Zombie Death House (1987)

MARCH 17, 2010


John Saxon has close to two hundred film/TV credits for his acting, but only one for directing - the 1987 Zombie Death House (aka simply Death House). He also appears in the film, though the bulk of his scenes are separate from the main narrative. In fact, his detached role, coupled with the title change, leads me to suspect a rather routine prison riot movie was morphed into a mad scientist/zombie one rather late in the game (the film's trailer barely mentions the zombies). This could also explain why the film’s editing was so atrocious and why the zombies barely appear in the goddamn thing.

As I was LiveTweeting my viewing (until some technical snafus ended it prematurely), I can tell by the timestamp that it’s about 50 minutes into the (95 minute) movie by the time our first real zombie shows up, after some hints at the experiment having some deadly side effects appear around 28 minutes in. So what fills up all of that other time? Mob shenanigans, poorly shot/edited/choreographed car chases, a bunch of prisoners being hardasses, an imprisoned mobster bullying cons and guards alike, our hero fucking a girl and then being framed for her murder... basically every B movie plot BUT zombies.

The third act finally delivers reasonable amounts of zombies, but it doesn’t help matters much. For starters, they’re all wildly inconsistent - some are slow, some are fast. Some talk (“Don’t touch my Twinkies!” one says, presumably in order to spurn a new catchphrase), most just moan. They also never really cause much of a threat - the biggest “swarm” we ever see is confined behind bars, with our actors simply moving at a snail’s pace in order to provide tension (instead of simply running past the confined undead). And the movie’s so poorly lit (or transferred for Netflix) that I sometimes can’t even tell if a character is a zombie or just one of the many generic cons/guards/mobsters that populate this overcrowded movie.

At one point I joked that the movie had more characters than Southland Tales, but it’s not really a joke (and this movie is an hour shorter than that one, so character introductions are even more fleeting). Let’s see, we have the warden, his wife, his children, a reporter, her assistant, Saxon, HIS assistant, the hero, at least two blond girls, two big mob heavies, three or four featured prisoners, the head guard, the doctor, a priest.... plus lots of guards, lots of cons, a few zombies here and there... no wonder the movie is so cheap looking (gotta love the “Pentagon” scene at the end), even if everyone got SAG scale they must have eaten up the entire budget. And you know Michael Pataki didn’t come cheap!

And of course, none of that would matter if the movie was interesting, or if the hero was in any way compelling (he reminded me on more than one occasion of the lunkhead from Space Mutiny). But it’s all so generic and dull, from start to finish. I’m sure if Saxon had some money and the availability of his fellow B movie buddies, he could have made something fun; a sort of precursor to The Expendables but actually made in the 1980s, but this movie ain’t it. He barely even has any scenes with the other vets in the cast (Pataki, Ron O’Neal, etc), which is another missed opportunity. And his death is wholly unsatisfying - a few generic zombies surround him and paw at his shirt hard enough to bust the balloons packed with Kool-aid taped to his chest, and that’s about it. All this mess is his fault; we want to see him get it good! Or at least get it at the hands of another major character (zombified or not).

I hate to say it, but Saxon isn’t much of a director (maybe that’s why he never did it again). There are a lot of flashbacks that are entirely unnecessary; even with the over-stuffed plot I think I can remember the basics, yet around an hour or so into the movie we are treated to footage reminding us why the hero is in prison. And later he has a dream consisting of stuff we saw literally moments before. Saxon also frequently cuts to scenes that serve no real purpose. At one point we leave the prison to see the two reporters in their helicopter, where someone informs them that a car will meet them on the ground. That’s it. Who the fuck cares? Like anyone is going to be like “Hey now wait just a minute here - how did the reporters get from the helicopter to the prison?” (as I type that I realize the scene is even MORE pointless). A level-headed editor probably could have made this movie 70 minutes long, and even that could use some additional tightening.

Action beats are also pretty clumsy. Particularly in a scene with the warden, who is tasked with sledgehammering the wall in order for the bad guy to escape. He has a goddamn SLEDGEHAMMER, and the bad guy turns his back to him twice, yet does nothing. Then later, when the bad guy takes the sledgehammer and starts banging away himself, THEN the warden decides to try to take action. Guess what? Doesn’t work out so well. There’s also a hilarious bit where a prisoner could easily escape but he awkwardly stops to grab what looks like a free standing ashtray, before a cop just sort of strolls over and takes him out. Stuff like that. Come on Saxon, you worked with Bruce Lee for Christ’s sake! You don’t know how to stage a good fight yet?

But I dunno, maybe he had to take over the film when the original director quit, or they cut his budget in half during production, or something. The film has no Wikipedia page and the IMDb one is pretty bare, nor does the available DVD have any meaningful extras, so I doubt we will ever learn the entire production history of Zombie Death House. But we do know that whatever the cause may be, the movie kind of sucks.

Made for good LiveTweet fodder though.

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1 comment:

  1. I had completely forgotten I watched this stinker until about half-way through your review. Less than memorable.


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