'90s films, 31 Days of Halloween, auteur theory, Bad Taste, Brenda Kendall, cinema, co-writers, Dead Alive, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, favorite films, Film auteurs, film reviews, films, foreign films, Fran Walsh, gore films, Heavenly Creatures, horror-comedies, Ian Watkin, Meet the Feebles, Movies, New Zealand films, Peter Jackson, practical effects, Raiders of the Lost Ark, special-effects extravaganza, Stuart Devenie, The Frighteners, The Lord of the Rings, Timothy Balme, writer-director, zombies
Fans who flocked to Peter Jackson after his groundbreaking adaptation of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) must have really had their worlds expanded once they started to take a trip through his back catalog. The Frighteners (1996) isn’t such a stretch, obviously, and Heavenly Creatures (1994) is certainly a strange film but it’s more of an arthouse curio than a truly deviant piece of filmmaking. Go back further than that, however, and you truly start to hang out in the weird part of town. Jackson began his career with a trio of films that managed to explore perversity, gore, shock, taboos and humor in some pretty bracing ways: Bad Taste (1987), Meet the Feebles (1989) and Dead Alive (1992) are just as shocking today, in many ways, as they were over two decades ago. Very few films have ever dared to tread ground half as controversial as Jackson’s X-rated puppet spectacular Meet the Feebles and his Bad Taste manages to live up to its name in just about every way possible. And then, of course, there’s Dead Alive.
For horror fans of a certain age, especially those who’ve always sought out the more extreme ends of the genre, Jackson’s Dead Alive has been something of a right of passage since it was released 22 years ago. Popular mythology states that Dead Alive is the goriest film ever made and, to be quite frank, I’m more than inclined to agree. Oh sure, there are plenty of films out there are more extreme and unpleasant, more focused on mean-spirited body torture and nerve-wracking surgical procedures than Jackson’s zombie-comedy. There’s been twenty years of special effects improvements since the early ’90s and even network TV shows (think about some of the setpieces in NBC’s Hannibal and recall a time when NYPD Blue’s bare butts were a sign of the impending apocalypse) are trafficking in the kind of gore effects that used to be the sole purview of underground horror flicks. Conventional wisdom would seem to make it impossible for Dead Alive to keep its throne after all this time. After rewatching the film, however, I was struck with a realization: this is still just as bracing, intense and hardcore as it ever was. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to think of any other film that manages to maintain such a consistent level of gleefully insane, gore-drenched mayhem as Dead Alive does: that the film also manages to come across as sweet-natured and decidedly old-fashioned is not a fluke…it’s one of the reasons why Peter Jackson has been one of the world’s most interesting filmmakers since he first burst onto the scene.
At its heart, Dead Alive is a sweet love story about clumsy, mild-mannered nice-guy Lionel (Timothy Balme) and fiery shop-clerk, Pacquita (Diana Penalver). Pacquita has fallen madly in love with Lionel thanks to a Tarot reading and is determined to get her “happily ever after,” even though poor Lionel seems more bemused than smitten. There is, of course, one big problem: Lionel’s absolutely wretched mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody). Vera is a complete harpy – nasty, vain, hectoring, verbally abusive, snide, stuck-up…she makes Anne Ramsey’s awful mother in Throw Momma From the Train (1987) seem like Mary Poppins, by comparison. Vera has Lionel completely wrapped around her finger and likes it that way. When she notices that her little boy is showing an undue interest in the shop clerk, Vera springs into action, determined to keep them apart at all costs.
As Vera spies on the young lovers at the zoo, however, she manages to stand just a little too close to the Sumatran Rat Monkey cage. We’ve been introduced to this particular critter already, of course, thanks to an ingeniously gory intro that manages to parody both Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and King Kong (1933) and we know what’s coming: in due time, Vera has contracted a bit of the ol’ zombie sickness and has got to the business of rotting and eating unsuspecting people and animals. Soon, Lionel’s full-time job becomes keeping an eye on his zombified mother and her increasing horde of victims, all of which he keeps tranquilized in the basement, in order to prevent the kind of mass zombie invasion that seems all-too imminent. Poor Lionel is getting run ragged, however, and has started to push Pacquita away, in order to keep her safe from the mounting chaos. When Lionel’s unbelievably shitty uncle, Les (Ian Watkin), shows up and wants a piece of his dead sister’s estate, however, Lionel is pushed to the breaking point. Over the course of one insane night, Lionel, Pacquita, a mob of Uncle Les’ obnoxious rockabilly friends and a horde of ravenous zombies will all converge: heads will fly, limbs will fly, guts will fly, lawn mowers will be used as melee weapons, lawn gnomes will be jammed into bloody neck stumps and Lionel will learn that mother doesn’t always know best, particularly when she’s trying to chew off your face.
In any other hands, it would be easy to see how Dead Alive could have been nothing more than a grueling test of one’s cast-iron stomach, the horror movie equivalent of a game of freeway chicken. It’s absolutely no hyperbole to say that the film is drenched in blood: the intro features multiple dismemberment and the resulting blood “splashes” onto the screen, forming the film’s title…this is nothing if not truth in advertising, friends and neighbors. Jackson’s gore epic features everything that you expect from the “typical” zombie film (graphic flesh-eating; gut-munching; zombies blasted into pieces) but manages to add sequences that vault the film into a whole other stratosphere, such as the bit where a zombie pushes through another character and wears them like a mask or the bit where Lionel runs in place for several minutes because the floor is completely covered in slippery blood and body parts. Very little in this world really compares to Lionel being forced back into his (now enormous) dead mother’s womb, however, and this certainly serves as one of those horror watershed moments: if this film doesn’t bother you, congratulations…in all likelihood, very little will.
The gore effects and setpieces are absolutely astounding and jaw-dropping, no two ways about it, but the film’s real ace card is it’s totally wacky sense of humor. Despite being as intensely violent as anything out there, Dead Alive is also remarkably silly, goofy and, most surprisingly, good-natured. The film often fills like a fairy tale or kids’ movie gone awry, thanks to Jackson’s heightened use of magical realism and his trademark production design. Rather than feeling forced or out-of-place, the numerous comedy setpieces shine as brightly as the gore ones. One of my favorite scenes in any film, ever, is the spectacular moment where Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie) runs up to assist Lionel with his zombie problem and immediately springs into gleeful kung-fu mode: “I kick ass for the Lord,” he chortles, as he (literally) karate-kicks a zombie into multiple pieces. The scene is silly, sure, but it’s also a ton of fun and is tonally perfect. Likewise the scene where Lionel takes the zom-baby for a stroll in the park and tries to emulate the behavior of the parents, especially once the situation manages to spiral completely out of control: there are few joys quite as sublime as watching Lionel elbow-drop onto the rubber baby or drop-kick it across the park as concerned mothers raise eyebrows sky-high.
This, then, becomes the film’s true legacy: the movie is astoundingly gory and frequently completely disgusting (you’ll probably never look at custard the same way again) but it’s never anything less than good-natured, fun and 100% entertaining. Dead Alive may just be the perfect party film, for horror fans, especially if one can watch the film with neophytes: it’s one of the few films where I truly envy newbies the experience of seeing it for the first time, especially when one reaches the show-stopping party climax. Personally, I’ve always liked Meet the Feebles a little more than Dead Alive, probably because the former film will always seem like a nasty, transgressive marvel to me while the latter has increasingly achieved the kind of warm and fuzzy sentimentality that most folks probably associate with their favorite Christmas movies. That being said, Dead Alive is one of those films that made its way to my “favorite films” list after one viewing and has never left. I’m a fan of lots of different things, from the cute-and-cuddly to the soul-shattering but Dead Alive has always been a guideline for me, in a way: if you don’t like the film, we can still exist in the same orbit…I’ll always understand if the movie isn’t someone’s cup of tea. If you love this movie as much as I do, however, than you and I are gonna get along just fine.