(1992) dir. Peter Jackson
From New Zealand, with blood. And gore. By the truckfull.
I recall when Dead Alive hit San Francisco in the early 1990’s. It was a popular cult gore-fest comedy, cut as I felt at the time from the cloth of Evil Dead II (1987), Sam Raimi’s comic horror masterpiece. And though writer/director Peter Jackson already had a couple of other comic horror films to his name, Bad Taste (1987) and Meet the Feebles (1989), it was pretty much his breakout success. Still, it was several steps away from his eventual Lord of the Rings film series that capped with his winning an Academy Award for The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) and snagging a surprise best picture.
I’d been long thinking of revisiting Dead Alive, having it in my Netflix queue for some years now. I remembered liking it, though not thinking it up to Raimi’s measure, and also remembering all the quirky New Zealandness about it. But it’s been this recent venture into digital cable and the On Demand model of movie watching that has given room for me to open a new window in the possibilities of catching films on television. In this case, the film was presented by the site/channel Fear.net, so it was “free” and featured only one advertisement and an annoying “watermark” logo of the brand in the lower right-hand corner. These things might not turn off your average viewer, but I like to watch films as unencumbered as possible.
Actually, I found the Wellington, New Zealand setting quite interesting this time around and found myself wondering specifically why the film was set not in the film’s contemporary setting of the early 1990’s but rather in the late 1950’s. And I’m still a little unsure what the reasoning was, but no matter.
The film is full of broad comedy, filled with many looming goofy close-up shots that resemble fisheye lens views, but really reek a bit more of 1980’s music video style. And the comedy aspect, at least in the film’s first part before it becomes the gore-fest extroirdinaire, is cute and clumsy and not always so well executed. It’s a low budget affair, of course, with likeable actors if not utterly comically deft ones. And the broadness of the comedy is high slapstick, which clunks along quite as often as it succeeds.
Where the film hits its stride is in its over-the-top of over-the-topness in the gore factor toward the end. The moments of gruesome gross-out effects and gags leap far beyond itself or almost anything else I can think of, and the last 1/2 hour or so is just non-stop inventive geysers of blood and ooze, decapitations, disembowelments, shreddings and pureeing of zombies. It makes its mark.
The story is that a “rat monkey” captured from a Sumatran island is brought to the Wellington Zoo where it bites a lady and infects her with a zombie disease, which starts with gruesome putrefecation and comic grotesqueries ad nauseum as she goes on to infect more and more people. The woman’s doting son tries to keep a lid on all this, sedating his gruesome zombie mother with a huge syringe to her nostrils, as well as her other infectees, keeping, or trying to keep a naturalized familial setting with the rotting, pustule exploding, much-degraded creatures.
He has a Spanish girlfriend, who has become attracted to him through a Tarot reading. Her Spanish background is another oddity of the story’s setting in time and place and specificity. And he’s got an uncle who is not unlike a kiwi John Goodman, who gets a lot of comic action and gore thrown his way as well.
Dead Alive is a showcase of hilarious and imaginitive analog effects, with dumpsters-full of blood and gore, and comedy that gets funnier the more over-the-top and incessant that it becomes as the film works its way toward its climax. While it lacks the pure genius of Evil Dead II, it earns its place among the cult films of its era and its ilk.