Among his other accomplishments, the 17th-century British philosopher Thomas Hobbes is remembered as the author who coined the oft-repeated descriptive phrase, “nasty, brutish, and short.”
Hobbes, never a particularly cheerful guy, strung those adjectives together to describe life during wartime. Little did he know, though, that one day, they’d also serve as a perfectly accurate three-word review for the 21st-century horror film Dead House.
Running just over 70 minutes, the Italian-produced, English-language feature contains more than enough unpleasantness to fill a movie three times that length – nasty, brutish, and short, indeed. Add “boring” and “pointless” to Hobbes’ words, and you’ve got Dead House pretty much nailed.
On paper, the film’s concept isn’t terrible; it’s a home-invasion thriller with a zombie-horror twist, with antagonists both living and dead threatening the lives of its (relatively) “good” characters. That might bring to mind something like the bikers/zombies/heroes fracas of the second half of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, but Dead House has none of that classic film’s wit, substance, finely wrought human drama, or beautifully orchestrated mayhem.
“…three pieces of human garbage…threaten and torture a normal-seeming upper-class family in their supposedly isolated countryside mansion…”
What’s mostly there in place of those things is unrepentant sadism and vileness, played completely straight but lacking any sort of subtextual or stylistic justification for its existence. It’s a small consolation, maybe, but at least Dead House lets viewers know what they’re in for even before its opening credits begin: in the film’s heinously drawn-out cold open, its villains force a middle-aged couple to have sex in front of their teenage daughter, then systematically murder the whole family, and, finally, desecrate the corpses before they leave.
Far too much of what follows is nothing but a variation on that abysmal scene; yes, the movie’s got zombies, and their presence is foreshadowed to the audience early on, but they’re of no import whatsoever until the final third. So, instead, much of the Dead House‘s (at least, mercifully brief) running time is spent with the three pieces of human garbage seen in the opening – talkative ringleader Nibbio (Danny Cutler), his squeamish younger brother Brett (Alex Southern), and the drooling sadist Testamento (Alex Lucchesi) – as they threaten and torture a normal-seeming upper-class family in their supposedly isolated countryside mansion (in one shot, it looks like they’ve got a very nearby next-door neighbor, but never mind).
The family’s patriarch, John (David White), is working on some type of military experiment in his basement laboratory, but Nibbio and his crew don’t know anything about it – they’re just there to continue their ongoing robbery and pillaging spree. And, so it goes: John’s wife, Elena (Kate Marie Davies), is repeatedly threatened with rape, John is sexually humiliated in front of her, and the couple’s two kids are menaced with handguns and straight razors. All the while, Nibbio spouts off pseudo-philosophical bullshit like someone who’s seen a few too many British gangster movies (one longs for the mordant humor of Jonathan Glazer’s Sexy Beast), and there isn’t a shred of self-awareness to any of it.
“…the three pieces of human garbage…threaten and torture a normal-seeming upper-class family in their supposedly isolated countryside mansion…”
The longer that Dead House goes on before getting to the monster business, the less a chance it has to redeem itself for the alternately tiresome, stupid, and sickening stuff that leads up to it. And, indeed, when the promised carnage finally arrives, it’s almost a complete letdown. The makeup effects work is actually quite good, but the attacks are lazily staged and devoid of scares, and, as if to disappoint even the gore-hounds in the audience, the film almost always pans or cuts away from things like gunshots, impalings, and the like – no doubt for budgetary reasons, because, obviously, nobody was shooting for a PG-13 rating, here. There’s simply no satisfying payoff for all the nastiness that the filmmakers spend such an agonizingly long time setting up, and when the most odious of the antagonists is bloodlessly dispatched off-screen, the film’s total disregard for its audience is made complete.
Still, if Dead House‘s only sin was being a substandard zombie flick, it would be much easier to swallow. But it’s just so determined to be disgusting – and so inept in its attempts to actually shock – that it sinks far below mere incompetence. It certainly isn’t that elements like torture and rape should be totally off-limits to the movies, particularly in this genre; films like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (inspired by none other than Ingmar Bergman) and the gruesome oeuvre of the “New French Extremity” filmmakers deployed those elements with conviction and energy and obvious talent, and the work was, if nothing else, at least worthy of some serious discussion.
Dead House feels like the effort of an immature teenager trying to self-consciously emulate things seen in “edgy” movies that he clearly didn’t have the sophistication to handle, and any real point it might have – i.e. the socio-economic theme in the villains’ choice of victims – is too vague and poorly articulated to make it worthwhile.
Is that, maybe, a little bit cruel? Well, so be it. Cruelty – to its characters, its audience, and the medium itself – is about all Dead House has to offer.
Dead House (2016) Directed by Brini Amerigo. Written by Andrea Cavaletto. Starring Danny Cutler, Alex Lucchesi, Alex Southern, Kate Marie Davies, David White, James Wiles
1 out of 10