Originally purchased in a two-for-one Uwe Boll special in a French supermarket over a decade ago, I am actually the proud owner of physical copies of House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark (which is truly awful – please go and read our review). After watching the latter, it seemed only appropriate to rewatch the former, especially considering it had been sitting neglected on my shelf for at least 10 years.
Honestly, having only previously watched this with naïve adolescent eyes, I remembered it being passable. Action-heavy and cheesy, yes, but not too bad. The first scene alone was enough to quash the notion that House of the Dead would be anything other than irritatingly bad.
Opening with one of the worst written pieces of expositional narration imaginable, the film begins introducing its ensemble cast via freeze frames, with an unseen narrator reeling off information on each of the obnoxious teens awaiting transport to a rave on a cursed island.
Then comes gratingly unrealistic dialogue, as well as one or two characters with unintelligible accents – one of which is played by Jürgen Prochnow (Das Boot), and another by the familiar face of Clint Howard. Despite the vague indication that there may be a little comedy to come, this isn’t the case, and each of the characters remains uninteresting and underdeveloped.
Arriving late at their rave after haggling with a smuggler to procure a ride, the group find the island deserted. They meet up with Rudy (Jonathan Cherry), who just happens to be the one narrating the film, as well as his friend Hugh, who caught the events of the rave on camera, explaining that the island is filled with the undead. Naturally, they’re soon beset by zombies, but are able to hold them off with the help of the aforementioned smuggler (named Captain Kirk) and his convenient stash of weaponry, which every character is capable of using without any firearms training.
Cue some of the most ludicrous action imaginable, featuring glaring continuity errors, characters apparently forgetting their previous terror to become literal action heroes, strutting through hordes of the undead and blasting away without conviction, seemingly unconcerned with trivialities like crossfire or the convenience of actually aiming their weapons.
Most of the group survive the attack and take shelter in a creepy abandoned house in the middle of a graveyard (literally the worst place to be in any zombie outbreak), and what ensues essentially amounts to the periodic illogical self-sacrifice of secondary characters in acts of suicidal heroics. A few uninteresting twists later and a few more uninspiring action sequences, and the credits are rolling. No one feels any satisfaction, and Uwe Boll got another paycheck.
Basically, House of the Dead plays out like a horror film made by someone who had never seen a horror film, but had heard the genre described once and decided they’d try their hand at it. The film’s overuse of low, shaky camera work and odd decisions to focus on action reek of a Resident Evil copycat that wasn’t able to even emulate that franchise’s particular brand of high octane cheesiness.
What starts off as a clichéd mess slowly amps up the implausibility until it simply becomes incomprehensible, and only one single member of the cast is actually trying to sell the premise. Cherry tries valiantly to bring the film’s poor script to life, but his efforts are lost among the unenthusiastic performances of his co-stars, making watching him vaguely sad. He’s trying his hardest, though, even when the poorly constructed set is literally falling apart around him (this is especially funny when a single flimsy piece of wood is used to barricade an open window, propped up by a few equally flimsy strips of ply, or when “gravestones” are snapping in half, clearly made of Styrofoam). This cheap and tacky aesthetic translates to the zombies, too – which, for any zombie-related horror film, is a major red flag. The monsters are inconsistently designed; some just have white make-up with a little fake blood around the mouth, while others are shrouded in black rags with glowing red eyes, and this isn’t addressed at all by the film. House of the Dead does try to pay homage to its source material, though, with flashes of the original game appearing on-screen overlapped with action action sequences or as scene transitions, which looks both incredibly jarring and very low-budget.
All in all, House of the Dead has about as much intelligence as one of its idiotic zombies. When watched with low, B-movie expectations, it’s occasionally entertaining, and elicits a few unintentional laughs, but it’s still self-serious dross of the highest order. Less discerning fans of action-horror with time to kill might find something enjoyable in the experience, but it’s the cinematic equivalent of white noise – after a few minutes, its grating and unpleasant, unless you’ve come simply to laugh at it.
Summary: At face value, House of the Dead is laughable. When considered as a bad film, it’s not without a certain charm, but it’s still undeniably awful.
Highlights: Jonathan Cherry’s earnest performance is quite sweet (and misguided), and the blaring nu-metal song (“Fury” by Black Tiger, if you’re interested) over the film’s credits is the final nail in the hilarious coffin that is House of the Dead.