Saturday, November 1, 2008

Zombie Death House (1988)

...aka: Death House

Directed by:
John Saxon

Here's another prison/electric chair horror movie to join the ranks of dozen or so other (mostly awful) titles produced from 1986-1989. Though one of the more difficult to find until the recent DVD reissue, this one is thankfully not all that bad and it's also notable as the directorial debut of John Saxon. It begins as a near-incomprehensible crime saga with Anthony Franciosa as ruthless, cigar-smoking, drug-pushing gangster Vic Moretti. His sexy, much younger, blonde actress girlfriend Genelle (Dana Lis Mason) begins an affair with their new chauffeur Derek (Dennis Cole); a tan, shaggy-headed Vietnam vet and ex-con who is trying to go straight. After Derek spoils a drug deal (and breaks someone's neck with his bare hands), Vic finds out about the affair, drowns Genelle in the bathtub, plants her body in Derek's hotel room and has the cops arrest him. Vic buys the judge off, so Derek is convicted of murder, given the death penalty and is then sent off to prison to be locked away in solitary confinement on death row.

Upon entering the prison, Derek is greeted by an a-hole warden (Alex Courtney), a head guard (Howard George) who hits him with a club, friendly prisoners who inform him "You'll look real cute when you bend over!" and "I'm going to get your candy ass!" and a cockroach that crawls on his eye when he tries to sleep. Also there is Vic's gay brother Franco (Michael Pataki), who pretty much runs the prison and conducts criminal activity from the inside and has a blonde "Pretty Boy" lover living in his lavish cell, and Dr. Chaney, who begrudgingly administers a "behavior modification experiment;" injections of yellow fluid that are supposed to decrease violent tendencies. In any case, the serum infects whoever has ingested it with a flesh-eating virus that starts with a nosebleed, leads to panic and paranoia and eventually turns the victim into a flesh-eating zombie with inhuman strength.

But Chaney's not to blame when the experiment backfires; he's just following orders. It's actually the brainchild of corrupt CIA agent Col. Gordon Burgess (John Saxon), who has decided to carry on with the project after it was initially abandoned by scientist Tanya Kerrington (Tane McClure). Tanya has since given up medicine for a career as a successful newscaster, but she's called back to the scene by Burgess and must concoct an antidote when things get out of hand. All the prisoners, staff, Tanya, her cameraman Jake (Dennis Mooney), the warden's wife Mary (June Chandler), their two young kids, and some others (including Vic, who is tricked into going inside) are all trapped inside when Saxon (who *yawn* wants to create a zombie army) decides to call in some troops and lock the place down to quarantine those inside. In time, the prison is overrun with infected, zombie-like prisoners, people fight for survival and only four of them end up making it through a secret passageway that leads outside the prison to... Bronson Canyon, of course!

The plot is a bit overly complicated, there are too many characters to keep track of and some badly misplaced comedy (like a fat zombie cook screaming "Don't touch my twinkies!" and attacking with a butcher knife). Some of the editing and scene transitions are rough, too, but it looks pretty good (Gary Graver was one of three cinematographers who worked on it) and, all in all, it's an OK time waster. Gore scenes include a blood-gushing head, an arm ripped off, a pick-axe through the chest, a head rammed through prison bars, a slashed throat and a head ripped off by a rabid Jamaican zombie, plus there's a topless dream sequence (starring McClure), a police chase, some explosions, an electric chair scene and (hands down, my favorite part) a Christmas dinner where prisoners dine to the NOT OF THIS EARTH theme song played on an organ! The cast also includes Salvator Richichi, Frank Sarcinello, Jr. (both of whom were in the shot-on-video prison horror film DEATH ROW DINER, along with Dennis Mooney and Dana Mason), veteran schlock actor Joel van Ornsteiner and Ron O'Neal (SUPERFLY), who appears briefly at the beginning as Derek's army buddy.

Trivia Note: Future BOYZ N THE HOOD star Morris Chestnut plays one of the prisoners. The VHS title (released by Action International) is DEATH HOUSE; the DVD title (released by Retromedia) is ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE. Guarantee they'll sell many more copies under the second title!


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