The Chronicles of Horror Movie Night: Death House (1987)

Posted by Damon Swindall - October 27th 2011 @ 4:39 pm

After starting in Washington D.C. nine years ago Horror Movie Night has expanded to include chapters in Austin, Dallas and Chicago. Horror’s Not Dead’s own Brian Kelley is the originator and programmer of this illustrious weekly Wednesday night tradition which features a “classic” horror film. Each week I will be reviewing/commenting on the past week’s selection so do your best to find the film, most of which have not made it past VHS, and follow along. Better yet, start your own chapter!

VHS cover for Death House

I’ll go ahead and get this out of the way – I love John Saxon.

There, I said it and it felt good. Though this isn’t really a secret because I talk about it quite a bit. Probably more than I should. When he accepted my friend request on Facebook I’m pretty sure there was squealing like a little girl on my end. Most probably know the man from his roles in films like Enter the Dragon or A Nightmare on Elm Street, but I’m far more interested in his work in Italian horror films and the seminal holiday slasher Black Christmas. I find something absolutely great about this man and cannot get enough of seeing him onscreen.

When another BYE week came up for Horror Movie Night I decided to pull out the film I’d been waiting to see for a while now. Saxon has one sole directorial credit to his name and it’s a horror film! Not only that, but a zombie film! Death House, or Zombie Death House as some may know it, is pretty much a typical late 80s horror flick rife with all the problems that stigma might entail but with plenty of cool moments and, of course, your daily dose of Saxon!

A Vietnam vet named Dennis Cole (Derek Keillor) moves into town and gets a job as a driver for Vic Moretti (Anthony Franciosa), a local mob boss. Cole can’t keep it in his pants for five minutes and he finds himself in a hot affair with the boss’ lady. Vic finds out, kills the girl, and frames poor Dennis for the crime, which results in some prison time. At the prison there are mysterious drug trials going on with the inmates and an FBI agent, Gordon Burgess (Saxon), is sneaking in a new drug that gives life to the dead along with added strength and a bloodlust. Tanya, a scientist-turned-reporter (played by the lovely, and egregiously topless, Tane McClure) is called in with her cameraman to check out the problem and she may be the only hope to get anyone out alive.

Tanya: Me, you, all of us are guinea pigs. We’ve all been exposed to a powerful virus that could kill us!
Prisoner: Hey man, is she for real?

After all of the great directors Saxon has worked with over the years you would think this might be a solid effort. Maybe he picked up a few things along the way. While it’s not a complete disaster, it’s not even close to high art. But how much is really Saxon’s fault? According to some, Saxon had pressure from the producers to change it from what he originally wanted, and Fred Olen Ray has said he came on the project to help because it got so far off schedule. The validity of these claims is not certain, but you definitely feel there was too much crammed into this film. There’s a bit of an identity crisis with the mobster plot and the zombies. Two seemingly unrelated things only brought together by Cole being in the prison and Moretti’s brother Franco assigned to the same cellblock. Nothing is really fused, though it’s attempted, so it feels like a mismatch.

Zombie in the electric chair

What this movie does get right is the high kill count. Damn! After last week’s film only having one death, and even that wasn’t 100% in terms of quality, we come back with a vengeance at well over twenty bodies piling up in the 96-minute film. We have people being shot, having their faces smashed through prison bars by the living dead, decapitations, pick axe murders and so much more. The blood definitely flows.

This film does have one really great moment, but it unfortunately never goes anywhere. It’s around Christmas in the prison and there is a church service with some prisoners and family members (including the warden’s wife and two kids!) where the chaplain accidentally drips infected blood from his nose into the communion wine that everyone, except our hero, drinks. Sweet, so all of these people are getting infected through drinking of symbolic zombie blood that has actual infected zombie blood inside? Hell yes! Unfortunately you never see what becomes of all this. Some of the prisoners do slowly turn over time but there is an antidote created that saves the kids (BOO!) and we never see what happens to the chaplain. He just disappears. Maybe there were some scenes cut but I was hoping for more zombies stemming from their holiday service.

They're gonna get you

The whole idea of a zombie outbreak taking place in the confines of a prison is really cool. On the one hand it could be a little easier to contain, but then again if you’re inside and alive – you’re fucked. We see that even if the zombies are only able to squeeze their oozing arms through the bars it could still mean doom for a human walking by. This is not the first film to have the living dead incarcerated but it’s a subgenre with very few entries. I, for one, would like to see more correctional facilities filled with flesheaters.

Along with any good in this movie there is an equal amount of the absurd. There is so much voice over in this film from so many sources that it’s laughable, and it starts at the very beginning. Add to that the fact that we are thrown into the first montage before the opening credits have finished cycling and you are left dumbfounded before you even know what the film is about. Much of the crazy bits in the film are a product of the glorious 80s. Anyone else miss the fashion statement of a tank top tucked into some fairly tight jeans? I know I do. It’s not something you see too much today (save for some annoying hipsters maybe), but luckily Dennis’ old army buddy is sporting that outfit for your viewing pleasure. There’s also a moment where Franco is primping his prison bitch’s hair and in the background their cell proudly displays a shirtless Dolph Lundgren poster. Thanks to the set decorator for giving us that little gem.

Nice poster!

There is a scenario in this film that is completely new to me; at least I think so anyway. In many films that take place in jail, like the numerous wonderful women-in-prison flicks I’ve watched, at one point one of the guards is going to rape one of the prisoners. Usually it’s the dickhead male guard in the female jail but I’ve also witnessed female guards defile their wards just the same and even a female guard taking advantage of a male inmate. However, in this movie the tables turn a bit. The dickhead guard we meet forces himself upon someone but it’s another male. To my knowledge this this is the first male guard on male prisoner rape I’ve ever viewed in a film. Nice of Saxon and company to turn the tables a bit.

Death House is not a great movie by any means but there is some fun to be had along the way. Most of the problems lie with the mix of the mob story and zombies. I get the feeling that the screenwriters (William Selby, David S. Freeman, and Kate Wittcomb) really wanted to do something prison/mafia related but mixed in the zombie aspect to try and sell it easier in the horror boom of the late 80s. It surely wouldn’t be a surprise if that were the case. If you’re a Saxon fan like me then you need to see this for the sole reason that he is the director. Afterwards you will probably realize that it’s not necessarily a bad thing that he never helmed another film.

Until next week – stay away from my Twinkies!

Body Count: 21, plus numerous other prisoner’s bodies scattered about
Best Kill: Twinkie zombie (see video clip below)
First Onscreen Zombie: 42:50ish
First Onscreen Saxon: 18:05
Number of Voice Overs: 8

Coming soon to Horror Movie Night (Chronicles are posted one week after screening):
-10/26/11: Moon in Scorpio (1987)
-11/2/11: HMN Halloween Edition – Film will be posted next week.
-11/9/11: Death Bed (1977)
-11/16/11: Cathy’s Curse (1980)


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  2. jenna haze
    December 1st, 2011 | 1:36 am | #2

    this movie was good!! i just bought 2 rad horror movie shirts today off ebay. heres the link. they have alot of good stuff.

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