December 13, 2010

Dead Alive (Review)

Dead Alive (1992)
(aka. Braindead)

Director: Peter Jackson

4.5 / 5 zedheads


I chose to review Peter Jackon's Dead Alive as the first zombie classic to kick off the 12 Days of Zombie for one clear reason. When I think pure zombie entertainment, I think Dead Alive.

Gory without being depressing, silly without being obnoxious, bawdy without being sleazy, Dead Alive blends together the world of slapstick comedy with the over-the-top violence and special effects of an insane Italian gore-fest. It is, in a word, a spectacular night at the movies.

Then he said, "That's no chihuahua, ma'am. That's a rat!" True story. 

The film opens in 1957 on Skull Island (a nod to Jackon's love of King Kong, which he would realize later in life). An explorer and his guide emerge from the island's dark heart with a captured creature in tow: the Sumatran rat-monkey. Purported to be the offspring of rat-on-monkey rape, the creature is a rare mutant with a secret: it's bites and scratches turn its victims into horrible zombies. The rat-monkey finds a new home at the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand where Lionel (Tim Balme), a meek momma's boy, is on his first date with his crush Paquita (Diana PeƱalver). Unfortunately, Lionel's overbearing an protective mother (Elizabeth Moody) has followed him to spy. She gets too close to the rat-monkey and it bites her on the arm. Unfortunate still, she grows ill, confused, pus-filled, and putrid until she passed through the other side of death and emerges a zombie. Unable to kill her or let her go, Lionel keeps his mother and her zombified victims (and their baby -- yes, a zombie baby!) in the basement until they escape, hopped up on animal stimulant. Then the zombies reek bloody havoc in one of zombie moviedom's most exciting , gruesome, and hilarious zombie attack scenes.
Lionel's graduation photo from the Evil Dead School of Ghoul Extermination
Dead Alive is a film for the warped at heart and strong of stomach. First and foremost, the film is an achievement in gore. The film treats zombie and human bodies with all the malleability of playdoh -- just with more sloppy guts -- but handles every act of violence with the demented glee of a Warner Bros. cartoon. The sheer ludicrousness of how zombies are dispatched takes the edge off the violence. Still, Dead Alive holds the notorious distinction of being one of the only zombie films to make me physically ill every time I watch it. There is a scene involving custard and pus that turns my stomach to the point of vomit without fail.

I...can't...quite....reach it. Mind moving out of the way, honey?

Jackon's film also has a lot of heart (not just the ones ripped out of chests). Lionel is a broad comic character, but he's on a sympathetic journey to find courage and assert himself. The zombie story plays out on a subtextual level where he literally cannot be rid of his mother's domination. This subtext becomes startling text near the end of the film when Lionel is sucked back into his giant mutant momma's womb. That's a little on the nose, don't you think Mr. Jackson?

Quick, now pour lemon juice on him!

Finally, dating the film to 1957 gives the movie an ironically timeless quality that secures its spot as a zombie classic. I love the fashion and aesthetic of the mid-to-late 1950s. It's one of the reasons I love the Fallout game franchise so much. On a purely personal level, I wouldn't enjoy Dead Alive as much without all the men and women in horn-rimmed glasses, the Greaser thugs in leather jackets, and Uncle Les's coiffed pompadour. Throw zombies into that mix, and I'm a happy camper!
Excuse me, is this the casting call for Mad Men?

The only time Dead Alive stumbles is during the scene where Lionel takes the baby zombie, Baby Selwyn, out for a stroll in the park. Apart from the rest of the movie, this scene is quite funny, but it was shot as an additional scene shot after the film was completed to make use of extra budget. As a result, it's placed at a point in the film that doesn't make a lot of sense given Lionel's desire to keep the zombies hidden. Its slapstick lacks the gross-out humour that pervades the rest of the film.

Baby on board, oh how I adore....

Dead Alive is a clear-cut zombie classic and one of the best zombie movies ever made. If you like your zombie movies with plenty of blood, guts, and laughs but have never had the good fortune to view Dead Alive, then make sure you pick up a copy right away. It's readily available on DVD in its uncut 97 minute version.

Stay tuned for the next two weeks as I review even more zombie classics as part of my Christmas countdown: THE 12 DAYS OF ZOMBIE