There's no reason why ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE shouldn't have been awesome. The mere fact that this 1987 film remains the supercool John Saxon's sole directorial outing should guarantee it must-see status, so what happened? (Actually, IMDB lists producer Nick Marino--who oversaw some of Fred Olen Ray's more marginal efforts--as co-director, which might've just answered my question.) Though its demerits become quite clear as the film unspools, DEATH HOUSE (its original title) has a workable premise, but lacks filmmakers with the time, money, or inclination to develop it.
After a flashback-riddled opening than confuses more than it illustrates, former beefcake model--and, for the movie's purposes, Vietnam vet--Dennis Cole finds himself working as a limo driver for a shady mob boss straight out of the Stock Caricature catalog (Saxon's TENEBRE co-star Anthony Franciosa, in a performance that suggest he just didn't give a shit). In an incredibly, and needlessly, convoluted set-up, Franciosa discovers Cole's affair with his main squeeze and murders her, framing Cole in the process and getting him slapped with a death sentence. (Let this be a lesson fellas, no matter how delectable a ninety-pound coke whore may be, if she's connected to the mafia, don't dip your wick in her.) Did I mention Franciosa has a brother on the inside, who vows to make Cole's limited life a living hell? Kinda makes the date with the electric chair a moot point, doesn't it?
Meanwhile, in one of the film's many subplots, scientist Saxon toils in the prison laboratory (?), conducting unorthodox rejuvenation experiments on the death row inmates, in an attempt to create an army on invincible soldiers. (Never mind the fact that no one in the history of cinema has ever pulled this off with any success, but wouldn't a corps of undead murderers and rapists be, I dunno, a little hard to control? Did these people set out to fail?)
ZOMBIE DEATH HOUSE spends so much time jumping between the action, horror, and prison melodrama genres that it gives all three the short shrift, yet still manages to cram practically every cliche from each camp into its running time. Watching the film I was reminded of the more recent DEAD MEN WALKING, which also mined the zombies-in-prison vein; like that film, DEATH HOUSE suffers from a too-low budget, with a prison set that's too stagey to be convincing, but it doesn't share the same rabid energy. The miniscule viewing pleasure can be gleaned from its ridiculous set-pieces, like the stupidest electrocution scene ever filmed, or the movie's cave-bound climax, which mashes DAY OF THE DEAD into a third-rate MACGYVER episode.
I don't know the specifics about Saxon's responsibilities behind the camera, but judging from this mess I'm not surprised he never attempted a second directorial effort. Filled with mediocre action and negligible performances, with little in the way of gore to liven the proceedings, it's the kind of mercenary claptrap one wants to be associated with only once.