Directed By: Peter Jackson
Starring: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody
Tag line: "You'll laugh yourself sick!"
Trivia: Famed collector Forrest J. Ackerman makes a cameo appearance in this film, playing a tourist at the zoo
There are a number of effective ways to mutilate the human body, and director Peter Jackson covers damn near all of them in his 1992 gorefest, Dead Alive.
Released as Braindead in its native New Zealand, Dead Alive takes us back to 1957, when Wellington’s own Lionel Cosgrove (Tim Balme) first met and fell in love with shop girl Paquita (Diana Peñalver). For Paquita, Lionel was her knight in shining armor, the man that her grandmother (Davina Whitehouse) saw in her tarot cards. Lionel, it is foretold, will protect Paquita from all dangers great and small, but nobody could predict just how dangerous things were about to become!
It all begins when Lionel’s overbearing mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), follows the two lovers to the zoo. While spying on them from behind a bush, Vera is bitten by a Rat Monkey, a rare creature found only in Sumatra. What at first appears to be a simple bite, however, soon has Vera on death’s door, and despite the best efforts of Lionel and Nurse McTavish (Brenda Kendall), the old girl passes away rather quickly. But she doesn’t stay dead for long; moments after expiring, Vera is up and walking again, only now she has a craving for human flesh! With his mother a zombie, a confused Lionel does what he can to keep her locked up, but within a day or two, she and the others she’s infected are on the loose, attacking everyone in their path. Will Lionel fulfill his destiny and keep his beloved Paquita safe, or will she, too, join the ranks of the walking dead?
Dead Alive is considered by many to be one of the bloodiest motion pictures ever made (do an online search for the top-10 goriest movies of all-time, and I’ll bet this title appears on just about every list), but the red stuff doesn’t start flowing right away. The opening scene, in which explorer Stewart McAlden (Bill Ralston) captures the Rat Monkey on the island of Sumatra, has more in common with Raiders of the Lost Ark than it does a horror film (there’s a chase involving natives with spears, who are bound and determined to prevent McAden from leaving the island with his prize). From there, the story shifts to Wellington, where we’re introduced to the love-starved Paquita, desperate to find her Prince Charming; and the shy, somewhat clumsy Lionel, whose mother keeps him on a short leash (several flashbacks hint at a family tragedy that Lionel believes was his fault). Aside from an alarming moment or two (the morning after she’s bitten, Vera’s skin starts peeling off), Dead Alive focuses on it characters early on, and isn't yet interested in turning our stomachs.
That all changes, however, when a deathly sick Vera insists on entertaining the Mathesons (Lewis Rowe and Glenis Levestam), who’ve come to make her the new head of the local women’s auxiliary. The bloody puss that Vera inadvertently squirts into Mr. Matheson’s custard is bad enough, but it’s the way she reacts to her ear falling off that will really shock you. From then on, Dead Alive is nothing short of insane, with a brutal scene involving Vera and Nurse MacTavish; a priest who uses kung-fu to subdue some zombies in a church graveyard (“I kick ass for the Lord!”); and a blood-drenched house party that doesn't end until Lionel starts up his trusty lawnmower (arguably the film’s most violent sequence).
By spending time with the characters before the carnage begins, Jackson ensures that his audience will care about the leads and their plight, and will pull for them to survive what amounts to a very messy apocalypse. But Dead Alive is at its best when the guts are oozing and the limbs are popping off. As horror / comedies go, Dead Alive is easily the grossest of the bunch, and I loved every minute of it.