In 2003 when House of the Dead was released most people with any interest in video-games (and possibly video-game films) wouldn’t know of Doctor Uwe Boll (he supposedly holds a doctorate in Literature, which I’m sure to many people holds no lack of irony). But for many they soon would.
Game Over #20: House of the Dead
Dir.: Uwe Boll
Box Office: Worldwide - $13,818,181
Boll would in time become synonymous with the idea of the trashy video-game film, in part fueled by their contents and the rest fueled by tax breaks in Germany where Boll is from. Beyond this his company and investors could also later made extra money in sales of the films distribution rights around the world.
Between those two things it meant making even terrible films potentially profitable for the right people. Boll himself completely admits to this whole scheme upfront (even mentioning it on a commentary track for one of his films) but the wide loophole has since been closed down which reduced the number of films Boll has made in more recent years.
Before Boll did video game films he made other films, such as a horror called Blackwoods, and a drama called Homeroom: Heart of America. The latter leaned heavily into the real life tragedy of the Columbine shootings. Neither were particularly loved, Heart of America was once described as “...imagine the Columbine tragedy as translated into coloring book form.” Later in his career, well into the video-game feature making part of it, Boll literally challenged his critics to a boxing match in what was basically a PR stunt for his most recent film. Of course the critics themselves had mostly no boxing history, where as Boll did. The event, dubbed “Raging Boll,” ended up with Boll defeating all of his opponents and getting plenty of coverage as planned.
If you know none of this, then these are all things of various internet rabbit holes to dig into if you’re interested because you could focus entirely on Boll’s work due to this crazy ongoing stuff. Just recently Boll has announced an apparent retirement from directing after releasing his most recent non-video-game film, but it’s yet to be seen if this will stay true.
Of course to say all this now is to just put it to the side and take this, Boll’s first video game film, on face value. Maybe it was the timing, or the content, or that audiences did not yet know who this man was because the resulting House of the Dead film set a mostly downward track record for the ones he’d approach after, as it’s still his most financially successful feature at the box office.
Sega’s arcade light gun title, House of the Dead, primarily focused on zombies and other lab created creatures... and a group of “AMS Agents” (named after the AMS sub-studio at Sega) who explore this sort of experiments and attacks going on in spooky locations such as mansions, castles, towns, labs, etc. and shoot at these creatures who attack them. Plot is fairly light and breezy just to get you from one stage to the next, but is overall dripping in B-grade tropes of a mad scientist called Dr. Roy Curien and his crazy creations and research into immortality. So far in fact, when Sega revisited the franchise in the late 2000's they turned the whole thing into a nodding wink at b-level exploitation cinema in the game House of the Dead: Overkill - a prequel to the earlier numbered titles in the series just to continue that trend.
Boll’s film focuses almost nothing on this concept, mostly than an inclusion of zombies and touches on the experimentation, but instead places a “rave” (which really looks like just a crappy daytime party) on an island that becomes infested with the undead. Legend, and Boll himself I expect, tells it the location was picked simply because it was something Boll had access to for little to no cost, so they shoehorned the island into the plot. To be entirely honest this isn’t actually bad in the scheme of the film, nor it’s source material which tended to provide a single location or island anyway (the “House” in the original title was a mansion and lab, in the second it’s a town, etc. so Sega was already fairly loose with this to begin with). Plus the island has a house/church/graveyard on it. It’s instead what Boll chose to use the island for that sets a poor starting point that only continues to get worse. Boll also chose for this film to be a prequel to the games series, but we’ll get to that later.
While released in 2003, House instead feels like a poorly produced teen slasher flick from the mid-90's, right down to it’s soundtrack choices, grating flash framed fast editing, sped up shots, and added to with it’s low quality acting and overall inconstant tone. Aside from some good parts of production design and art department here and there (and plenty of bad stuff too), it’s Boll’s cinematography, credited to Matias Neumann, that is decent enough especially considering for the budget that stands out above anything else.
Some underwater filmed stuff proves to be a main highlight, and overall this provides what is probably the only outstanding work in the production. Sadly it frequently being undone by the editing choices made though and other issues, including major continuity errors, horribly weird video wipe transitions (someone decided for one transition to use a blood drip wipe which looks like it comes from the 1980's), and entire sequence nothing but almost seizure inducing fast paced cutting.
Indeed, a well crafted film it is not. But more than anything it’s the characterization and plot which really kills anything about this movie and, video-game origins or not, this film would be a hard sell as an actual horror flick of any lasting quality.
Replacing the main characters from the agents from the games and various zombies, creatures and experiments with “teens” and zombies only is a very cliche start, and the movie doesn’t get any better from there. Starting with voice over-narration by the first male we’re introduced to, Rudy, the film explains a group of his friends, made up of three girls and two guys, missed their boat to get to a rave on an island... but still eventually ended up on the island and all will die because of their choice.
Any potential suspense of these main characters is already thrown out the window because we now know it’s very likely everyone will die except Rudy. Talk about starting off on the wrong foot. The way this is put together make it feel like this introduction was decided upon while the film was in the edit and not before, as if Boll originally had no idea how to start the story or was unhappy with the one he shot. Plenty of other freeze frames and voice over is included, and also makes the opening feel way longer than it needs to be. This is just the first of many times it feels like this movies story was only finished in the edit.
It’s worth noting at this point when we see earlier on in the party that Sega’s own branding appears in the island’s dance party with crowd of about forty people, two DJ’s and.... what looks mostly like a couple of strippers on stage, especially given that one who does appear dancing appears topless very shortly after. Why Sega would be involved in sponsoring an underground island rave is beyond me. But it’s rather obvious that the topless women would become a trend, where clearly Boll (who also admits these things on his audio commentary tracks about convincing actress’ to work topless) would look for any excuses to get women’s tops off in his films, mostly in a cheesy throwback exploitation style.
For example on the boat one of the guys vomits on his girl, so she cleans it off by taking it off and running it under water - even though the guy was closer to the side of the boat to begin with and somehow ignores. Another guy and girl from the “rave” wander to some beach, she strips off her top to go in the water, while the guy thinks it’s too cold and passes out (from seemingly one beer - go figure). If Boll can find a way to get the breasts on screen, he’ll go for it.
Between the cliche plot points and the need for nudity, the rest of the movie feels this way the whole way through. You might as well make a checklist of old horror tropes and tick them off.
Cell reception? Poor. No radio coverage either.
The island is used for a “rave” but locals all seem know it as the island of death. That’s great, and of course makes no sense at all.
People split up or decide to stay in weird places rather than ones that make sense.
Fake out scares.... plenty of those too. Boll cribs from every cliche in the book, even gets a Jaws reference in there with the above topless girl on the beach.
I could go on and on but you’ve seen it all before. But it gets worse than this. Characters go from being upset one minute to relaxed the next and back again. The characters themselves are so often interchangeable it’s pointless to even give them names when they all fall into such horrible stereotypes and change their mood or position on events too.
Add to this there is so much spoon fed exposition in scenic island wide shots with clearly post added voice over dialogue. There is a b-plot with the captain of the boat the group get to the island on, named Kirk (played by Das Boot’s Jurgen Prochnow) - and yes jokes are made about this of course - and his assistant Salish (played by the recognizable face of Clint Howard) and their dodgy smuggling dealings on their boat the Lazarus (which is about the most clever thing this film ever manages by using this name).
The smuggling also sets up how the local police, or rather the marine border control, are after them. It all just seems like forced setups to get people to come looking at the island and put weapons in the hands of any survivors. Which is exactly what happens of course.
Of course it can’t be House of the Dead without Zombies.... and the Zombies are... well seemingly mostly passable, at least early on. Boll at first keeps a lot of it out of shot regardless of it being a budget thing or not, it actually isn’t too bad until swarms of them begin to attack the survivors that it begins to fall apart (no puns intended) with a mixture of inconsistent designs and generally just bad make up effects. However what is even worse than all this is what Boll frequently uses as scene transitions.
Yup. That’s actual footage from the video game House of the Dead 2. And yup, it’s actually in the movie. And yup, it’s weird and makes no sense.
Part of it is used with some gross paint like filter during the opening credits, okay I can kinda understand that maybe... But later on in the film as both transitions and then a lot of the time during a battle scene with numerous enemies these get used to extensive effect to try and enhance the fighting.
To continue to engage anyone in the wide details of the remainder of the plot at this point seems fairly silly. Just 30 minutes in the film feels like it’s well on it’s way to being finished, but at that point there is almost still an hour to go. Salish is killed, and Kirk does his best to avoid the swimming zombies attacking him on his boat before later being bitten. The interchangeable teens are joined by one of the stripper-ish dancers (named Liberty and dressed in a US flag outfit, go figure) and the marine border control officer at various points, but all slowly get taken out one by one (complete sometimes with weird almost “your dead” character send offs). Not before one crazy overlong shootout with zombies which happens once the survivors are armed to the teeth by Kirk’s smuggling operation.
These are the odd things that Boll does that are... well... interesting at very least. One of the guys is puked on by a zombie which burns his face. This comes from the game series (and also other games like Resident Evil has vomiting zombies too) which no one really does in films. For some reason he films a period set flashback story told as a tale by Kirk rather than just having it told by dialogue alone to explain the island, a crazy Spaniard taken prisoner, and the experiments that led to the zombies for an unknown reason.
Then there is that aforementioned shootout which mixes all this crazy shooting footage, but just seems to make the teens look like expert marksman and take way too long for the actual short distance they have to cover. It also includes bullet time with bullets turning into other bullets, other photogrammetry, some ramping the filming speed, overused 360 degree filming, some explosions, and all sorts of other craziness going on. Oh and topped by a music track seemingly written for the movie!
To explain it in words is to undersell how crazy it all is, so instead here’s a video of it instead. It might be so absurdly stupid and out of place and overuses so many shot types but at the same time technically it’s also kinda impressive given for the time and budget one has to admit. It leaves me entirely confused and conflicted, so it’s best you watch it yourself.
So eventually now in the house, those who survive explore and find a lab underneath where the experimentation by the old Spanish prisoner took place looking for the ability to become immortal and some vague discussion of something non-human in some blood sample being involved but is mostly skipped over. Kirk shoots the reanimated Salish, blows himself up with dynamite to kill some zombies. More of the interchangeable cast also die, including in another explosion made of gun powder as the survivors make their way into the tunnels under the island. Of course this matters little but to setup an attempt at a nonsense twist and setup the final scenes.
After those explosions, deaths, and more explosions the final two characters, Rudy and Alicia, escape the clutches of the bad guy and end up back outside to fight the him in the graveyard. Being that he’s Spanish, he’s supposedly immediately a good sword fighter but the “final girl” Alicia proved mostly adept at fighting back for some unknown reason.
It’s here that Boll pulls out one last trick which is that unlike most of the editing in the rest of the film, the fight is somehow reasonably well choreographed, mostly better edited and framed coherently without little in the way of cheap tricks - barring some more 360 panning shots that is. However once Rudy chops off the bad guys head after he stabs Alicia, then we go back to Boll’s editing standards as the bad boss is killed. Some AMS agents, specifically those from the later video games, arrive via helicopter, and while it appears Alicia should be dead she inexplicably somehow is still alive when they arrive.
By the end those two characters that survive could have almost been anyone in the group and it probably makes little difference other than not matching the scenes and voice over at the start. Instead to explain why Rudy is asked by the agents for his full name, which he reveals to be Rudolph Curien.... clearly to setup to link to the games and trying to turn this film into a prequel to the games themselves, but meaning nothing to anyone who has no clue of this connection which is probably most of the audience.
A voice over concludes the film which reveals Alicia is saved from permanent death via the unexplained immortality blood as a “creation” made by Curien which he’s worried about... and just seems to possibly setup another film sequel yet to appear before the games.
House of the Dead as a licence from Sega did continued to have legs. Somehow a sequel film was released in 2005 which is set after the events of this film and does begin to bring in the agents who investigate what is going on. It was created by a different team of people but set after the events of this film, and was seemingly a direct-to-video affair. It also however didn’t garner better reviews than Boll’s original efforts. In fact most general comments consider the fact Boll’s film is “so bad it’s good” that it’s better than the sequel which is supposedly just quite serious and flat out bad. I don’t know if I can agree that it’s good at being bad, it seems just bad.
Boll himself clearly never saw the movie being all that serious anyway. In 2008 a re-release of the film was produced under a “Director’s Cut” actually called “House of the Dead: Funny Version” which supposedly added more non-sense to the feature. I personally probably couldn’t stomach sitting through another screening of this film, so maybe if your still curious to watch the film this would be a good alternative with more added humor.
Boll went onto licence numerous other game titles and turned them into films, including such titles as Bloodrayne (three of those in fact), Postal, and Far Cry. Thankfully for the diminishing returns on box office success for Boll means I do not need to sit through anymore of them, however it’s worth noting that House is not considered his worst by most standards (that “award” goes to his take on the game Alone In The Dark according to most). But it’s probably worth avoiding them unless you wish to specifically torture yourself.
Adaption? Not even close.
As you can tell from the write up, it’s hard to recommend Boll’s House of the Dead to anyone as a good film, let alone a good video-game film. Under the script there is plenty of surface level references to the source material and a direct link at the end to the games, albeit a fairly limited one that even hardcore fans of the games might have seen as a joke.
As an actual adaption of any of the games, the film isn’t close but people may not have expected too much to begin with. The material it had to work from was fairly limited in scope so something would have needed expanding for a film. However it’s hard to believe an special agent led film exploring a mansion of some sort couldn’t have been produced over a lame underground rave on an island and a lame smuggling subplot. Even with the shoehorning of the island location. Plus there is a major limitation on the creatures than found in the video game which makes it stand out from it’s zombie only feature. Boll struck this zombie film right around the resurgence of zombie media started in the early 2000's which may have helped it’s box office a small bit.
Positives? Very little.
Boll is ambitious with his budget and found a lot of the right crew to make his first video game film at least, on camera before editing, reasonable looking. If anyone can take anything good away from the film, and not just for video game films, it’s that he is at least ambitious even with his limitations. With a better story given the quality of the shoot something good might have actually come of this, but it really feels like that would be too hard for Boll himself to pull off because he undermines even the shooting, especially in the edit bay.
Lessons learned? Umm....
Don’t let Uwe Boll make a film based on your IP would be a far too obvious conclusion. Don’t just make a movie because you have a cheap or free location might be a more decent one. Otherwise maybe looking for what makes the game itself unique over the other cliches out there would be my final lesson learned from this work.
And while I hate to finish on someone else’s conclusions on this film, it’s worth linking to the video Everything Wrong With... House of the Dead. You can basically see in vision most of the issues yourself in about 1/10th the run time.
Next time - “It’s a me.... the earliest video game to film...” and one that also usually makes the worst lists... you know exactly the one.
About ‘Game Over: Failure of the Video Game Feature Film’
A series looking at the top 20 profitable video game feature films to figure out what is lacking and what should be done to make a successful adaption of game to film. There are a set of rules to stick by, so for an introduction on the whole series I’m doing please check out the original post located right here.
Movie fanatic, writer and publisher of numerous gaming and movie websites of the past, and former video game guide writer. Started making content in 1997 and ran or assisted with several successful sites, mostly in the realm of Horror and Survival Horror gaming through the early and mid 2000's. Includes sites such as ResidentEvilFan.com, Streets of Silent Hill, EvilGaming.net, SurvivalHorror.org, ShenmueDojo.com, VGN, Gamers Alliance, GamersLounge.com, and BHXnet/BIOHAZARDextreme among others. Usually under the name Rombie. Still occasionally appears around on old video game and Resident Evil forums and semi-frequently appears on the ProjectUmbrella.net Resident Evil podcast.
All images copyright to respective studio/photography owners. Used under fair use for critical comment on video game feature films only.