Wherever exploitation movies break ground, John Saxon is there. When Bruce Lee stars in Enter the Dragon, there he is, backing him up as Roper. As Mario Bava creates a proto-giallo in The Girl Who Knew Too Much, he stars. Early slasher film? Look to Saxon in Black Christmas. Want a Star Wars clone? There he is as the Darth Vader of Battle Beyond the Stars. Eighties horror sequel madness? He’s the big name in A Nightmare on Elm Street. And he’s back as Craven and Argento deconstruct the slasher and giallo genre with New Nightmare and Tenebre.
Yet for all his work in film, John Saxon only directed one movie: 1988’s Zombie Death House. The original director bowed out at the last minute, so Saxon agreed to both act in and direct this film. He’s since claimed that the producers imposed more car chases and gore than the script asked for, so what ended up on the screen didn’t live up to his true vision. That may be because they only had nine days to write this movie and the producers demanded that it be like The Godfather.
Who knows what that vision may have been, because what emerges starts as a mob crime drama. Dennis Cole stars as Vietnam vet Derek Keillor, a man who may have won medals in war, but found no opportunities at home. Cole had a decent run as a guest star on plenty of TV shows, but was probably better known for marrying Charlie’s Angels star Jaclyn Smith. He also shows up on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, as his son Joe was shot to death in a crime that remains, well, unsolved. That’s one of my favorite episodes, as Joe was Henry Rollins’ roommate, so it just seems so odd to have a punk icon and Robert Stack on the same show.
But I digress. Derek can only find one job: limo driver for mafia boss Vic Moretti, played by Anthony Franciosa from Tenebre. Our hero can’t help but fall for Vic’s woman, Genelle. He pays for his impudence by getting set up for her murder — Moretti drowns her in the bathtub, providing an opportunity for nudity — and sent to death row at Townsend State Prison.
That’s where the real story begins. Government agent Colonel Burgess (Saxon) has taken over the prison from a henpecked warden — his wife literally tells him she plans on dumping him in front of their cherubic daughter and skateboarding son — and begun to subject the prisoners a genetically altered version of a virus called HV8B.
Who would invent such a thing? Oh, just Tanya Kerrington (Tane McClure, the only actress I know who was in both Legally Blonde and Death Spa), who was once a scientist but is now an investigative journalist.TK, as Tanya wants to be known, is here with her cameraman trying to bust the Colonel’s use of prisoners as test subjects. She picked the right day for this, as ten minutes after she arrives, the zombie virus makes everyone go bonkers.
This is a film of amazing coincidences. Like how Derek is jailed alongside Moretti’s brother Frankie, so he uses him as a hostage to lure Vic into the prison. That’s when the first zombie shows up, using a modified sleeper hold to rip off a guard’s head before being shot hundreds of times. Oh yeah — somehow Ron “Super Fly” O’Neal shows up in this mess, too.
Credit where credit is due — Saxon is awesome here, a total maniac who wants to create an American army that can win wars like Vietnam, so he creates a zombie plague that makes people do insane things. That seems like a good idea, right? And Franciosa chews every bit of scenery he gets near, like the scene where he kills his brother’s jailhouse lover.
All of the maneuverings of the plot do allow for a very Carpenter-like storyline to emerge: everyone in the prison has been infected and therefore quarantined. Can they survive the siege both within and without the prison?
There are some moments of lunacy — a lunch lady zombie hoarding Twinkies in a scene that predates Zombieland by a decade or so and a dream sequence near the end that exists only so we can see TK nude — but things don’t descend to the level of a Nightmare City as you’d hope.
I do wish Saxon had directed more films, though. And I really wish his script for an Elm Street sequel called How the Nightmare Began had been made. It concerns therapist Frederick Krueger being blamed for a series of murders that have been really committed by the Manson Family. You have no idea how much I wish that movie got made.
Zombie Death House isn’t a movie that many celebrate. I wouldn’t even know about it if Saxon hadn’t directed it. But here I am, at 5 AM, watching it and celebrating the fact that it contains a heroic child skating through a maximum security prison and running across an infected lunch lady feverishly hoarding a stack of Twinkies. I mean, you have to love that someone convinced the Dead Kennedys to give them the rights to “Chemical Warfare,” which plays over the closing credits. And only in the 1980’s would filmmakers figure out a way to get the film’s hard as nails biochemist/investigative journalist heroine naked by the end of the movie.
If this ever gets rediscovered, celebrated as a hidden gem and released as an expensive blu ray with multiple slipcovers like so many other lost 80’s movies, remember that you heard about it here first.
This article originally ran in Drive-In Asylum issue #14, which you can get at this link.