It's 20 Minutes into the Future, and Alcatraz has been reopened due to rising crime rates. Sascha Petrosevitch (Steven Seagal) is a car thief who's brought in by criminal Nick Frazier (Jeffrey "Ja Rule" Atkins) to work for crime boss Sonny Eckvall. Alas, he and Nick get busted, and Sascha has a near-death experience (hence the film's title). Eight months later, they're at Alcatraz. Lester McKenna (Bruce Weitz) is a prisoner who stole $200,000,000 worth of gold and stashed it somewhere, killing five people in the process. With the location of the gold still unknown, he's scheduled to be executed that night. Alas, a group of terrorists called the "49ers", led by Donald Johnson (Morris Chestnut), invades the island and takes it over. They want McKenna to tell them where the gold is. Sascha, Nick and the other inmates are forced to battle the terrorists to regain control of the prison.
This film itself got an In Name Only direct to DVD sequel in 2007, sans Seagal, titled simply Half Past Dead 2 (which stars one of the supporting characters, so it's more like a spin-off). It co-stars Goldberg. It is also the only Seagal film with a PG-13 rating.
This film provides examples of:
- The Alcatraz: According to the directors commentary the screenplay for this film was actually written several years before The Rock's screenplay was conceived, and the original title of this film's screenplay was in fact The Rock, talk about Irony!
- The Atoner: Lester. He has become deeply religious and mournful for the deaths he caused. Subverted in that he's not doing anything in particular to make up for it, since he isn't sure if anything in his power would make up for what he did. Since he is already on Death Row, he simply waits.
- Badass Boast: El Fuego, describing his history working in the prison system, where he had been spit on, stabbed, shot, and burned, but had always survived and persevered.
- Big Bad: 49er One is the one leading the terrorists to take over Alcatraz.
- Break Them by Talking: The Leader of the terrorists does this to Supreme Court Justice June McPherson, who they're holding hostage.
- Bulletproof Vest: Used by the bad guys along with Playing Possum to get the drop on two Red Shirts.
- Designated Girl Fight: Zig-Zagged: 49er Six ends up fighting most of the central male characters by the end of the film, and is finally apprehended by the warden. When she tries to stab him once he turns his back, Williams shoots her.
- "Die Hard" on an X: Die Hard in a prison.
- Dynamic Entry: The 49ers sky dive in over the prison, then enter the prison proper via Fast-Roping.
- Evil Plan: The 49ers want to know where's the gold?
- Fanservice: 49er Six's latex costume.
- Guns Akimbo: 49er Six's style of shooting. Also used by Little Joe at one point.
- Hellish Copter: The 49er's getaway chopper crashes in bad weather within the first minute or so of appearing in the film.
- Ironic Nickname: Little Joe is not little.
- It's Probably Nothing: El Fuego is told that they have lost all of their phone lines, and dismisses it as being due to the storm. He then sends a guard to investigate it anyways.
- Jump Cut: There's an odd bit where Seagal is fighting a Mook and hits him so hard he goes flying and crashes into a cabinet. We then jump cut to the guys death face. Most likely he originally died from a broken neck or something and they cut that out to preserve the PG-13 rating.
- Karma Houdini: Twitch. He's personally responsible for the final shootout between the 49er's and the inmates, despite there being pretty much nothing to gain from it, and no mention is made of him suffering any consequences. Indeed, he mentions that he is being released soon.
- In sequel, he was rejected at the start and bad blood with most of the inmates, probably due to said shooting.
- Law of Inverse Recoil: One scene involves a shoulder-mounted rocket launcher that packs enough recoil to launch a person back by a considerable distance. The immediate shot after then shows no recoil whatsoever.
- Made of Iron: Nick gets thrown around a lot without a single scratch. He doesn't get seriously injured until the final helicopter crash. His last conversation with Sacha has him naming off a litany of injuries he received from this.
- Oh, Crap!: 49er One's reaction to finding out that Lester is strapped with explosives.
- Random Events Plot: Presumably due to the massive Executive Meddling/Bowdlerization the movie gets really confusing especially during the second half as there are some instances of characters who just disappear and are never seen again Most likely due to their death scenes being excised from the final product.
- Spanner in the Works: Sasha to 49er One and his mooks.
- The Stinger: Ends with one of the inmates talking to his girlfriend.
- Taking You with Me: Lester takes out 49er One by blowing themselves up.
- Time for Plan B: After their primary getaway plan fails spectacularly and immediately, they demand the FBI send a helicopter for them to use as a getaway vehicle in return for not killing Justice McPherson and the other hostages.
- Train Job: The reason why Lester is in jail.