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Dead Alive (1992)
It might seem like a clever marketing technique that initial rentals of the New Zealand indie zombie-flick, Braindead (released here in the states as Dead Alive), came supplied with vomit bags, but having just watched the film, I now know that the video retailers just had their customer’s best interest in mind. But this little tidbit should not discourage viewers. There is much to admire about a film like this; Dead Alive pulls no punches when it comes to completely disgusting the audience. Dead Alive possesses some of the best stomach-churning visuals and gag-inducing sound effects ever put to celluloid, not to mention one of the most underrated comedic performances. All of this comes from the mind of director Peter Jackson, far removed from his turn as the multiple-Oscar-winning director of Lord of the Rings - but still making great films.
For all the blood and guts in its execution, Dead Alive does have a heart in its plot. Paquita (Diana Peñalver) and Lionel (Timothy Balme) are two socially misguided individuals that fall in love with each other, much to the chagrin of Lionel’s mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody). Vera’s attempt to besmirch the loving couple at a local zoo turns disastrous when she is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey (shipped in from Skull Island, we learn in the opening scene) carrying a virus that gradually turns the host into a zombie-esque creature. Presumed dead, Vera is buried at a local cemetery until one night when she rises from her grave and begins to infect the entire town. Lionel attempts to contain the virus, trapping all the turned townsfolk at his Uncle Les’s (Ian Watkin) house, all the while still managing a relationship with the completely oblivious Paquita.
It is the performance of Timothy Balme as Lionel that allows this plot to work as both a forbidden-love-romance and a gruesomely dark black comedy. Balme brings two entirely different personalities to the part: the mild-mannered, sweet and innocent fool that falls in love with Paquita, and the frenzied, neurotic and unhinged man that has to keep dozens of undead creatures from escaping his uncle’s house. It is a performance that reminds me of Tim Roth in the “The Misbehaviors” segment of Four Rooms (he played a bellhop that must maintain some sort of order in a misadventure in babysitting two troublesome kids.) Both performances contain the same kind of manic disposition that is required of the situation. Although their world is seems to be crumbling around them, these characters move frantically from one scene to the next in hopes of fixing it. They keep trying, even though it feels like they’re struggling against divine intervention, as if God is looking down on them, laughing and keeping score.
Not to take credit from Balme’s eccentric performance, but the true stars of Dead Alive are the plethora of creatures, brought to life by the team of special effects wizards, most of whom would later go on to work with Jackson again on his Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong. These vile, disgusting, and revolting specimens are literally dripping with prosthetics and makeup as their limbs (and facial features) slowly detach from their bodies in streams of stage blood and other miscellaneous goop. In one of the most heinous and hilarious scenes, Lionel is attempting to serve dinner to a group of mutated zombies. One unfortunate guest is subject to a spoon being shoved through the back of his head; another has her food go into her mouth, only to be deposited on her blouse through a hole in her neck (a quick fix sees Lionel peel off the woman’s head and jam the food into the top of her body). Later in this scene, two of the zombies attempt to have sex with one another (on the dinner table, no less) despite their limbs peeling from their bodies and falling to the floor. Needless to say, the scene gives new meaning to the phrase “sucking face,” and, over all, the entire spectacle demonstrates the special effects artists’ skill and craftsmanship.
Another great contribution to Dead Alive is sound, which helps maintain a constant balance between the horrific and the hilarious. In one of the most disgusting scenes I have ever witnessed, the decomposing Vera is losing features off her face into her porridge. An ear drops with a plop sound, a nose makes a splash and, worst of all, Vera makes a stomach-turning slurping and gurgling sound as she eats said porridge. This is offset by an equally hilarious scene later in the film where a priest is fighting off a hoard of zombies just after Vera has awoken from her grave. This priest doesn’t just come with good one-liners (“I kick ass for the Lord!”) but also a variety of sound effects that allude to old kung fu movies. Each chop, kick, punch, and throw has its own pssh! sound to go with it, creating a brilliant juxtaposition with the earlier, disgusting porridge scene.
Dead Alive, as it might be obvious at this point, is over-the-top. At the end of the film, there is so much stage blood poured on the floor that the actors are literally slipping and falling in it. Peter Jackson should take pride in knowing that his film has the prestigious honor of being the bloodiest ever made (in terms of gallons of stage blood used) and that it was one of the only movies I’ve ever seen that truly made me wish that the DVD copy I rented had come with a vomit bag. It is also one of his best films.
This review is part of Miscellaneous Foreign Horror Week, the last of five celebrations of international horror done for our Shocktober 2008 event.