The best horror B movies treat their goofy subject matter sincerely. Parodies and homages to 40s and 50s horror movies seem to lapse too easily into tongue-in-cheek jokes about bad production values, cheap scares, and exaggerated cheesiness. Something like a Vincent Price film, or even a movie that’s fodder for Mystery Science Theater, plays it straight. They treat clichés with a straight face and are better for their earnestness towards shlocky material.
Horror Zombies from the Crypt does the same thing. It presents the game as an X-rated British horror film playing to a packed theater, but it doesn’t wink and nudge about the contents themselves, the haunted house, the zombies, the wolf men, and whatnot. It handles them like an actual campy horror movie would. At times, it’s fairly spooky. Less gracefully, it tries to bring the thrills of horror movie scares into the game too.
The game barely needs to explain the familiar setup: You are cast as an adventurer, Count Frederick Valdemar, who finds himself trapped in a haunted manor and must escape from a bunch of ghouls, vampires, and other creeps. Horror Zombies goes through every Gothic horror setting – a mansion, a graveyard, a cavern, a chapel, and the crypt from the title.
The Amiga version of the game has background music taken from “Dance of the Knights” from the 1938 ballet Romeo and Juliet. It calls to mind the way a piece from Swan Lake is used in the 1931 Bela Lugosi Dracula movie; it isn’t horror music, but the operatic Russian orchestral score has dramatic vigor. It fits the conceit so well, and the music is certainly creepy, but the best sound design comes from the musicless DOS version. Using only the limited internal PC speaker that makes beeping noises in old computers, it does its best impression of bloodcurdling screams, and it made my skin crawl. It sounds like the computer itself is screaming for help!
Though the game doesn’t have much of the suspense of a horror movie, it can be unnerving. Any monster can kill Count Valdemar with one touch, and when Valedmar dies, he looks at the player, screams, pulls his hair, and erupts into a fountain of gore. Maybe that isn’t the same type of scary as Dracula. It is frightening though.
The action moves at a walking speed, cautious enough for a few seconds to react to enemies lurching at you from the other side of the screen. To escape each area of the manor, you have to find all the skulls hidden inside. There’s usually only about 10 per section, and they encourage you to explore more of the environment by figuring out how to get to the ones that look just out of reach. As you search for them, you fall right into the manor’s tricks and traps.
Like a Scooby-Doo villain’s hideout, the mansion estate is filled with spooky secrets. Trap doors open under you, and statues come to life. Like the rest of the game, they seem inspired by films with haunted house shocks and jump scares. It results in a trial-and-error style of gameplay, where monsters pop out unexpectedly (sometimes with the gurgled screaming sound effect) and you play through the same section over and over until you learn the triggers – exactly right for a platformer trying to channel the spirit of old horror movies.
In practice, the game is just a smidge too unforgiving. The six zones in Horror Zombies are fairly short and have plenty of checkpoints to restart at, but you can still get a game over that sends you back to the start of the level. Too many of the traps involve zombies appearing out of nowhere; too few take advantage of the possibilities of the Gothic horror location, like the secret entrance hidden in a fireplace in the first level. The tricks the game plays don’t feel earned, as if they’re plopped in solely to get in the way.
Horror Zombies from the Crypt has the right tone because it doesn’t try to be self-consciously clever. Then again, maybe a ghoulish horror movie could use a little Scooby-Doo once in a while.