We’re living through some weird times right now, with weekly chaotic developments that can be easy to miss. You’d be forgiven for not hearing the news that Uwe Boll is making a directing comeback. During the 2000’s, Boll was the internet’s love to hate director for his involvement in various video game adaptations during the new millennium. About a third of IMDB users had a pot shot to take at him. But unlike many filmmakers who make flops and are rarely heard from, Boll has directed thirty films to this point, along with his name on others. He’s covered an impressive range of genres during that time: boxing dramas, war films, slashers, prison films, and slapstick comedies. But it’s the ten video game adaptations that put him on the map with critical revile, while he pressed on, proving he could make a film fast and cheap, almost rivaling Corman in his prime. Unlike other directors who want to fight their critics, Boll actually did, in the boxing ring. He has a unique personality to say the least, and the way he feeds into the hate attitude has earned him a fanbase, both passionate and ironic. After angrily announcing his retirement in 2016, some audiences moved on while others waited patiently. The wisest of us know, you can’t keep a good villain down. And his return is perfectly timed, as we are reaching the 20-year anniversary of House of the Dead, the film that started it all. With the remaster of the original game launching as well, this low hanging fruit is too ripe to pass up. Maybe this movie is better than we gave it credit for. Yeah, SPOILER ALERT, and APRIL FOOLS!
You remember House of the Dead, that classic rail shooter game you played at your local arcade? It’s the story of two agents investigating a creepy mansion that is a front for a science lab, overtaken by zombies and reanimated creatures. It might sound a little too similar to that other undead survival horror franchise that got a film adaptation around the same time. It’s a pretty simple story with thirty minutes of gameplay, unlimited ammo, kill the monsters with a desert eagle, and stop the bad guy, while trying not to die in the process. When summed up, the film does deliver at least on that.
But does the film feature the cool mansion or any of the Tarot Card themed bosses? No, we actually barely even get the titular house. The majority of the plot takes place on the fictional island, Isla del Morte, between Seattle and British Columbia, where a Spanish priest was exiled to. A Spanish island near the Pacific side of Canada? Yup, make of that what you will. And this island is hosting the “rave of the century,” proudly sponsored by SEGA. Some of our leads miss the party boat by fifteen minutes, but manage to secure a ride from a German smuggler and his first mate to take them to the island (mainly so the smuggler can hide a shipment of Cuban cigars from the coast guard on their trail). The group gets to the island, and despite no one around, and noticeable amounts of blood, they stick around to drink and look for other partiers. They find a few, and of course, find the horde of the undead ready to attack and turn them for their master (but not eat anybody), the priest who discovered the secret for immortality. Despite no real reason to not get back to the boat and book it, the group, the smuggler, and a coast guard member team up to take on the zombies, guns blazing.
Like many of Boll’s more infamous films, HotD has been the subject of dissection and mockery on the internet, to the point where they were rites of passage for late 2000’s video essayists. It’s beating an undead horse at this point to regurgitate the obvious criticisms of film equipment being visible at various points, the characters whose names you’ve pretty much forgotten about, the graveyard set that looks like a Spirit Halloween attraction, and the editor’s decision to splice in footage of the first two games throughout the film. And, again, a film called House of the Dead that barely features the titular house. This film could have been called Island of the Dead, if there wasn’t already a 2000 Malcom McDowell film with that title (and that film is about killer flies). Weirdly enough though, both films have eerily similar posters.
The film was co-written by Dave Parker, a filmmaker who had previously written and directed the film, The Dead Hate the Living (and would later direct the criminally underrated The Hills Run Red), a film that is unintentionally a better adaptation of the property. I’m not sure what his, and Mark Altman’s original script entailed, as Boll threw out half the script, according to legend (you don’t say). However, Parker’s main influence is still on display. Despite the obvious name drop to George A. Romero, HotD is more an homage to Lucio Fulci’s zombie films. Direct callbacks that made it in include zombies swimming underwater (Zombie), a villain’s backstory involving black magic/necromancy set in a mock-sepia tone film style (The Beyond), and the villain living hundreds of years by harvesting body parts to mod himself (House by the Cemetery). The undead vary in design, showing that the budget was well spent on the make-up effects. Granted, there are some zombies that are just people in colored contacts with some minor blood splatter. But there are some pretty impressive corpses in different states of rot and decay, with some having impressive bone exposure. This whole thing would have made a great Fulci fan-film if Parker directed it himself, and I’m not entirely sure if Boll even realized that.
Well, if the rumors are true that half of the script was tossed to the side, then I’m head-cannoning that all the performances are improvised. In between a lot of the stilted dialogue of our older than average college kids, you catch moments of bluntness that could only be thought of on the fly. They are overshadowed though, by the real heavyweights. I mean, this film has Clint Howard dressed as the killer from I Know What You Did Last Summer, channeling Crazy Ralph from Friday the 13th and hyping up a storm that amounts to nothing. But he’s only second in command to Jürgen Prochnow as Captain Kirk, a joke that is brought up at the beginning just to show off a big knife that is never used (Chekhov's gun misfired there too). Prochnow somehow manages to look like he doesn’t want to be there but is also having the most fun, spouting the best lines in the movie, and one-shotting zombies with a gold “Deagle” while chomping on a Cuban cigar. If there’s anyone else who’s memorable to the film, it would be Johnathan Cherry as the one the film crowns the lead, though his voice-over narration tells the story from his survivor perspective.
Aside from basically spoiling that Cherry lives through the whole ordeal, the film makes the choice to reveal that his last name is Curien, implying that he’s related to Dr. Curien from the first game, or he IS the doctor since there’s a throwaway line that he’s pre-med. This has been questioned and laughed at before, but it could have worked, making this a prequel to the game...if only the movie didn’t literally start with footage from the game and the line “You must stop Curien!” At that point, the fabric of reality begins to tear. The movie ends with narration that Curien gave his ex-girlfriend, who almost died, the last of the “immortality serum” and their future is uncertain. This is the only tiny element that carries over into the 2005 sequel, where both characters are recast to just be zombies locked up by Daddy Curien played by Sid Haig. Also, despite dying and being in the house when it blows up, the coast guard member (Ellie Cornell) is back as a member of a zombie task force.
It should come as no surprise that this film is quite an experience. But this is only the tip of the Uwe Boll iceberg. An entire chapter of a film school textbook could dissect this film alone. I’ve already watched it three times by myself and I can feel my brain charring from the experience. If you plan on watching HotD more than once, you have to watch this with a group of friends, and given the unintentional parallel to 2017’s Fyre Festival, this film is reanimated and ripe for movie night. I highly recommend the 2008 director’s cut DVD which opens with a gag prologue of Boll himself, strapped to a chair and forced to watch the film Clockwork Orange style. There’s also a commentary track where he roasts the movie while playing fart noises. At least the man is willing to give you options for your viewing pleasure. And with a new beginning for Boll on the horizon, heads are sure to roll. Either way, you owe it to yourself to check out his work. His films are a learning experience for even the most casual of movie-goers.
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