|House of the Dead (2003)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 27 January 2004|
“House of the Dead” is a movie that benefits from its DVD release because, to be blunt, the supplemental materials are better done and more entertaining than the actual feature.
“House” is based on a Sega “first person shooter” video arcade game, in which the player is responsible for blowing away masses of rotting zombies. The game, in turn, obviously owes a creative debt to George Romero’s “Living Dead” horror films (which get their due mention in “House,” to say nothing of its supplements). Dave Parker and executive producer Mark Altman, working from a story by Altman and Dan Bates, have written a screenplay that actually shows a fair amount of imagination in creating a back story explaining the gruesome situation.
A bunch of college students head to a weekend-long rave on an island off the coast of Seattle. Our main characters, latecomers who missed the original boat, can’t figure out where the rest of the partygoers have gone. It takes our vacationing scholars a long time to begin to suspect that there might be something to the warnings about “Isla los Muertos” tossed their way by the fishing boat captain (Jurgen Prochnow) and his first mate (Clint Howard), who reluctantly ferried them to the island.
There’s nothing wrong with this set-up, per se, nor is there anything intrinsically wrong with the idea of adapting a videogame into a film, albeit the result is unlikely to be “Lord of the Rings” (reverse engineering notwithstanding – there are a number of reportedly very good videogames based on the “Rings” films). “Resident Evil” is an excellent example (in fact, one that is invoked on at least one of the audio commentaries here) of a game-based horror movie that retains the most interesting elements of its origins while succeeding on its own terms as scary/kinetic zombie splatter.
Unfortunately, “House of the Dead” seldom manages to generate real scares. The reason for this is addressed in executive producer/co-writer Mark Altman’s highly entertaining and informative commentary track: director Uwe Boll decided that the best way to honor “House’s” source material was by skipping the horror film aspect and trying to make it resemble a first-person shooter game. While probably anything can be made to work if it’s done right, this concept seems rather perilous from the start. Anybody who really wants a first-person shooter experience is going to be extremely frustrated by an hour and 45 minutes of material without the ability to pull the trigger, and viewers who just want the low-budget horror film experience will likely be highly annoyed by the movie’s indifference to the notion of trying to produce actual fear.
Boll does a couple of odd, jarring things, like using “Matrix”-style “bullet time” shots in the action that don’t seem to fit with characters or events – the visuals are there for their own sake. Likewise, he frequently integrates clips of the actual videogame into the live action. This provides some immediate straight-ahead comparisons between the live sequences and their arcade counterparts, but it also tends to destroy any sense of flow.
In 5.1, the throbbing rave music that plays over beta graphics at the start sounds solid, and we hear nice, discrete ocean waves in the rears. Chapter 3 provides a startling voice isolated in the right rear. The chapter also features an impressively jarring door slam, although the dialogue doesn’t always appear to be in perfect sync. Gunshots are decent but not as jolting as they might be.
On the upside, the effects makeup is good for the budget and Parker and Altman have crafted a nicely gothic history for the accursed island, as well as giving us an actual Big Bad character to hate. Then there are the extras, which really are worth the price of admission. Altman’s commentary is huge fun, full of anecdotes and good humor, at one point apologizing for giving away a plot point, then catching himself: “If I just gave that away, why the hell are you listening to the commentary before watching the movie?” Altman puts the best face on events while still acknowledging some things that went wrong and is comfortable filling in some fair-sized plot holes (one of which totally changes the nature of the finale). Another commentary track from director Boll, producer Shawn Williamson, associate producer/post-production supervisor Jonathan Shore and actor Will Sanderson is filled with amiable teasing and interesting details about the production. For some reason, subtitles for the dialogue came up automatically on the multi-person commentary, but not on Altman’s.
The featurettes are great. There’s a charming, loony “Zombie Boot Camp” segment, in which the actors are shown preparing for their combat sequences by having paintball battles. There’s also a making-of featurette that spends so much time with Romero (the acknowledged king of the zombie genre) and his makeup effects chieftain Tom Savini that there winds up being more focus on “Night of the Living Dead” and its sequels than on “House of the Dead,” despite Romero’s lack of direct involvement with the new project. The disc also contains several deleted scenes (one of which starts out mute but acquires an audio track about a third of the way through) and three storyboard comparison sequences.
“House of the Dead” is bare-basics zombie fare – good makeup, almost no emotion. However, the disc is worth owning for aspiring filmmakers, who will learn something from the supplemental materials, for fans of Romero and Savini and for those who just enjoy the genre no matter what.