward (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Memoirs of a Geisha, Mortal Kombat) who informs them of the rules of the ship but nothing else before mysteriously vanishing. The group slowly explores the ship only to be killed in nasty ways one by one. Pretty standard stuff.

Left – Serena, Michael, and Nicholai; right – the Steward; bottom – Serena and Nicholai

As is par for the course, the CGI in this movie ran the gamut from middling-poor to downright awful. Shots of the ship at sea, when entirely computerized, were acceptable; shots of cigarette-smoke ghosts eviscerating hapless passengers were not so acceptable, and I can’t help but wonder if they didn’t use the majority of the CGI budget to create this strange octopus/skullspider/flame ghost thing that didn’t show up until near the end. But what really stood out was the combination of terrible script writing and wooden line delivery. Rarely can one find a movie that so expertly pairs the two with such an agonizing result (though there was a tongue in cheek homage to the SciFi Channel when one of the characters talks about producing a movie called Jaws vs. Orca; yes, I would watch that movie).

Aside from that, this movie did raise a number of questions, such as how Serena, the daughter of a fisherman, could be so clearly unable to swim; or why it is that, almost universally, ghosts move in jerky fashion from place to place (à la The Ring), then crane their necks at odd angles or have difficulty moving their arms properly (like in parts of Thir13en Ghosts); or, most important of all, how it is that the characters in these movies can remain so very clueless right up to the end when any viewer paying a shred of attention can figure the plot out after ten minutes or so. (Of course, now that I’ve said that, chances are I’m going to end up in one of those situations and not figure it out until it’s way too late but what can ya do?…) For example – they’re on a ship (blatantly obviously called the Azrael, of all things), in an unknown ocean, with an unknown destination, maps that show no land at all, and no sign of any crew whatsoever aside from the Steward. Can anyone out there in Readerland figure out where they are? Anyone at all? Bueller? Bueller? That’s right! They’re in Hell! Congratulations, you win the prize of not needing to watch the last hour of this movie, a gift of time that the rest of us can only envy (though arguably, they are only in Purgatory, or possibly Limbo, depending on how you interpret the movie).

You’d think they’d have figured it out the first time they ran into her

Normally, this is the point where I start to delve into the science stuff that one typically finds in movies of this nature. However, such science stuff is conspicuously absent from this movie, and I therefore have no science critique. So instead, I’ll discuss the philosophical and relgious implications of the film, of which there are many.

First, the obvious – the ship has nine passengers, and according to Dante Alighieri, the Inferno (Hell) has nine circles. Likewise, as Michael and Serena later discover, the Steward is allegorical to Charon, the ferryman on the river Styx in Greek mythology. (Also, on a side note, how is it that Nicholai and, later, Serena find the cargo hold of the ship filled with funerary symbols from all different cultures – a Celtic cross, an Egyptian funerary boat, one of the terracotta warriors – but still not make the connection that the ship has something to do with death?)

Next, although not all of the passengers’ pasts are revealed, there are some general ties to Dante’s nine circles. For example, two of the passengers sneak off into the Captain’s quarters to have sex, giving in to the sin of lust. Two others allow their anger to rule and destroy them, and another can be seen to represent gluttony by way of heroin addiction. (For a more thorough discussion on the seven deadly sins, follow that link.)

Left – victims of lust; right – one of the victims of wrath and Michael; bottom – victim of gluttony and his punisher

Finally, there is the salvation of the characters in the movie by way of obedience. The Steward warns the passengers at the beginning of the voyage not to engage in certain behaviors (breaching closed doors, entering the Captain’s quarters, smoking); as the passengers ignore his warnings, they get killed and claimed by the various spirits they release during their transgressions. However, the passengers which heed all of the warnings of the Steward are offered a chance at redemption before the ship is pulled into Hell completely (hence the interpretation of the ship as Purgatory instead of Limbo or Hell). This reinforces the teachings of many popular religions that, by living virtuous lives (as defined by society), individuals can redeem themselves from mistakes made in the past, so long as they no longer break rules.

But to be honest, I have to say that analyzing this movie in this fashion, while easy and relatively obvious, also gives it way too much credence and import. At the end of the day (and I don’t say this often), this movie is just bad.

Heatstroke – “Welcome to Hell on Earth”

I figured I’d follow up my review of Mammoth, a standard creature feature, with a good old-fashioned disaster movie. After all, what else could Heatstroke be about, right? As it turns out, here’s a plot that both SETI enthusiasts and right-wing conservatives can get behind – aliens have secretly invaded Earth and are intentionally accelerating global warming to make the planet more hospitable for their eventual colonization. Honestly, I can’t believe I didn’t see that coming; it’s just so obvious!

Capt. Steve O’Bannon (D.B. Sweeney, The Darwin Awards, Strange Luck) heads up a team of researchers tracking a unique radiation signature. At the beginning of the movie, he crash-lands an ultralight airplane (seriously, follow that link – they look like so much fun to fly!) into the middle of a photo shoot run by Caroline (Danica McKellar, Young Justice, The Wonder Years), a model trying to make it as a photographer. After two of her models get killed by an alien, she joins up with Steve and his team to help destroy an alien structure that was set up to emit radiation to destroy the ozone layer. Also, there’s plenty of blood, a bit of alien possession, and even a guy spitting up an over-sized caterpillar/larva thing. Good times all around.

Top left – Capt. Steve O’Bannon; top right – Mental Blanakoff and Caroline; bottom – why you should always chew your food

It’s difficult for me to decide where I even want to begin this critique. The CGI was some of the worst I’ve seen in a long time, the plot overall made little if any sense, and throughout the movie I kept wishing the cast could find it in themselves to act just a little bit harder. So I guess I’ll start with an objective observation we can all agree on – hammocks rule. They’re just awesomely amazing.


Like I said, the effects in this movie were pretty terrible. There were some shots of the aliens that looked decent, including an actual physical model they made that, if it hadn’t looked like it were a rubber suit one could buy at a costume shop, would have been decent. Then there were other fairly mediocre CGI shots where the aliens looked a bit too bright against the background, but still moved somewhat realistically and weren’t completely terrible. Then there was the beach scene. Oh dear, was it horrible. One of the aliens surprises two models and Romeo Romero (Zac Heileson, Heatstroke), one of Steve’s team members, while they’re swimming in the ocean. They get separated, and the alien runs after one of the models as she runs down the beach trying to get away from it. Except it doesn’t really run after her so much as kind of… floaty-hop after her? She’s clearly running in front of a green screen, and it almost looks like the alien is on a string that someone’s pulling up and down in front of the screen, but also as part of the screen image, and… you know what? Just take a look for yourself. It’s terrible. And just… wow. Plus, that gives a pretty good look at the aliens, which I can only describe as being a cross between a velociraptor (like from Jurassic Park) and the Predator, or one of those vampires from that one Blade movie. You know the one.

Left – among the better CGI in the movie; right – among the mediocre/bad CGI in the movie

Before I look into the sciencey bits (which I know you’re all dying to read about), there is one other part that deserves special recognition – at the end, Steve and what’s left of his team attempt to blow up the radiation emitter and, apparently, put an end to global warming. He encounters Waters (Chris Cleveland, Dry Run, The Prestige), who was possessed by one of the aliens earlier in the movie. They engage in an epic fight scene lasting a good five or seven minutes and consisting entirely of the exact same footage, repeated at least three times from different angles, separated by shots of a CGI cruise missile on its way to destroy the emitter (and presumably the terrible acting). It was one of the laziest things I have ever seen in these movies; and it was glorious.

Left – best effect in the movie; right – hilariously bad CGI

As I mentioned above, the basic plot is that, in 1975, aliens caused a volcanic eruption on an island, resulting in average temperatures on that island to increase every year, along with the average size of the insects living there. See, apparently, the aliens are insectivores (with wicked-sharp claws, multiple-hinged jaws, and the ability to spit acid clouds, because why not?), and they saw that humans were going to destroy the world eventually anyways, so they decided to speed up the process and turn the planet into their own bug farm, killing most other life in the process. Which made me wonder what actually would (or, really, will) happen as the Earth gets warmer.

A clearly insectivorous species

Aside from some of the obvious (temperatures increasing, weather patterns changing, insect-borne diseases becoming more prevalent), there are some observations that are not what you might expect. For one thing, apparently the cloud layer is lowering, on average. But more interestingly, as relates to this movie, is the finding that ancestral horses (Sifrhippus sandrae, to be exact) were a lot smaller than modern horses and actually shrank as temperatures increased (the first link there is to a paper abstract (you can read the whole thing if you have a subscription to Science magazine); the last one is to a more reader-friendly summary of that study’s findings). If it is indeed the case that increased global temperatures could push mammals toward smaller body sizes, that could open up new ecological niches into which other creatures (such as insects) could spread. Basically, if mammals need fewer resources to survive (say, by becoming smaller), that means more resources are available for other organisms to use. This doesn’t automatically mean insects would become bigger – they could become more plentiful, or reptiles could dominate again, or who knows what; but what it does mean is that the possibility is there for insects to take over niches vacated by mammals as mammals get smaller. So while there is no guarantee that the aliens’ plan to grow insects by making the Earth hotter would work, there is some amount of tenuous possibility to it. And to me, that’s actually kind of neat. Though I could not find any evidence supporting the idea that heat alone could make insects larger. So there’s that, too.

I leave you with one more link, because it’s awesome. Enjoy!

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.

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…