Ratings Key

= Excellent. The best the genre has to offer.
1/2 = Very Good. Perhaps not "perfect," but undoubtedly a must-see.
★★★ = Good. Accomplishes what it sets out to do and does it well.
★★1/2 = Fair. Clearly flawed and nothing spectacular, but competently made. OK entertainment.
★★ = Mediocre. Either highly uneven or by-the-numbers and uninspired.
1/2 = Bad. Very little to recommend.
= Very Bad. An absolute chore to sit through.
NO STARS! = Abysmal. Unwatchable dreck that isn't even bad-movie amusing.
SBIG = So Bad It's Good. Technically awful movies with massive entertainment value.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

House of the Dead, The (1978)

...aka: Alien Zone
...aka: Last Stop on 13th St.
...aka: Zone of the Dead

Directed by:
Sharron Miller

Passable low-budget anthology (with linking segments) has its moments. Mr. Talmudge (John Ericson), a married plumbing supply salesman away from home on business, leaves his mistress' home and heads back toward his hotel. On the way there he becomes lost and temporarily ducks into a building to avoid a thunderstorm. The building he chooses just so happens to be a funeral parlor, where a nameless motician (Ivor Francis) shows up, gives him some coffee, engages in small talk and then insists Talmudge be given the grand tour of his establishment. While perusing a room full of new arrivals, the mortician tells his new guest how each person ended up there and four variable tales of terror unfold.

The first story involves a hateful school teacher (Judith Novgrod) who is ambushed by a swarm of vampire children in her home. Tale #2 involves a suave serial killer/photographer (Burr DeBenning) who lures women to his home, murders them and then films his crimes. The third (and) best story is a black comic tale of a rivalry between New York homicide Detective Malcolm Tolivar (Charles Aidman) and Scotland Yard's finest Inspector Wendell McDowal (Bernard Fox). Both men have been singled out by Rolling Stone Magazine as being in the running for World's Best Detective and both have really let it go to their heads. While having dinner, Malcolm receives a cryptic note telling him that in three days someone he knows will die and McDowal decides to stay a bit longer in the U.S. to see if he can determine who sent it and why. In the final tale, an insensitive office worker (Richard Gates) falls down an elevator shaft and finds himself being held prisoner in a small, enclosed room where his captor threatens to crush him with a wall of spikes and serves him a steady diet of beer over a prolonged period of time. The film then returns to Mr. Talmadge and the mortician to wrap up their story.

In a fashion similar to EC Comics, each of the tales has an obvious moral message that's not only hammered into our heads during the story but also reaffirmed by the mortician. On the whole, it's visually unimpressive, dimly lit and very tame, but all of the stories have some merit. The first has a couple of genuinely creepy moments. The second utilizes POV camerawork in a fairly interesting way, with the camera stationary in the corner of the killer's room as he does in three victims. The third story is witty, well-written and has great performances from the lead actors. The fourth is completely ambiguous and may be the weakest of the bunch, but it's still fairly interesting. The wraparound is well acted, especially by a suitably creepy Francis.

On IMDb, the film is listed under the misleading ALIEN ZONE title (if there were aliens present at any point I must have missed 'em) and has run times ranging from 100 to 79 minutes. The copy I watched from Mill Creek is the title I've listed it under and runs just 77 minutes. I'm not sure if what I saw was a print censored for TV or what, but I didn't see any of the obvious tell-tale signs this had been cut and the stories seem paced about right. It was filmed in Oklahoma and is gore and special effects free.


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