Prison of the Dead (2000) **½
Well, it took most of 30 years, but it finally occurred to somebody that there was still one cinematic zombie mythos that hadn’t yet been ripped off. And given the comparative obscurity of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead series, it was probably inevitable that we’d have to wait for the advent of Full Moon Video, the world’s first for-fanboys, by-fanboys production company, to see those movies plagiarized. The big surprise is that the folks at Full Moon have actually done a relatively decent job of it, offering up a zombie flick about as good as the previous year’s promising semi-misfire, The Dead Hate the Living.
The first hopeful sign comes early, when we get the first good look at our setting. The unkempt old castle at which our heroes (whom I’ll get to in a moment) are dropped off by the driver of their limousine reflects an astonishing level of production value for Full Moon. The reason? Like Subspecies, Dark Angel: The Ascent, and the bulk of the company’s more watchable films, Prison of the Dead was shot in Romania, where the typically meager Charles Band budget buys much more than could be had in any comparably atmospheric place on this continent. Sure, this movie is supposed to take place in Massachusetts— which resembles Romania only to the extent that trees grow there and the roads are poorly marked— but all things considered, the Romanian shoot adds more than it takes away.
So what’s going on here? Well, a wealthy young man named Kristoff St. Pierce (Patrick Flood) has assembled his old, semi-estranged friends Rory (Michael Guerin, from Kraa! The Sea Monster and Curse of the Puppet Master), Allie (Scared’s Kim Ryan), and Michelle (Debra Mayer, from Stitches and Hell Asylum) to this out-of-the-way corner of the New England countryside for a funeral. The fifth member of their crew from days gone by, a boy named Calvin, has died in some kind of boating accident, leaving a set of very specific— and very bizarre— instructions for handling his death. Calvin’s funeral is being held at an exotic and expensive funeral parlor built out of a former colonial-era prison where the puritans tortured and slew accused witches, and it was the deceased’s wish that his old pals should convene there for a midnight viewing on the night before the funeral proper. As you might have guessed, this was a morbid bunch in their college days, obsessed with the occult and the paranormal, although everyone but Kristoff and Allie seems to have grown out of that particular fixation.
Meanwhile, Kristoff and company are being followed by a slightly younger guy named Bill (Jeff Peterson, of Ancient Evil: Scream of the Mummy), a girl called Cat (Alicia Arden, from Caged Hearts), and another boy by the name of Ben (who evidently wasn’t cool enough to merit getting his name in the credits). Bill is another acquaintance of Kristoff’s, but his history with him is rather less genial— Bill’s girlfriend has apparently been fucking Kristoff on the side. What exactly Bill and his friends mean to do is far from clear, beyond Bill’s frequent assertions that he’s “going to fuck with them.” I’m sure it won’t be fun for Kristoff, though.
But there’s way more going on here than meets the eye. Calvin (Samuel Page) isn’t dead after all, although he is lying in a coffin when his friends first see him. The whole funeral business was simply the only way he and Kristoff could think of to reunite the old gang. And as for the especially forbidding location for the mock-funeral, it is, at bottom, the real reason for the whole strange enterprise. Kristoff’s tabloid-publisher father has just bought the place, which is rumored to house the Talon Key, an ancient talisman of considerable supernatural power, and he has plans to use both the building and the artifact it supposedly conceals in the ultimate publicity stunt for his paper: he’s going to give away a million dollars to the person who can find the mystical treasure and confirm its legitimacy as an occult relic. Now Kristoff, unlike his dad, actually believes the stories, and he thinks he has what it takes to find the key and prove it’s the real thing. The only problem is that employees of the tabloid and their families are ineligible for the prize money. That’s where Calvin, Rory, Allie, and Michelle come in; one of them will take credit for the discovery and verification, and the million bucks will be divided equally among the five friends.
The extent to which Kristoff’s buddies are willing to go along with him largely depends on how cynical they’ve become since their college days. Calvin and Michelle, who have lost nearly all trace of their erstwhile mystical beliefs, are more willing to indulge Kristoff. Allie, still very much a believer, is terrified of the otherworldly forces that might be unleashed by Kristoff’s scheme. Rory is in the middle— he professes to have left all that occult stuff behind him, but when the Ouija board comes out, he becomes more alarmed than anyone. It’s with good reason, as it happens. No sooner have the fivesome begun interrogating the spirits about the Talon Key’s whereabouts than, in another, deeper level of the prison, a trio of centuries-old executioners rise from their graves in Blind Dead-like slow motion. (The resurrection footage for each executioner is inexplicably shown twice in rapid succession.) Meanwhile, something enters Allie’s mind, and begins making her chant in a language that I guess was supposed to sound like Latin, but really doesn’t.
That same something also drops in on Bill’s friends, who have by now begun fanning out around the old prison to fulfill their appointed roles in whatever Bill’s plan is. Ben is possessed first. He starts in with the same chant, and suddenly— or as suddenly, at any rate, as is possible for 300-year-old zombies— one of the undead executioners appears from around a corner and cuts him down. The same thing happens to Cat when she receives her visit from the chanting spirit.
While all that’s going on, Kristoff and his friends have made the mistake of splitting up. Kristoff has become worried about Allie, who isn’t coming out of her trance, and he goes off with Calvin to hunt down the limo driver, leaving Rory and Michelle to look after Allie. Rory and Michelle sneak off to have sex instead, just as soon as the two men are out of earshot. With the main characters thus separated into easily slashable small groups, it isn’t long before the possession-then-slaying pattern begins repeating itself among them. Eventually, it is revealed that the possessing spirits are those of witches who were imprisoned and killed in the old dungeon, and that the reanimated executioners are killing in order to prevent the witches’ escape from the prison in their borrowed bodies. But if someone were to, say, find the Talon Key, the witches wouldn’t need loaner bodies to get away, and their unbound spirits would be powerful enough to send the zombie executioners back to their graves where they belong. I’m thinking Kristoff had better start looking a bit harder for that key— what about you?
I somehow get the feeling this is going to be another one of those movies that only I like. In any event, Prison of the Dead is a film that requires a very forgiving attitude from its audience, what with its typically dismal Full Moon acting, its untrained-guy-with-a-Casio score, and its ADD-in-action script. There’s no denying the obvious inexperience of the cast, but there are a couple of people here— Patrick Flood foremost among them— who could turn into actual actors if given the chance. The script is more problematic, with loose ends dangling left, right, and center as the credits roll. Bill’s real purpose in the story never quite comes out, there’s never any serious explanation for how the Ouija board triggers the rise of the zombies, and neither the true nature of the Talon Key nor the reason for its presence in the old prison is ever even hinted at. But Prison of the Dead contains the germs of so many good ideas that I can’t help but look favorably on it, even though most of those ideas got stunted and squashed by cost constraints, inexperience, or sheer impatience to get the movie in the can. I liked the character of Kristoff— not in the sense of thinking he was a good guy or somebody I’d want to hang out with, but in the sense of finding his personality fascinating, especially in comparison to the utterly flat and lifeless characters one usually encounters in cheap-ass horror flicks. I just wish we’d been given more clues as to his real agenda and motivations. I thought the zombies themselves made for a refreshing change from the usual Romero and Raimi wannabes, and considering how little money was available to throw at them, I found them pretty impressive from a technical perspective as well. (I could do without the digitally inserted glowing eyes, though.) But what struck me the most was the idea of opposing camps of the undead. Screenwriter Matthew Jason Walsh could have and should have made more of this angle than he did, but even in the sketchy form it takes here, it leaves the movie with more going on than the usual Bruno Mattei-style unmotivated gut-munching. The biggest surprise of all is the last name to appear in the opening credits: this film was directed by longtime Charles Band hanger-on David DeCoteau. Over the years that he has worked for Full Moon and its sister label, Torchlight Entertainment, DeCoteau has been responsible for some of the most despicably awful movies in living memory, including Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama, Beach Babes from Beyond, and the all-but-unwatchable The Journey: Absolution. With him in the director’s chair, the compromised— but still present— entertainment value offered by Prison of the Dead looks less like a rather frustrating disappointment, and more like a minor miracle!