Color, 1978, 80 mins. 34 secs.
Directed by Sharron Miller
Starring John Ericson, Ivor Francis, Judith Novgrod, Burr DeBenning, Charles Aidman, Bernard Fox, Richard Gates, Elizabeth MacRae
Vinegar Syndrome (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9)
Despite the fact that Amicus gave up on horror anthologies in 1974,
the format kept kicking around quite healthily with a number of omnibus chillers turning out that used the same idea of a macabre framing device holding together four or five bite-sized tales of ironic terror. Most definitely indebted to Amicus is The House of the Dead, an Oklahoma-shot indie that only played a handful of theaters in 1980 (sometimes as Alien Zone for no good reason) and ended up on VHS from JLT. Since then that same VHS has been used for several budget gray market DVDs that made it a real chore to watch, but Vinegar Syndrome has finally rescued the film and given it a new lease on life with a dual-format Blu-ray and DVD edition (including a limited 1,000-unit slipcase run).
After an adulterous dalliance, Talmudge (Ericson) is waylaid on his return home by a massive storm and ends up taking shelter in a funeral home. Inside he's welcomed by a mordant undertaker (Francis) who asks him to hang around for a few minutes to hear about a few fascinating recent arrivals (years before Tales from the Hood, which did the same thing a lot funnier). Despite being a schoolteacher, Miss Sibiler (Novgrod) resents kids (especially when they play on top her car) and discovers a good reason to one night when she's home alone and trying to take a shower. Then a camera fanatic (DeBenning) is seen bringing home three female dates and killing them via strangulation or shooting, intercut with him being escorted on the way to death row. A hanging death is quickly solved by famed American criminologist Detective Toliver (Cult of the Damned's Aidman), which attracts the attention of his greatest rival, English sleuth Inspector McDowall (Bewitched's Fox). A threatening note arrives while they're dining that night, setting off a three-day investigation with a deadly conclusion. Finally, an antisocial office worker (Gates) with utter disdain for homeless people ends up having a life-changing nightmare of an evening when he falls down an elevator shaft and gets terrorized by an unseen force. Then it's back to our framing story where Talmudge finds out the storyteller might have an ulterior motive for these stories of sin and consequences.
Like most anthologies this one is highly uneven, and you might as well skip the second story considering it has no point or entertainment value. Otherwise there are cheap thrills to be had here, with the last two stories faring best thanks to the delicious acting showdown between Aidman and Fox and the completely surreal nature of the fourth story's punishment, which plays out like a cross between that "Blind Alleys" story from Tales from the Crypt and an anti-drinking PSA. Though you'd never guess it from past releases, the film is also quite well shot by Ken Gibb, who had already done films like The Witch Who Came from the Sea, Drive-In Massacre and Candy Tangerine Man before moving on to hardcore films like Prisoner of Paradise. The third tale in particular looks gorgeous and comes a lot closer to capturing that Amicus vibe than you'd ever expect for a super-cheap production shot in Oklahoma! On top of that there's even a ridiculous soft pop ballad theme song, "The Sound of Goodbye," that you'll probably be annoyed to find yourself humming afterwards.
As mentioned above, the new 2K scan from the original camera negative seen here looks really beautiful and makes this film far more enjoyable than before. Some of the more stylized colored gels in the lighting really pop now, especially in the framing story with lots of moody, stylish atmosphere. The LPCM English mono audio (with optional English SDH subtitles) is also a big improvement, finally freed from all the hiss and muddiness that plagued it before. A 39-minute audio interview with director Sharron Miller conducted via telephone by Vinegar Syndrome's Joe Rubin touches on this film a bit but really goes into her entire career including her work as an editor and her very significant TV work. Rubin also does a phoner with co-writer David O’Malley, who chats about the original working title (Five Faces of Terror) and his memories of each of the stories. A production still gallery of shots from O'Malley's collection is also included, and the packaging features reversible cover options as both The House of the Dead and Alien Zone.
Reviewed on July 24, 2018.