Zombie Death House
U.S.A. / 1987
Directed by John Saxon
Starring
Dennis Cole
John Saxon
Tane McClure
Color / 90 Minutes / Not Rated
Format: DVD (R0 - NTSC)
Retromedia
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Review by
Brian Lindsey
 
3
    5   10 = Highest Rating  
There are no zombies in this movie. Actually, in the print used for the DVD the word "zombie" appears to have been electronically added to the original title, Death House. Like 2003's Beyond Re-Animator the film involves illegal experiments on prison inmates. But instead of the living dead, when infected with a man-made virus the prisoners and staff become drooling, super-strong homicidal maniacs with really bad skin conditions. So this one'll have to classified with 28 Days Later in the 'pseudo-zombie' subgenre though infected convicts are briefly glimpsed gnawing on dead bodies at one point.
    For a low budget direct-to-video exploitation film there's a ridiculous amount of backstory to the main characters in Zombie Death House. TV regular Dennis Cole (Bearcats!, The Young and the Restless) stars as decorated Vietnam hero Derek Keillor, who's down on his luck and just can't seem to get a fair shake. (Hey, you and John Kerry, bud...) Badly in need of employment, he takes a job as chauffeur for well-known L.A. Mafia boss Vic Moretti (Tenebre's Tony Franciosa), assuaging his conscience with the proviso: "All I do is drive." It doesn't work out that way, though. In short order Keillor begins a secret affair with the boss's hot blonde girlfriend (Dana Lis) and brusquely sticks his nose into Mob business. When Moretti gets wind of these betrayals the vicious gangster personally drowns his moll in a bathtub and frames Keillor for her murder. Swiftly convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair, Keillor is shipped off to a maximum security prison in the California desert to await his appointment with Ol' Sparky. As bad as things stand, however, his troubles are only beginning. Running the prison from the inside is Moretti's psycho gay brother, Franco (Michael Pataki of Sidehackers and Zoltan: Hound of Dracula). With sadistic head guard Raker (Howard George) on Vic's payroll, Franco looks forward to making what's left of Keillor's life a living hell. (Believe it or not, all this is laid out in fairly smooth fashion in less than 20 minutes... half of it before the opening credits even finish!)
    Shortly after arriving on Death Row, Keillor learns that the prison doctor is conducting experiments in behavior modification using a formula called HV-8, administered to inmate volunteers who receive special perks for participating. While this particular medical study is aboveboard, another drug, unknown to the doc, is secretly being tested. HV-8B, a genetically-engineered variant of the first serum, is introduced into the prison population by fanatical military/CIA scientist Col. Burgess (Fast Company's John Saxon, who also directed). Using the inmates as guinea pigs, Burgess hopes to perfect a 'super-soldier' formula with which the Pentagon can field an invincible army. But it all goes terribly wrong. Starting with a nose bleed, the symptoms rapidly progress as the injected convicts' skin begins to rot, eventually driving the test subjects insane and turning them into violent, mindless berserkers. Even worse, the infection has mutated and become communicable, spreading like a virus among the inmates and staff. As the situation deteriorates Keillor leads the still-healthy prisoners in a desperate rebellion, taking guards, the warden and the warden's visiting family hostage. Medical aid is demanded in exchange for their safety. Keillor also threatens to kill Franco unless bad brother Vic comes to the prison for a face-to-face meeting. Burgess, safely ensconced outside the walls, calls in troops to surround and quarantine the place. He contacts a former colleague, ex-government scientist turned TV news reporter (!!!) Tanya Karrington (Tane McClure, Doug's daughter) for help. Since she developed the original HV-8 formula, Burgess insists she's the perfect researcher to enter the prison and find out what's happening. He also promises her exclusive rights to the story in her capacity as a journalist. What he doesn't tell her is that he has no intention of letting anyone leave the prison alive...

    The coincidence-reliant script is strictly subpar straight-to-Cinemax material. Clearly there wasn't enough money on hand to do this thing right, even with so much of the film set in a single location. (While the majority of it takes place at the prison, the climax leads us to that reliable old B-movie standby, "Ro-Man's Cave" in Bronson Canyon.) One scene is actually edited out of sequence: Keillor is seen packing up and splitting his hotel room (and the state) for good, only to be shown meeting with Vic's girlfriend there for a quickie the next minute. Yet, in his only directorial effort to date, John Saxon keeps things chugging along, in competent TV episode-style, even when the film seems to be spinning its wheels. Action scenes, however, are generally clumsy if not unintentionally funny, with the exception of a police car chase that's pulled off okay. (And which surprisingly doesn't involve any crashes. Too expensive?) Exploitation mainstays are trotted out on occasion but are under-used. Lis has a couple of brief topless scenes before her character is murdered; McClure gives us a look at her mammaries as well. There's really not that much gore. Perhaps this has to do with Saxon's personal aversion to such effects. Though the film credits Saxon as sole helmer, the IMDB lists producer Nick Marino as co-director. Perhaps the latter shot a few gore inserts.
    So what we have here is a bland and cheesy if (mostly) technically proficient time-waster, with some veteran performers in key roles elevating the caliber of acting above the norm for this sort of dreck. It's as if The X-Files was a Quinn Martin production, only with some cussin' and a teensy bit of skin and gore thrown in to keep you watching.

This is a fullframe transfer, but from all appearances the film was shot 1.33:1 for the direct-to-video market. It doesn't look like any visual information is lost. Colors seem a wee bit muted, there's steady grain (particularly in night/dark scenes), and portions look overly contrast-corrected, yet the print's damage-free and otherwise fine for a low budget cheapie. The audio track, flat but serviceable, comes up short a time or two when the actors speak in low tones, so it's sometimes difficult to understand what they're saying. Then again, this could be a symptom of the original sound elements... Did I mention this was a cheap production?
    Other than a trailer for the film, Retromedia's Zombie Death House DVD is pretty much a bare bones affair.
It's cute, though, that company honcho (and B-movie director himself) Fred Olen Ray has thought to include a personally signed "Shock Insurance Policy" guaranteeing payment of a $1000 "Death Benefit" to the beneficiary of the first person to die of shock while watching the film. This gag harkens back some of the "gimmick" horrors of the '50s like The Screaming Skull. Thus I'll rate the DVD a "5" provided you can find it retail, where it goes for about ten bucks. (Otherwise it's a "4".) 9/28/04

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