We’re continuing 90’s month by revisiting a splatter-horror favorite from early in the decade. I’m not sure when, exactly, I first saw Dead Alive. It was probably in ’93 or ’94 and was almost certainly rented at our local video store, Matt & Dave’s Video Venture (a place I still reminisce about fondly). The cover was striking enough, but I’m fairly sure the reason I rented it was that I’d heard it was from the director of Bad Taste – some guy named Peter Jackson.
I LOVED Bad Taste. It struck a particular chord with its combination of extreme gore, shoddy production and terrible comedy. I even loved the fact that the video store in Millinocket had to cover up the alien hand on the cover, because it was giving the finger to anyone who looked at it.
So, director of Bad Taste, cool cover with a skull peeking through a woman’s stretched out mouth and the quote “… the goriest fright film of all time!” at the top? A must watch, for me anyway.
Which reminds me – this will be another trip down:
(This means gory descriptions and images below.)
One other detail that didn’t hit me at the time, but was telling later – the tape had not been rewound. This was an occasional issue back in the VHS days, people returning movies without rewinding them. A lot of places eventually got machines that rewound films quickly, as it was super annoying to put in a tape and sit down with your popcorn, only to see the credits rolling and have to wait five minutes while your machine slowly rewound. I didn’t always check and I remember when I put the tape in it started up in the middle of the movie. Actually, it was fairly early on, during the dinner scene with the representative of the Wellington Ladies Welfare League (the WLWL). It didn’t mean anything to in the moment (other than I had to wait for the tape to rewind), but later I realized that it meant someone had gotten that far and decided to turn the film off and return it. I guess the ear in the custard was the final straw.
I loved it, of course. I’d been a fan of splatstick horror since Evil Dead and Jackson seemed the inheritor of Raimi’s mantle in that regard. If anything, Jackson seemed intent on out-doing Raimi, with more blood and more gags than any of the Evil Dead films. Since then I’ve cooled on the film somewhat – I tend to watch Evil Dead and Evil Dead 2 every couple of years, but it’s been a while since I’ve viewed Dead Alive.
Still, Jackson was definitely a director to watch. I wonder if he’s done anything of note since?
I’ve had a DVD of Dead Alive for a while, but I think I only watched it once since I purchased it from Bull Moose. There’s still a price sticker (used) on the cover and I usually take those off once I’ve watched the film. Certainly I haven’t seen it since the advent of Blu-ray, and I was immediately dismayed by the lack of clarity, color and detail. So much so I actually turned it off and started looking for it in another format, either high-def or streaming. However, Dead Alive is both out of print AND unavailable for streaming. Seems all the rights have reverted to Wingnut Films and none of the Lions Gate releases are available – unless you feel like spending a hefty chunk of change or finding it in a less-than-legal manner. I didn’t feel like either, so back to the DVD it was.
When the godfather of Italian gore, Lucio Fulci, says the gore in a movie is over the top you know you’re in for something special. Dead Alive is a gory movie, an extremely gory movie. In fact, for the longest time I considered it the goriest movie ever made. Other movies may have since shown us more disturbing or more realistic gore – the remake of Evil Dead comes to mind – but Dead Alive remains on the top of the heap for – if nothing else – the sheer quantity of blood and guts. During the lawnmower scene alone they used 300 liters of fake blood per minute. (Roughly 80 gallons.)
At least the film is considerate enough to let you know what you’re in for from the beginning. The opening sequence, with a Wellington Zoo employee (played by Jackson himself) attempting to bring back a Sumatran Rat Monkey from Skull Island, gives us some comedic Indiana Jones inspired moments before segueing into gory dismemberment when the employee is scratched by said monkey.
It’s not all blood and guts, though. The film, at its heart, is a period (50’s New Zealand) romance, with star-crossed lovers and an overbearing, interfering mother trying to keep them apart. Lionel (Timothy Balme), our browbeaten, over-mothered hero, finds himself ‘romantically entagled’ with the shopkeeper’s daughter, Paquita (Diana Peñalver). He tries to keep it from his mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), but she follows the couple to the local zoo – where she’s bitten by the Sumatran Rat Monkey.
Though there are further nods to the complicated nature of Paquita and Lionel’s relationship things rapidly degenerate (literally) into a series of gore-filled gags. Vera starts to fall apart (again, quite literally) and develops a disturbing appetite for the strangest things. (“Your mother ate my dog!” “Not all of him.” is still one of my favorite dialogue exchanges from the film.) Before long Vera has passed away and then rapidly come back, much to Lionel’s consternation and embarrassment. He’s forced to purchase animal tranquilizers to keep Vera sedated, which only works for a limited amount of time. Before long he has a basement full of zombies – Vera and her victims – and when his scheming Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) shows up to try and worm his way into Lionel’s inheritance it’s only a matter of time until things go very, VERY out of control.
The gory set pieces and individual gags are really what stand out, long after the plot elements of romance, family tragedy and buried secrets have been forgotten. The dinner sequence I mentioned at the beginning is nausea inducing in its mixture of food, secretions and body parts. The death of the nurse – and her subsequent appearances with her head on a flip-top neck – is funny and painful. Other memorable sequences include a kung-fu priest (“I kick ass for the Lord!”) and a zombie dinner party in which a spoon is used incorrectly, and zombie sex occurs.
Yes. I said zombie sex. Which results in a zombie pregnancy. And a zombie baby. This is the film, you just have to roll with it.
Jackson says the sequence with the zombie baby in the park is his favorite. A late addition to the film – they had unspent money, so they added the scene – it’s actually my least favorite. It’s funny, yes, for a given value of splatstick funny, but it throws off the pace for me and I find it tiresome after the first few gags. And yes, Lionel is exhausted and traumatized, but would he really take that thing out in public? (I know – I somehow let the concept of zombies having sex AND offspring slide, but this is my Rubicon? What can I say – some things slide past my inner critic unmolested and others cause it to get indignant.)
Jackson throws a lot of things at the screen (again – literally) and not all of them work to the same degree. In addition to the baby sequence, scenes involving Lionel at his mother’s funeral and a visit from his Uncle Les just don’t work as well as others and are drags on the film’s pacing. Some gore effects are purely gag-inducingly gross, rather than funny, and there are one or two too many scenes of Lionel essentially moping about, looking both insane and lovesick.
All is forgiven about two-thirds of the way through the film, however, when Uncle Les has a party (having successfully blackmailed Lionel with knowledge of that zombie filled basement). During the festivities Paquita talks Lionel into finally putting all the zombies down with poison – but it turns out to be mis-labeled animal stimulant. Soon the zombies are loose and the party degenerates into the goriest zombie attack ever put to celluloid. Intestines take on a life of their own, the top half of a head gets kicked around like a hockey puck, a lady’s head is pulled apart and worn like a mask, and a baby is actually put into a blender. There are so many gore gags that if you blink you’re liable to miss a couple.
All of it is mere pre-amble to the main event, however, a scene with Lionel and a lawnmower that must be seen to be believed – IF you can stomach it.
Even that is not the final horror – Lionel must finally face his mother and her secrets, before a (one more time, literal) return to the womb moment. Will his mother overwhelm him or will he finally be with the woman he loves?
The Bottom Line:
Dead Alive is an experience -gory, funny and even a little (weirdly) heartwarming. It’s not consistently good and has pacing issues (though not Hobbit level pacing issues), but it’s still a classic of the splatstick genre and just amazingly fun and over-the-top. Well worth a view if you have an iron stomach.