House of the Dead (2003) -***
I’m sure fans of the games will line up to correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always had the impression that Sega’s House of the Dead had been developed as a dumbed-down answer to the Resident Evil games. Lord knows Capcom made a shitload of money on Resident Evil and its successors, so it’s no stretch of the imagination to picture the leadership at the rival company asking themselves, “Now how can we get a piece of that action for ourselves?” But even if I’m mistaken about Sega’s House of the Dead being the idiot brother of Capcom’s Resident Evil, there’s no question at all in my mind that a relationship of idiot brotherhood exists between Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead and Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil. And that, my friends, is an idea truly awesome to contemplate— that a movie could possibly exist which would merit being thought of as a stupid version of Anderson’s phenomenally dumb, big-budget zombie travesty. Then again, Uwe Boll is no ordinary hack filmmaker.
No, like the B-movie titans of yore, Boll is a man with a Vision. After making a string of misbegotten action films which nobody much paid attention to, Boll had the good fortune, if you can call it that, to encounter the House of the Dead video game, and in doing so (if we may judge from the projects his name has been attached to subsequently), to discover his true calling. Screw lame-ass cop movies and twelfth-rate American Psycho knockoffs; henceforth, Uwe Boll would become known to the world as the Atrocious Video Game Adaptation Guy. It’s difficult to overstate just what a daft reinvention of one’s career this is. A sane person would look over Super Mario Brothers, Double Dragon, Mortal Kombat, and the rest of their ilk, and conclude that turning video games into movies is a fool’s errand, always has been, and in all probability always will be. Uwe Boll, on the other hand, concluded that the only thing really wrong with those films was that watching them wasn’t enough like playing the games on which they had been based. With House of the Dead, Boll would go out of his way to duplicate the feel and flavor of a mindless first-person shooter, and to the extent that the resulting film is both utterly mindless and endowed with a great deal of shooting (some of which is even shown from first-person perspective), I suppose we have to reckon it some strange new species of success. Heaven knows Boll himself is quite pleased with his highly dubious accomplishment.
Given what a big deal Boll has made about his over-the-top efforts to stay faithful to the game, it’s a bit surprising to see that the story here resembles that of its inspiration only insofar as they both involve zombies and firearms in extraordinary quantities. Rather than a high-tech laboratory in which a mad scientist devotes his feverish energies to building cybernetic demons and an army of the walking dead, this House of the Dead gives us… The Biggest Rave of the Year. Uhhh… Sure, Uwe. Whatever you say. Mind you, this rave differs considerably from others you may have heard of out in the real world. Whereas those raves usually take place in empty warehouses and other disused industrial buildings in blighted urban neighborhoods, and tend to be attended (or so I’ve heard) by great masses of people in their late teens and early 20’s, this one is being held outdoors on a little Canadian island with an inexplicable Spanish name, and its participants consist of about two dozen 30-year-olds. I guess that whole rave thing has lost some of its social cachet with the youth crowd since the late 1990’s, huh? Among these startlingly elderly club “kids” are a couple of guys named Greg (The Mangler 2’s Will Sanderson) and Simon (Tyron Leitso), Greg’s girlfriend Cynthia (Sonya Salomaa), and two more girls called Alicia (Ona Grauer, of Catwoman) and Karma (Enuka Okuma, who is one of the voice-actresses for the US version of “Gundam Wing”). They were supposed to meet up with their friend (and Alicia’s ex), Rudy (Jonathan Cherry, from They and Final Destination 2), and catch the 5:00 boat to the island, but that’s not quite how it works out; the girls are late, and it’s 5:15 by the time the would-be revelers make it out to the wharf. Consequently, Greg and Simon are forced to negotiate for passage aboard the boat owned by smuggler Victor Kirk (Jürgen Prochnow, whose previous embarrassments like Dune and The Keep suddenly don’t look so bad anymore) and his partner, Salish (Clint Howard, from Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and The Wraith). Kirk drives a hard bargain, but in the end, he gets moving a little faster than he was initially inclined to, for an old girlfriend of his, one Jordan Casper (Ellie Cornell, who probably feels a whole lot better about Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers and Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers now, too), is now a federal agent, and she has just come calling at the dock with the intention of searching his boat. Since Kirk is carrying enough contraband firepower to conquer Nigeria over a long weekend, this obviously won’t do, and he speeds off from the pier in the direction of the island.
Meanwhile, on the isle itself, we’re seeing that The Biggest Rave of the Year was even more poorly planned than its paltry turnout would already suggest. Evidently nobody thought to check with the locals when they were scouting locations, because otherwise the organizers of the event would surely have heard that the island is considered cursed, and that few people who have set foot on it during the last three centuries or so have ever returned alive. So what do you say we just chalk it up to survival of the fittest when a whole horde of zombies comes tramping out of the forest that covers most of the malignant isle, and begins chowing down on the rave’s attendees? (You know, this sequence raises a burning question which the script sadly never addresses— can zombies get high from eating the flesh of people who are zonked out of their minds on pot, booze, ecstasy, and crystal meth?) The upshot of it all is that there’s no sign of Rudy or anybody else when his friends arrive at the site of the party. Strangely, this does not strike any of them save Alicia as in any way odd, nor is anyone but her troubled by the blood-soaked clothing that can be found scattered about the clearing that was to serve as the rave’s open-air dance floor. The most Alicia can get out of her companions is to convince Simon and Karma to come with her when she goes off to look for some sign of Rudy and the others. This, of course, is the cue for the zombies to attack Greg and Cythia; they trap Greg in a port-a-potty while they go to work on his girlfriend, and Boll cuts away with a timidity that would have shamed Lucio Fulci or George Romero.
Kirk and Salish also meet with the undead at this point. They’ve just about finished stashing their contraband in the woods when the zombies come, and Salish gets his while hiding the last crate full of guns. Meanwhile, a gang of rather waterlogged ghouls climb aboard the boat to menace the captain, and suddenly it’s Shock Waves vs. Das Boot. Kirk doesn’t even change facial expressions as he calmly and systematically mows the amphibious dead down with a big-bore automatic pistol.
Back on the island, Alicia, Simon, and Karma have found something peculiar indeed. Right about in the center of the forest, there is a decaying old house surrounded by a similarly antique cemetery. Strangely enough, the torches by the front door are lit, and Alicia thinks maybe this is where the ravers got off to. Let’s say she’s partially right. Rudy is there, together with a camcorder-obsessed douchebag named Hugh (Michael Eklund, of Killer Bees! and the recent “Battlestar Galactica” miniseries) and a girl named Liberty (Kira Clavell), whose name was supposed to have been the setup to a gag that got left on the cutting room floor. (Just as well, really— the orphaned joke wasn’t at all funny.) Rudy and his pals initially take Alicia’s trio for more of the zombies they’ve been hiding out from, but Rudy recognizes his former girlfriend quickly enough to prevent anyone from getting hurt or killed by mistake. Hugh explains the situation, but it isn’t until the combined crew return to the scene of The Biggest Rave of the Year and get attacked by a now-zombified Cynthia that Alicia, Simon, and Karma are willing to believe him. Fortunately for the last of the ravers, Agent Casper has by now landed on the island herself (having come in pursuit of Kirk and Salish, and having also met with some aquatic zombies of her own), and she guns Cynthia down before the undead girl is able to harm any of her erstwhile friends except for the useless and annoying Hugh. (It is also at this time that Greg is released from his imprisonment within the port-a-potty.) Casper then rounds up everybody and marches them back to Kirk’s boat— which they find overrun with the undead. Kirk has survived, however, and his contraband arsenal soon comes in handy, allowing all the surviving characters to make their way back to the house armed for bear— or zombie, for that matter. Thus begins one of the longest, loudest, stupidest battle scenes ever to appear in a zombie movie, as House of the Dead suddenly transforms itself into The Matrix Reloaded, but with 80 kazillion walking corpses standing in for the 80 kazillion Agent Smiths. Characters who previously had no interest in anything save dancing away the weekend in a jittery haze of Red Bull and amphetamines are mystically transmogrified into an elite fighting force of Schwarzeneggerian proportions, while the vaguely Asian-looking Liberty gets to become a martial-arts bad-ass into the bargain. And just when you thought the movie couldn’t possibly get any dumber, it is revealed that the whole business is due to the activities of a defrocked Spanish priest by the name of Jacob Freudstein— er, I mean, Father Castillo (David Palffy)— who several hundred years ago perfected a chemical treatment for human blood which renders those subjected to it immortal, provided they periodically refresh themselves by stealing replacement parts from other people. Finally, as its parting shot, House of the Dead makes its silliest “revelation” of all by telling us Rudy’s surname at long last— except that nobody who isn’t a big fan of the video game is going to get it, because there’s certainly nothing else in the film to suggest that this rave-going dipshit could somehow go on to become the game’s cyberdemon-building mad scientist.
I think I’m in love… Since the dawning of the new century, I’ve seen good movies, bad movies, mediocre movies, and a dishearteningly large number of fucking horrendous movies make their way across the nation’s theater screens. What I have not seen, however, are any movies of the kind that turned me into the warped species of fan that I am today: the beautifully bad, the transcendently terrible, the marvelously mishandled, and the endearingly ill-conceived. While numbskulls like Stephen Somers and Paul Anderson spent years consistently stinking up the place in a dismal and pedestrian manner, I asked myself again and again, “Where is our Al Adamson, our Sam Katzman, our Phil Tucker?” but with the release of House of the Dead, I think we’ve finally found him. Uwe Boll’s incompetence is of a lunatic strain we’ve not seen since at least the mid-1980’s. Not only does he blow beyond the ken of most mainstream filmgoers, he does so with a misplaced pride in his anti-achievements which borders on the surreal. There was an episode of “Beavis and Butt-Head” in which Beavis died— it isn’t important how— and went before Saint Peter, who then had to figure out whether or not to allow him into heaven. Peter consulted his book, enumerating all of the sins which Beavis had committed during his fifteen years on Earth, and each time he spoke, Beavis would chortle, “Oh yeah… heh heh— that was cool.” With the patience of, well, a saint, Peter would reply, “No… that sucked. No… that also sucked.” Watching House of the Dead, that conversation between Beavis and the Gatekeeper of Heaven kept replaying itself in my head with nearly every change of scene. Consider:
There have been plenty of suck-ass video game movies over the years, but only House of the Dead goes so far as to incorporate clips from the game itself into the film. At first, these are used only as transitions between scenes; it’s a questionable practice, but a defensible one. But as the movie wears on, we see more and more of the video game, until by the final act, the game clips are actually being used in lieu of normal footage. A character will level her gun at a zombie and pull the trigger, but rather than seeing the zombie fall, we cut instead to a video-game zombie going down in a hail of digital bullets! (“Yeah… heh heh. That was cool.” “No… that sucked…”)
In order to make his movie as much like a video game as possible, Boll deliberately structured it not according to movie logic or real-world logic, but according to the entirely different and indeed outright incompatible logic of a game. The characters’ movements around the island make no sense except as an artificial means of taking them in turn to each of the distinct environments that it contains— the beach, the forest, the clearing around Castillo’s house, the house itself, the tunnels beneath it— just as one progresses through the successive levels of a video game for no real reason beyond that the game’s creators have deemed that it should be so. Rudy and company certainly stand to gain nothing from forsaking the chance of escape provided by Kirk’s boat solely because of the danger posed by the possibly zombie-infested waters around it if all they’re going to do instead is make for the obviously immobile house at the center of the isle, which is surrounded by unquestionably zombie-infested woods. (“Heh heh… that was cool too.” “No… that also sucked…”)
The greatest willful idiocies, however, are concentrated in the interminable and ultimately purposeless battle sequence that consumes virtually the whole midsection of the movie, for it is there that Boll gets to play with all of his most expensive toys, and becomes so overwhelmed with giddy joy that he apparently forgets that he’s even making a movie. To appreciate the firefight in the cemetery fully, you really do have to listen to Boll’s commentary track on the DVD, or watch some of the insipid making-of materials which are included as extras on the disc. Listening to Boll talk about the literally thousands of cuts that comprise this scene, you realize that he honestly does equate the sheer quantity of camera setups with the quality of the finished product. Similarly, there are two contraptions Boll had built on the set which he seems to believe magically make the film better just by having been used in creating it. The more notorious at this point is the array of “300 cameras” with which he captured the raw material for the utterly pointless Matrix-style Bullet-Time confrontation between Casper and the zombie with the throwing axe. Even in conception, it’s an idiotic shot, calling the maximum possible attention to, among other unflattering things, Boll’s complete ignorance regarding how shotgun shells work. When you consider all the time, effort, and expense that went into this thoroughly botched attempt to look cool purely for the sake of looking cool, there’s nothing you can do but shake your head in bemused awe. But even so, the Wall o’ Cameras and the vacuous shot it was erected to film are actually less obtrusively dumb than their companion piece, the Camera-Go-Round. For no particular reason but that something like it seemed to work for the Wachowski brothers, Boll had his people build him a raised metal turntable designed to revolve a camera around a small group of actors at a speed of 140 kilometers per hour; the paradoxical result is a shot that circles the action in a strange sort of slow motion. It’s about as subtle as a pair of walruses mating in your kitchen, and Uwe likes it so much that he gives literally every member of his cast a turn on the ridiculous machine over the course of the big graveyard shootout. It’s tacky the first time, irritating the second time, and insufferable the third; by the time we get to number seven, it’s achieved a kind of sublime retardation, and it is perversely disappointing when there’s no number eight. (“Heh heh… that ruled!” “No, no, no! That did not rule! In fact, it really, really sucked! What the hell is wrong with you?!” ) As I write this, Uwe Boll has no fewer than three movies in the works, every one of them a video game adaptation. I expect I’ll be seeing the next one in the theater…
Because you can never have too many putrescent corpses shambling about chewing on people, the B-Masters Cabal has decided to join Cold Fusion Video in dedicating the month of October to zombies, zombies, and more zombies. Click the banner below to drop in on Undead Central.