Contains mild spoilers.
Death House or Zombie Death House as it was renamed when given a new cover when it came to VHS is an overly complicated, confusing, exploitative, low budget, badly acted shambles of a film. Put together in the US and starring and directed by John Saxon, it's an Italian 80s gore laden gratuitous pile of nonsense yet not actually Italian, but American, and missing that special European surrealist something that somehow lets the likes of Zombie Flesh Eaters, Hell of the Living Dead etc. get away with it. It's not a bad-bad film, and it's hard to list exactly what it's not doing in comparison, but it just doesn't really ever light much of a fire.
Dennis Cole is Derek Keillor, a purple heart Vietnam veteran who desperate for work has agreed to work as chauffeur to mob boss Vic Moretti (Anthony Franciosa). In a convoluted and quite frankly unnecessary preamble to get Derek incarcerated on death row (the death house) there's a long winded tale of treachery, murder and infidelity, and there's car chases, shooting, fights and boobies. It's not that bad, but it does drag on far too long detracting somewhat from the main reason one would watch such a film: slobbering death munchers and total carnage.
Being on death row, it turns out, is not the worst thing in store for Derek. The heart of the film is about a highly experimental and morally dubious behavioural modification program being run at the prison where inmates act as guinea pigs for special privileges, namely, and I quote, booze and pussy. Wanting to try something a bit more risky, strong, but extremely misguided patriot Colonel Gordon Burgess (John Saxon) convinces the prison warden to inject one of the inmates with the highly dangerous and untested HV-8b which, you guessed right, has some quite severe and unexpected consequences.
It's all a bit of a slow ride to be honest. By the time Adams (Earl Johnson), the second inmate injected (yes, the first thing one would think to do after a person's skin starts falling off and they need to be double sedated and double straight-jacketed to stop them wanting to kill everyone is inject a second person) starts his rampage we're nearly half way through the film. It doesn't stop there either. For every head crush, arm severing, throat slashing, decapitation and pick axe through the chest there's a tedious amount of fannying about from characters you never find yourself invested in. The gore is good, don't get me wrong, it's strong, unashamedly over the top and in keeping with the Fulci and Italian shock tradition. It's also well presented and every bit as uncomfortably funny as you'd want, it's just surrounded by too much mediocrity to hold the film up on its own.
Now we come to the big one. Up until the last ten minutes I'd written the inmates off as deranged but alive and not actually that zombie-ish in any traditional manner. Yes they're skin's peeling off and they've taken leave of their senses to become homicidal manic killing machines but they're still very much alive; also remember the word zombie was only added to the title of the film on its VHS release. Yet, ten minutes to go without previous suggestion, the super-soldiers on mass decide they are in fact interested in eating one people, hunting in packs and shuffling about with Saxon suddenly fully invested in full on traditional iconic (albeit a bit too iconic at times) zombie imagery. It's good stuff, if a little late and a little incongruous with what we've had to put up with for an hour and twenty.
(Zombie) Death House is as bad as it sounds, yet has a bizarre kind of charm that those who are drawn to off the beaten track quirky low budget gratuitous cinema will somehow get some joy from it. A zombie / gangster / prison / government-conspiracy narrative mash-up makes watching it for story reasons hard work, yet it's too invested in said narrative for the shock-horror to take the focus and make up for it. What we're left with is something that rarely works as horror or a drama; an acquired Italian delicacy with Monterey Jack instead of Parmesan. It's hard to recommend yet I feel it's one, should you get the chance, you ought to indulge in, 4/10.
Steven @ WTD.