Ed. note– Okay, I barely changed a word in this one. And I gotta be honest, I now want to go watch a bunch of vintage 70s TV shows!– P.F.
John Saxon would have been well suited to direct an episode of Miami Vice. At least that’s the conclusion I formed after watching his sole directorial effort, ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE. Though it sounds like a low budget effort from the Italian zombie cycle, it actually bears a much stronger resemblance both in plot and visual flair to Michael Mann’s saga of Crockett and Tubbs.
The movie starts off with ubiquitous guest star of every late 70s and early 80s TV staple Dennis Cole (the name won’t ring a bell, but if you’re my age, his face will conjure memories of The Love Boat and Fantasy Island). His character, war veteran Derek Keillor, has taken a job as a chauffeur for mobster Vic Moretti, played to the hilt by Anthony Franciosa (Saxon likely cast Franciosa because the two had previously paired on Dario Argento’s TENEBRE, which, though not Argento’s best work, is far superior to ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE). When Keillor dumbly starts fooling around with Moretti’s blonde bombshell of a girlfriend, the mob boss decides to frame Keillor for a murder and rig the jury to make sure he ends up in the big house. As this movie is more concerned with its cheesy “wrong man convicted” plot than monsters, a car chase that could have been drawn straight from one of Cole’s guest spots on Charlie’s Angels is totally befitting. And Saxon delivers just that.
As if this elongated setup that has nothing to do with zombies won’t upset enough fans, when Keillor arrives at the jail, he encounters some of the most insulting stereotypes ever committed to film. There’s the calculating warden; the tough talking corrections officer who belittles the prisoners with clichés; a few Latinos who look spray painted three shades of brown, wearing the requisite red bandanas; the Caribbean prisoner who’s got a thick accent, and a ganja plant scrawled onto his cell wall; and the oh-so-flamingly gay “girlfriend” of another prisoner.
And then there’s Michael Pataki. People of my age will likely remember him most as Ivan Drago’s handler in ROCKY IV. Just as memorable, but for quite different reasons, is his role in ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE. Pataki portrays Moretti’s jailed brother, wearing a black half shirt and later a pink button up as if he’s a Pink Lady in GREASE. He falls into an accent that is sometimes Russian, sometimes Italian and occasionally his own American. The character is so offensive in its stereotyping of gay males that it far outshines the already mentioned stereotypes. Horror movies are often littered with thin characterizations, but this film goes out of its way to hurt several different groups, without any real agency or call to do so.
Did I just call this a zombie movie? Because it’s only about a third of the way through the film that the cause for the zombies of the title comes into play. Saxon himself plays yet another stereotype, the cold scientist who uses humans as his lab rats. It seems his experiments turn people into deranged lunatics who, oddly enough considering the title, are not really zombies. Only toward the end of the film does the movie provide them with any real undead behavior (tearing and devouring the living, as well as a thousand hands jutting through bars, waiting to rip more of the living to death). But this hardly matters as the zombies are really just an excuse for a jailhouse riot, in which the prisoners overthrow the corrections officers and try to break out. Throw in the requisite hot but intelligent female scientist who’s been working under Saxon’s evil hand unknowingly, and this makes for the worst “Take Your Kids to Work Day” the warden could ever have possibly foreseen. And yes, I mean the plot actually has the warden take his kids to work, to add some extra emotional investment from the audience for the protagonists. Unfortunately, even this desperate plea for sympathy falls flat.
Throughout all this, Cole carries himself as seriously as he did on any episode of Trapper John, M.D. It’s a heroic effort, but a wasted one, as he’s lost in a horror flick that gives its audience absolutely nothing to sink its teeth into here. If the zombies were only going to be a pretense for an action flick, Saxon should have removed the flimsy zombie subplot, kept this under its original title DEATH HOUSE (it’s a Horror Movie Relocation member), and made this a gritty jailbreak punch-and-kickflick, which is obviously what it wants to be. Or a Miami Vice episode.
As a director of a Miami Vice episode, I suspect John Saxon would have flourished. Alas, ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE builds itself as a horror film, and as a director of a zombie movie, Saxon is merely guilty of directing a prison riot film. And it’s not an episode of any of those shows guest starring Dennis Cole. Now there’s a missed opportunity.