Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, May 11, 2019

VIDEO GAME MOVIE MONTH: House of the Dead (2003)

By 2003, the video game movie was starting to earn some respect. Granted, there had yet to be a game adaptation that was both critically well received and financially successful, but just grabbing one distinction or the other was considered a win. Enter: Uwe Boll. The German born filmmaker got his start making low budget comedies, thrillers and dramas but never received much attention. In the early 2000s, exploiting a loophole in Germany tax laws to gain financing, Boll began to make a series of video game adaptation. (Presumably because video game titles are globally recognized and easier to obtain the rights to than other highly marketable properties.) The resulting films got atrocious reviews and Boll quickly earned a reputation as one of the worst filmmakers alive. The first of these notorious Boll movements was “House of the Dead,” adapted from Sega's popular series of zombie rail shooters.

Though it belongs to a different genre, "House of the Dead" was basically Sega's answer to “Resident Evil.” The first installment in both series are about special agents entering a mansion full of zombies and monsters. As is typical of Boll's films, his “House of the Dead” draws little from the game. Instead, this film is set on an island called Isla del Morte. Someone has chosen this ominously named location as the site of a rave. The party is soon set upon by zombies. A group of rich college kids hitch a ride with a grumpy smuggler named Captain Kirk, who is pursued by a female coast guard agent, and arrive at the island late. They soon discover the undead carnage that has unfolded there. They are picked off by the zombies and meet up with a team of survivors. The secrets of the outbreak are hidden inside a dilapidated house at the center of the island.

Boll seems completely uninterested in the premise of the video game he's adapting. (There's a last minute scene that badly attempts to set the film up as a prequel to the first game.) However, he's fascinated with the visuals of the game. One scene directly mimics the presentation of the game, characters walking down a hall, blasting zombies that pop out at them. Images from the video game appear on screen in split second flashes all throughout the cinematic “House of the Dead.”

This is but one of Boll's many baffling visual decisions. When someone is introduced, the screen goes black-and-white and a narrator tells you everything you need to know about them. When characters die, the screen flashes red and the camera whirls around them. One death is followed by nearly the entire film flashing by in a frantically cut montage. Often, there are jump-cuts and flashing images, usually during the various zombie attacks. Boll will reuse footage, the same zombies being shot down repeatedly. There are whip-pans, POV shots, and shaky handheld movements. The film looks a lot like Paul W. S. Anderson's “Resident Evil” – it is similarly scored to hilariously out-of-place techno and heavy metal – but it's so random and ridiculous, it actually becomes kind of fun.

Boll's action scenes are especially tacky. We first get a taste of his flavor of action when a recently-turned female zombie is shot. She's blown through the air in slow motion, the actress kicking her leg up and revealing her panties. Get ready for more slow-mo. Even though “The Matrix” was four years old by this point, Boll replicates the famous bullet time effects over and over. During a huge showdown outside the titular house, whirling 360 shots of characters occur as they shot, swing, and kick zombies. Heroes leap through the air, the images freezing and rotating. POV shots of CGI bullets collide with zombie's heads. There are close-ups of exploding undead heads and, of course, more random video game footage. The heroes are explicitly not trained warriors yet still become a brutally efficient zombie extermination squad. (Including, hilariously, the bubble-brained bimbo named Destiny.) The entire sequence is set to a so-bad-it's-good rap song and stretches on for a solid ten minutes. It's utterly inexplicable and deeply hilarious.

More than the video game it's ostensibly adapting, Boll's “House of the Dead” reminds me the most of the B-grade Italian zombie movies made in the early eighties. There attempts to modernize the concept, with the rave and a “Scream”-like horror nerd character, but the film's cheesy DNA is apparent. The behavior of the zombies change from scene to scene. One spits acidic slime, behavior never displayed before or after. Sometimes, they are slow and sluggish, classical shamblers. Other times, they are fast and aggressive, acrobatically leaping through the air. The latter behavior, along with the island setting, reminds me a lot of Claudio Fragasso's “After Death.” The zombie make-up is not as cheesy as “Burial Ground” but comes close. Some of the undead here are lumpy mummies. Others have bike reflector red eyes or are covered with rubbery green moss. There's even some totally gratuitous sex and nudity. This atmosphere of Italianna cheese might've been intentional, as Boll pays homage to Lucio Fulci with several scenes of zombies swimming. (Though they do not fight any sharks.)

Really, the only thing that's missing is the dubbing. While the dialogue isn't dubbed, some of it is so cheesy, that it might as well be. You can really imagine lines like “What do you think I'm trying to do, you fucking moron?” and “"You created it all so you could become immortal. Why?! To live forever!” not quite matching up with the actor's lip movements. The cast is quite hilariously bad, Most of the actors are attractive models with no on-screen charisma, delivering deeply silly dialogue. Not that their characters are anything but the most blank of cliches. (Though, hilariously, the movie still takes the time to establish one of the girls likes fencing, to set up an extremely awkward sword fight at the end.) There's a hilarious moment when two characters start kissing during a quiet moment. The funniest performance is David Palffy, as the master zombie behind the infestation. Of the recognizable faces, my favorite is Jurgen Prochnow, making his second appearance this month. He happily hams it up as Captain Kirk. Clint Howard is similarly campy as his skipper, a creepy dude there to deliver ignored warnings.

When I first saw “House of the Dead,” with its somersaulting judo chops and exploding wells, I genuinely thought it was one of the worst movies I had ever seen. Surely, an utterly baffling, randomly assembled cinematic experience like this is worthy of such a title? I guess I've gone soft with age. Because how can I hate a movie this wonderfully senseless? There's a big difference between tedious bad movies like “Resident Evil,” which suck in an uninteresting way, and enjoyable trash like this, which is too consistently nutty and gleefully dumb to ever be boring. I can't be the only one who enjoyed it. Though it just broke even in theaters, the film must've been popular on DVD. It received a straight-to-video sequel two years later. Strangest of all, two years after that, a “Director's Cut” that re-edited the film as a comedy was released. Truly, “House of the Dead” is the gift that keeps on giving. [7/10]

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