CHILLING CLASSICS MONTH: House of the Dead (1980)

I’m so glad that I got Bill Van Ryn to write about this movie! If you like what he has to say, check out his other projects like the website Groovy Doom and the zine Drive-In Asylum. Thanks again for your multiple articles and sharing everything else out, Bill!

Ultra low budget films really turn me on sometimes, and House of the Dead has another sexy thing going for it: it’s a horror anthology. It’s one of those obscurities that received a very limited theatrical release, and was then relegated to cruising the backwaters of VHS. A recent blu ray resurrection by Vinegar Syndrome is a welcome chance to get acquainted with one of the more imaginative films of its type.

For some reason, the film was packaged theatrically under the misleading title Alien Zone, which says nothing about the actual content of the movie. It’s actually a supernatural film that deals with a man who finds himself lost in a rainstorm. He’s just come from seeing his mistress, and takes a taxi back to his hotel in order to phone his wife. The cab leaves him off in an area that isn’t familiar to him, and it drives off, leaving him stranded down a dark alley. A strange, older man emerges from the darkness and offers our protagonist a chance to get out of the rain, taking him inside the building and giving him coffee. The protagonist soon realizes his host is a mortician, and the old man insists on giving him a tour of the facility. The individual stories emerge as the mortician opens each casket and letting the protagonist look at the bodies.

House of the Dead gives you some bang for your buck, because it has four stories — five if you count the wraparound segment. The tone is definitely that of an old EC comic book, with nasty people doing horrible things and then suffering some kind of karmic justice. The first is about a schoolteacher with a disdain for children who is confronted by monsters, the second deals with a serial killer who lures women to their doom inside of his apartment, the third is about two dueling detectives who set out to murder each other, and the fourth shows an arrogant businessman’s rapid transformation into a derelict after he is trapped and tormented inside a warehouse of torture.

The stories are intriguing, although a few of them are awkwardly realized. Most disappointing is the story about the serial killer, because it starts out so damn good. It’s a found footage short, a collection of private films shot by the killer on a hidden camera. Each one shows him inviting a different woman to the apartment and finding ways to lure them into perfect position so he can murder them in front of the camera. It becomes increasingly disturbing, and you wonder where the story will go, and then suddenly it is over and it went nowhere. It had such an interesting setup, too, with a non-linear timeline and intercut news footage of the subject being attacked by camera-wielding reporters while being arraigned.  

The best of the four stories by far is the fourth, which is a damn near brilliant piece of film. Most of it is performed solo by actor Richard Gates, who portrays a cocky businessman with a serious lack of empathy for others. He is confronted by a derelict outside of what he thinks is his office building, and he dismisses the man rudely, yelling after him “Why don’t you get a job?” Once inside the building though, he realizes he has walked into an unfamiliar storefront, with a vacant office space inside. Lured to an open elevator shaft by noises from below, he leans inside too far and falls down into the shaft, landing on his face. It’s a brutal moment that looks terrifyingly real, even though it’s just clever editing. This begins a gradual erosion of his humanity by some unseen antagonist; he is now in a Saw-like chamber of horrors, where he is wordlessly tormented by a falling elevator, a room where a wall of blades threatens him, and ultimately a prison cell where he is fed only bottles of alcohol. A door automatically opens some undetermined length of time later and he emerges into daylight, himself now a drunken man in a dirty suit approaching passersby for help and being rejected.

The film has a distinct visual look, which is often difficult when shooting a low budget movie. It’s not exactly striking, but it does creep into your brain a little by what it *doesn’t* show you. This movie does “anonymous and vacant” extremely well. Alleys are dark and vague, with strategically lit doorways and dark alcoves. That abandoned building is both ordinary looking and totally sinister, with simple but effective traps for its victim, almost like anybody could have set it up. Even the “house” of the title, which is purported to be a funeral home with a mortician’s workshop, is rendered onscreen only as a series of vague hallways and dim areas lit only by carefully directed lamps and bulbs, leaving most of the rooms in shadows.

A lot of the wraparound story is clunky, to say the least, like the awkward way the mortician narrator abruptly disengages from several of the stories, especially the ones with protagonists who don’t end up dead on screen (after all, he’s explaining to someone how these people ended up corpses in a funeral parlor). But the runtime is short (79 minutes), and it contains a few moments that are effectively creepy. It’s exactly the kind of thing you’d hope to find in a budget DVD collection.

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