Frankly, I'd be happy if no more zombie films were ever made. Especially if this is the state to which they have descended.
As you likely know, House of the Dead is based on a Sega arcade game of the same name; in it, you are supposed to stop some guy named Curien, who is doing evil things in the aforementioned House. You do this by shooting unending hordes of zombies that are constantly rushing at you.
Somewhere in the production, it was decided the movie didn't need any more plot than that, either. Attempts to insert anything resembling a story in House are dealt with harshly and summarily, usually by having something blow up or another character/cypher get killed. What you do get in the way of plot: someone has the brainwave to have a massive party on an island called "The Island of Death", and some latecomers to the party find only the aftermath of a zombie attack. They get guns and shoot some zombies. The end.
A lot of folks accused Unbreakable of being "all first act", but House of the Dead is all third act - every piece of character development that did not end in a lame joke or topless scene was ruthlessly cut to get to the action more efficiently. I didn't even know a major character's name until an hour into the movie. The actors struggle gamely with what little they're given to work with (and are aided greatly in their struggle by old pros like Jurgen Prochnow and Clint Howard), but really - these guys might as well have been labeled "Player One" and "Player Two", especially with the intercut game footage and the "Game Over" fade to reds on certain characters' deaths.
House of the Dead is Exhibit A in any tirade on the sorry current state of the horror film in America, because it is not a horror film - it is an action film with zombies. There is no suspense, no shudders (and any sequences that might have yielded some chills are so heavily laden with hommage that the viewer is too busy trying to get the taste of irony out of his mouth to be scared), and zero emotional resonance. Such movies are usually defended by the phrase "Check your brain at the door", but it would be best to send your brain to spend the weekend at grandma's house, lest the dreadful anti-intellectual radiation emanating from this movie cause it harm.
The current entertainment holy grail is a fusion between video games and movies, and this ain't it, kid. Rent it to see one of the most lamentable exercises in storytelling in recent memory; buy it to threaten friends with, or if (like me, I am ashamed to admit) you're a whore for pointless bullet time sequences within fight scenes.
To the better: this is a great transfer, and the 6.1 DTS is apparently demo quality (there are some online reviews that urge the purchase of the disc just for the DTS track alone - I no longer feel quite so ashamed of my love for bullet time). The video quality does well by the production design and the make-up work. No matter how one may disparage the end result, those two units did their job very well, and on a tenth of the budget of the other zombie video game movie, Resident Evil.
But back to the bad: the box prominently features "Killer Interactive Gaming Menus". This gets really annoying in the Chapter Select menus, which only present you with a mere two scenes per page. Not only do you have to figure out which arrow to use to get to the next page (and they're not terribly intuitive), but for each page you have to sit through another snippet of in-game footage, which gets very, very old if you've hit the wrong arrow and have to sit through that snippet again just to get to the chapter you're seeking. And again. And again.
The opening menu does get points for saying, "Insert Coins", however. I'm fickle that way.
Behind the House: Anatomy of the Zombie Movement is an 18 minute semi-making-of featurette that is refreshing in that it features, and gives props to, George Romero, Tom Savini, and their Dead movies (unlike, say, that Resident Evil thing). Even more surprising is that they popped for clips from those three movies.
The title of Stacked for Zom-bat: The Sexy Babes of House of the Dead should give you an idea of what to expect from this. Four of the female leads (one of whom dies early and never gets to kick any zombie butt) embark on "zombie boot camp". If you're expecting anything like a physical regimen such as those endured by the stars of Charlie's Angels or The Matrix movies... well, don't. They play the arcade game, shoot some paintballs at unfortunate production assistants in make-up, and wind up in a hot tub.
There are storyboard comparisons with finished product, narrated by executive producer Mark A. Altman, and three deleted scenes, so you can catch up on excised character development. There are also trailers for this movie, Belly, Cutthroat Alley, Dracula's Curse, Devil's Pond, The Punisher, and S.I.C.K.
And then there are the commentaries. Ah, the commentaries. The first features director Uwe Boll, Post Production Supervisor Jonathan Shore, Producer Shawn Williamson and actor Will Sanderson, who plays the Odious Comic Relief. This is a surprisingly spotty commentary; one can hear the others dragging Boll away from his musings on cappucchino back to the movie, and it's interrupted at one point by a cell phone call from Christian Slater.
Much better is the second commentary by Executive Producer and co-writer Mark A. Altman, who steadfastly refuses to badmouth Boll, but is quite forthcoming with all the story pieces that were cut not only to make room for more action, but also due to time and budget constraints. Of at least one groan-worthy bit of exposition, Altman says, "I really wish I had been on set that day," and all a dumbfounded viewer can do is agree, loudly and heartily.
Dr. Freex, 5/26/2004