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The Schlock Vault

Zombie Death House (1987)

The rare cross-genre zombie prison flick “Zombie Death House” has pretty much everything you’d expect, but not much more.

Longtime b-movie actor John Saxon, who is probably best-known for playing Nancy’s disbeliving father in the original “A Nightmare on Elm St.”, directed and starred in this flick about genetic experiementation gone wrong, crossed with a classic innocent-man-imprisoned yarn, with a little prison corruption sprinkled in for full effect.

The film stars Dennis Cole as Derek Keillor (who looks like Willem Dafoe’s stockier brother), an ex-military man who gets a job as a chauffeur for mobster Vic Morretti (Anthony Franciosa) and promptly starts sleeping with his young blonde girlfriend on the side.

Moretti quickly finds out, kills his girlfriend (drowning her in a bathtub), then framing Derek for her murder. He’s quickly introduced to the slam and put on death row, where not only is Moretti’s brother (Michael Pataki, famous for playing Drago’s trainer in “Rocky IV) is also imprisoned, but where a sadistic colonel (Saxon) is overseeing genetic experiments on the doomed prisoners.

The experiments soon go wrong, and before we know it there are quasi-zombies roaming around killing each other and others.

There’s a rather large technical gaffe right off, as it appears shots were edited out of order. In one early sequence Derek is preparing to leave town after he hears Moretti is looking for him, and the next moment his ladyfriend, their lives imminently in danger, pops over to his hotel room for a roll in the hay.

As in any zombie movie, of course, there’s a wide array of violent gruesome deaths, but these being more akin to the Rage-infected from “28 Days Later,” these zombies move fast, use weapons, and even speak.

The kills are 80s low-budget, and we see things like limbs being pulled off, and sometimes severed, but few flesh-eating scenes until late in the movie, as if Saxon and company realized “hey, they should be eating people.”

Highlight kills include a couple of victims being pulled into or (partially) through cell bars, a head is pulled from its body, and a prisoner succumbs to zombieism as he’s executed (by electric chair) and his forehead pulses blood.

Also notable is the virgin appearance of Tane McClure, who is one of the more prodigious Skinemax actresses. She comes in half way through as a scientist-turned-broadcast journalist who initially created the virus that causes all the problems. Exactly why she left science for TV news is a mystery, but rest assured even though she’s in a prison trying to find a cure for this disease, we still get a gratuitous nude shot of her when Derek inexplicably has a sex daydream about her that Saxon felt was integral to the plot to include.

The movie’s biggest gag finds a little boy wandering around the prison-yes, the plot’s barely-trying contrivance puts two children in the mix-wandering into a room and finding a table full of Twinkies. When he grabs for one a portly zombie prisoner slams a meat cleaver down on the table and says “Don’t touch my Twinkies!”

The acting fits the quality of the film, which is to say there is no quality, and Pataki especially is bad in the small role he has. His first scene has him using a Russian accent as he does in “Rocky IV,” but the rest of the film he uses a bad Italian accent.

Other inconsistencies: a little boy is allowed to roam a zombie-infested prison by himself; we get the World’s Most Annoying Little Girl left alone with prisoners; a woman screams repeatedly as she’s being choked to death.

Still, the film takes itself seriously (though the filmmakers obviously weren’t), and the film manages to squeeze in a few watchably bad moments in between the “bad bad” moments.

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