HOUSE OF THE DEAD (1978) Blu-ray/DVD Combo
Director: Sharron Miller
Vinegar Syndrome

Video rental rack anthology horror eyesore HOUSE OF THE DEAD gets (undeserved) special edition treatment on Vinegar Syndrome's Blu-ray/DVD combo.

In town for a convention, salesman Talmudge (John Ericson, CRASH!) gets let off on the wrong street in a rainstorm on his way back to his hotel after a dalliance with a married woman (Leslie Paxton). He is offered shelter in the establishment of an old man (Ivor Francis, BUSTING) who turns out to be a mortician who shows Talmudge five coffins and tells him the stories of how his clients came to his parlor. Foul-tempered schoolteacher Miss Sibler (Judith Novgrod, NIGHTWING) settles in for a quiet evening, but she's not alone… Photographic enthusiast Growski (Burr DeBenning, THE INCREDIBLE MELTING MAN) sets up a camera in his apartment to record his murderous assignations. Vainglorious detective Tolliver (Charles Aidman, COUNTDOWN) is issued a challenge by British Inspector McDowal (Bernard Fox, ARNOLD) to identify not only the author of a series of threatening letters but also his intended victim. Misanthropic office worker Cantwell (Richard Gates, HANG 'EM HIGH) is locked in an empty store and subjected to mental and physical torture. While Talmudge is still puzzling over the veracity of the stories and how the mortician knows such details, the audience already knows who is in the fifth coffin.

An Oklahoma-lensed (but not regional) low-budget take on omnibus horror flick popularized by Amicus, HOUSE OF THE DEAD predicate its stories around the idea of poetic justice but a seeming combination of the scripting, the budget, and production interference undercuts viewing satisfaction for those expecting something in the EC Comics style. What could have been a tense exercise in suspense-building capped off by just desserts in the schoolteacher episode suffers from a short running time and a lack of characterization. The teacher's greatest sin seems to be her status as a spinster and having the audacity to be annoyed when kids play on the hood of her car or litter in her driveway. The "found footage" episode with the serial killer is both dull and choppy while the dueling detectives episode is overlong and not as clever as it believes (however particularly deserving the characters are of their fate). The fourth story finds an office worker who seems no more ill-tempered than the schoolteacher, but it also too short (the two middle stories could have been trimmed or the filmmakers could have still had a double-bill-friendly running time with ten more minutes). Like Ericson and Francis, the cast is made up of episodic television regulars from the period, but few are given more opportunity to show range than they would have on television. Although all four stories and the wraparound were conceived as one project rather than stitching together some shorts or unfinished films, the film does have a patchwork feel in terms of the photography of Ken Gibb, a regular of Matt Cimber (THE CANDY TANGERINE MAN) and Bob Chinn (HOT LEGS), whose best work is in the lighting of the wraparound segments. The scoring of Stan Worth – who penned the "George of the Jungle" theme – is supportive if undistinguished apart from a moody theme song. HOUSE OF THE DEAD was the only feature of Sharron Miller who had a career directing episodic television and won an Emmy for an After School Special while screenwriter David O'Malley would later pen THE BOOGENS.

Released theatrically first as ALIEN ZONE and then as HOUSE OF THE DEAD, the film languished on the shelves on VHS from JLT under the latter title and later as ZONE OF THE DEAD on Monarch. Tape-rips popped up on many a Mill Creek multi-film boxed set but the quality was putrid as expected. Transferred from a 2K scan of the original 35mm camera negatives, Vinegar Syndrome's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray is not only spotless but boasts more vivid colors – noticeable in neons and color gels – and tack sharp when the focus is steady. The DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono track is very clean and optional English SDH subtitles also transcribe the song lyrics.

Extras star off with an audio interview with director Sharron Miller (22:13) who recalls that she was originally to helm a docudrama on the Kennedy Assassination for the producers but it fell through, so they asked her if she had a script to take advantage of the funding. She contacted O'Malley with whom she had worked on THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GRIZZLY ADAMS for Sunn Classics and he dusted off a script titled "Five Faces of Terror." She discusses her casting of actors she worked with on television in Hollywood, how the genre was not her favorite but would have allowed her to pay some homages had the budget been sufficient, and recruiting DP Gibb from Duke Mitchell's LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON (aka MASSACRE MAFIA STYLE) on which she worked as a script supervisor and is surprised to discover that the film is on Blu-ray (and that Grindhouse Releasing had wanted to interview her for the release). In the audio interview with O’Malley (25:54), we learn that he had worked with Rod Serling on the documentary DEADLY FATHOMS and that the script "Five Faces of Terror" was his attempt to write a TWILIGHT ZONE-type film. He also discusses his cameo in the film, working with Miller, and his own feelings about the finished film – which he notes was recut by the distributors who not only removed scenes but imposed the flashback structure on the second episode – and individual stories. Also included is a production still gallery (images of which appear under the audio interviews too). The cover is reversible, and a first run of copies ordered from Vinegar Syndrome include a slipcover. (Eric Cotenas)