Written by: William Selby, David S. Freeman, Devorah Cutler, and Devin Frazer
Directed by: John Saxon
Starring: Dennis Cole, Anthony Franciosa, and John Saxon
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
No one gets out...alive.
In the course of his 60-year career, John Saxon has become a cult icon with over 200 credits to his name, some of which have positioned him at crucial points in horror history. His appearances in Bavaís The Girl Who Knew Too Much and Argentoís Tenebrae put him in bookending movies for the giallo movement, while taking a role in Black Christmas also placed him at the forefront of the North American slasher genre. In an interesting twist of fate, heíd return there a decade later when Wes Craven tapped him to be one of Freddy Kruegerís nemeses on Elm Street, a role heíd reprise all the way up to New Nightmare in 1994, meaning Saxon effectively hitched a ride with the slasher genre from its inception to its deconstruction, an incredible arc that probably deserves more reverence.
But thatís for another time because today weíre here to focus on Zombie Death House, the lone, not-so-illustrious movie that Saxon directed during his illustrious career. Itís a movie that speaks to the flip side of Saxonís career, which also saw him star in severalÖwell, letís just call them lesser films that found him slumming in various schlock projects. I can only assume he grew tired of doing so on other filmmakersí behalf, prompting him to jump into the directorís chair himself to helm this dull, derivative entry to the weird, late-80s cycle of prison-themed horror movies, a feast or famine deal if there ever was one: for every Shocker or Prison, thereís a bunch of forgettable junk like Zombie Death House, which crossbreeds this movement with the eraís flagging preoccupation with zombies.
It might have the most belabored set-up imaginable in arriving at that point, though. For about 20 minutes or so, Zombie Death House is actually a low-rent mob movie, wherein Vietnam vet Derek Keillor (Dennis Cole) finds himself working as an chauffeur for mafia boss Vic Moretti (Anthony Franciosa). Heís a hood with a heart of gold though, so he lets a goon off the hook, drawing the ire of his boss; however, itís nothing compared to when Moretti discovers Derek has been sleeping with his trophy wife. Seeking swift vengeance, he murders the girl and frames Derek for the murder, who is put on death row in a seedy, out-of-the-way prison supervised by rogue government agent Colonel Burgess (Saxon). Because the prison houses the type of scum who wonít be missed by anyone, Burgess sees it as the perfect petri dish for an experiment to create super soldiers for the military. Naturally, it backfires when his synthetic virus turns its hosts into bloodthirsty savages, leading to an unholy prison riot.
Whenever these zombies (or zombie-like maniacs) are on-screen ripping through flesh, Zombie Death House is tolerable; unfortunately, however, that doesnít happen nearly enough, meaning most of the film is pretty dreadful. At its (very brief) best, itís vaguely reminiscent of the late-era Italian zombie wave, at least in the sense that itís unabashed schlock, featuring with grungy, meatball-faced flesh-eaters and assorted sleaze. Saxon was obviously no stranger to this z-movie scene by this point, so he was keenly aware that these things thrive on nonsense. Zombie Death House also has its moments in this regard: a man is decapitated via sleeper hold, a fever dream allows for maybe the most gratuitous nudity imaginable, and the climax involves a kid on a skateboard escorting our heroes to safety because of course it does. Itís all very silly, and I havenít even mentioned a ridiculous moment involving a zombie lunch lady hoarding her Twinkies.
But again, itís unfortunate that this represents most of the loopy intrigue here, as these moments are scattered about like oases amidst the otherwise barren desert that is Zombie Death House. At its worst, it insists on returning to the mob movie stuff, particularly Derekís quest for vengeance inside the prison. In a remarkably convenient turn of events, he finds himself incarcerated right alongside Morettiís brother Frankie (Frank Sarcinello Jr.), allowing him to take advantage of the riot by hatching an elaborate revenge plot that tricks Vic into visiting the zombie-infested prison. Complications arise, of course, and the film very much insists that you give a shit about it, as if Dennis Cole doesnít have the charisma of a cheese sandwich. Youíre left waiting for those bonkers moments to return you to your regularly-scheduled schlock programming as you watch Cole earnestly bumble through the motions, creating the pretense of things like plot and character development when you all you really want to see is zombies disemboweling, well, everyone.
To his credit, Saxon lands firmly at the top of that list as Burgess, a total lunatic whose motivations donít even manage to make much sense. By the end of the film, heís reduced to spouting outrageous nonsense in an effort to cover up the atrocity heís perpetrated here. While itís never going to rank as one of Saxonís most memorable roles, itís certainly among the best here, as he, Franciosa, and Sarcinello are the only performers that are on the right wavelength for something like Zombie Death House, a film that needs to fill up its dirtbag quotient post haste. This trio does what they can to stoop down to correct, scummy levels, but itís not nearly enough to keep it consistently interesting. Of course, Saxon shoulders some of this blame as director, and a more damning review might note that itís obvious why this is his lone directorial feature. However, itís not exactly that simple, either, as writer William Selbyís account of the film reveals a whirlwind production: in short, producer Nick Marino was looking to make the leap from porn to ďlegitĒ features, and commissioned the filmís trio of writers to produce a script within 9 days. His only real mandate? Include a mafia subplot because his favorite film was The Godfather.
And that, friends, is how you wind up with a zombie movie thatís also a mob movie, with neither genre being well represented at all. You want to admire the sheer carnage on display: between an early car stunt and a climactic explosion, itís clear there was some level of ambition here, even if was to deliver the cheapest of cheap thrills. But there isnít even enough of those to spread around, leaving you with a movie thatís more a curiosity than anything interesting, let alone essential. Zombie Death House will always be remembered as the one movie John Saxon directed; there are worse fates, of course, because without that bit of trivia, I have to imagine it wouldnít even be remembered at all.
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