Dead Alive (1992)
Starring Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stuart Devenie, Jed Brophy, Stephen Papps, Murray Keane, Glenis Levestam, Lewis Rowe
Directed by Peter Jackson
Expectations: Very high. It’s been too long since I’ve seen this.
No matter how many films I review, there will always be those that I am hesitant to write about. Dead Alive is definitely one of those movies. With something as whacked-out as this, I just don’t see the point of trying to write about it. It’s meant to be experienced. So if you haven’t seen Dead Alive, and you consider yourself in any way a fan of gore or horror films, go watch it. You don’t need a review, you just need to watch it. Meanwhile, I’ll do my best to relate some of why I think the film is so amazing.
Dead Alive‘s story is pretty unique among horror movies because it’s so much more than a simple tale of a few people trapped in a location. There is definitely some of that at certain points, but never — not even once — during any of these moments will you be thinking of another film. The on-screen thrills are so powerful, visceral and literally never-ending that you won’t have time to think of anything else. But back to the story… the heart of the film is a romantic struggle. Lionel has become romantically entangled with Paquita, but his overbearing mother doesn’t approve. This pays off in ways that I guarantee not a single audience member has EVER successfully predicted, creating the pinnacle of Peter Jackson’s early work that also still stands stall as the goriest, most outrageous, FX extravaganza ever put to film. And realistically, I don’t see anything ever coming close to topping Dead Alive in that regard.
Dead Alive defies classification. It all kicks off when a Sumatran Rat Monkey is brought back to New Zealand from the far-off Skull Island (King Kong’s home). The beast’s bite is feared on the island for its strange powers, and — you knew it was coming — it sinks its teeth into someone when it reaches its destination at the Wellington Zoo. But to relate these story beats in this way puts too much focus on the monkey, perhaps making the film seem like a monster movie in the 1950s tradition. If you want to boil it down, Dead Alive is a zombie movie, but even that single term is too narrow to define the film. It is these things and more. A whole hell of a lot more. It is horror. It is comedy. It is allegory. It is fucking awesome.
What I love most about Dead Alive is also part of the reason I think it’s less than perfect. I’ve always enjoyed Jackson’s first film, Bad Taste, more than this one, and re-watching them within a few months has proved that I still feel that way. Bad Taste features a slow build, escalating at an even pace until it explodes into a gonzo finale. Dead Alive features virtually the same framework, except this time the slow build is a little slower. Every time I watch this movie I think the same thing, and it lulls me into a state of thinking that maybe it’s not as great as I remember it. But this “flaw” works to the film’s advantage, as by confusing me a bit, it never fails to completely whisk the tablecloth out from under me when it gets going.
And when it gets going, it’s like a freight train with a full load racing down Mt. Everest, plowing into the Earth with enough force and power to not only crash through the Earth’s surface, but to continue all the way through and out the other side. The end of the movie is fucking insane. The first hour delivers many fun FX and hilarious situations, but no matter how plentiful they might seem at the time, it’s only when the film reaches its finale that you truly realize why it is considered the goriest film of all time. And then, a while later, just when you think you’ve endured everything Peter Jackson and his team could have possibly hidden up their demented sleeves and twisted thoracic cavities, they take the film to a whole new level. And even that is not the ending. Again: the end of this movie is fucking insane.
Dead Alive is an incredible achievement in low-budget filmmaking. It’s movies like this that make people genre fans, and get them to look beyond the standard fare populating the nearest 20-screen megaplex. I love Dead Alive, and while I often lament that Peter Jackson has never made another gross-out horror film, I think a lot of the reasons why are up on the screen here. Dead Alive is a film that is nearly impossible to follow.
But PJ… please try. 🙂
I too wish that Jackson would return to horror, specifically the low-budget kind. I’m a sucker for practical effects and Dead Alive is full of them and done better than I think I have ever seen. It’s fun, it’s nauseating, and it’s a very special kind of masterpiece. Terrific review!.
Thanks, Nick! Yeah, Dead Alive has some of the best practical FX work ever done. Just incredible, imaginative stuff. Jackson hinted at doing a zombie movie with Elijah Wood after LOTR, but that never materialized. Maybe one day, although I worry if he’s become a little too dependent on computer FX these days with The Hobbit.
Thanks to some foresight and Netflix arrangements, I just saw this one yesterday. I think I have to agree with you on all points here. It did feel slower at the beginning than I was comfortable with. I also think the humor was a bit better in Bad Taste, but in retrospect I think it’s because this film focused more on the outrageous gore than on straight up humor.
But once this gets going, there is nothing holding it back. And no, despite a few minor hints I had heard before watching the film, I had no idea that ending was coming. It made too much sense with the themes of the film to truly surprise me, but I never expected it.
My favorite part of the film, though? The “I kick ass for the Lord!” scene. I literally could not stop laughing through that entire scene. I think that might have been the turning point for the movie too, the point at which it breaks loose and really starts unleashing the madness. Or maybe it’s just the place that got my blood pumping and made me sit up and beg for more.
I did think the 1950s setting was a bit odd, though. More in terms of filmmaking than as a setting. For a low budget film to go out of its way to find props, costumes, and even classic cars to use for a story that could have worked just as well in a more modern setting seemed strange. It certainly didn’t hurt the film in the slightest; it just seemed an odd choice for Jackson to spend his budget on.
Ah man, good timing! This one definitely feels like it’s not going for the same style of humor as Bad Taste. But yeah, it totally makes up for that with all the wild gore, which is also very amusing and hilarious in its own right.
You’re right that the ending makes total sense given the themes, but it goes to heights that no one would expect. I knew you’d love that “I kick ass for the Lord” scene, and I was specifically waiting to hear your response to it! I’m glad it didn’t disappoint. The movie does begin to pick up from there.
I’m sure there was a specific reason Jackson wanted to set it in the ’50s. Peter Jackson was born in 1961 (I looked it up, I’m not an obsessive stalker), so it’s not a “nostalgic childhood” thing, but he may have had some fascination with the time, or liked the idea of the idyllic ’50s small town setting completely obliterated by gross-out violence. It could have also been done as a move to show overseas producers what he was capable of. Robert Zemeckis hired Peter Jackson and his wife/screenwriting partner to write The Frighteners before Jackson’s next movie (Heavenly Creatures) had even started shooting, so logic suggests that it was on the strength of Dead Alive and the original Frighteners concept that they got that job. Who knows? If I ever interview Peter Jackson I’ll have to remember to ask him! I do agree that its cost to the production might be unnecessary, but I think it adds a special charm to the film that a modern-day setting wouldn’t have.
Thinking back, I do recall that zombie from the live action Fist of the North Star, and wishing at the time that there had been a great martial arts showdown with it. I guess I got my wish!
Hahahahaha, when you said that I did think, “Wait till he sees Dead Alive!”
Ohmanohmanohman!! My all time favorite horror (comedy) movie!!! A genuine classic!! So many superlatives, so little room on the internets.
Will, you’ve captured the essence of this film perfectly. The crazy, the nutty, the bloody and the over-the-top nature of Dead/Alive (I much prefer Braindead, to be honest) need to be seen even by casual movie fans. I remember showing this film during a “movie night” at my place many yearas ago (with a projector in postion, so it was as big as I could get) and the laughs and screams from even those I wouldn’t have expected it from were a justified surprise.
Like Stephen mentioned above, the “I kick ass for the Lord” moment is an absolute belter – I do believe a little bit of wee came out when I saw this the first time, i was laughing so hard – and the moment one of the zombies gets a fist through the cranium to end up like some crass arm ornament is another. But easily the funniest bits are with the zombie baby. They just make me smile, hell, I’m smiling now just thinking of it.
Warning to some readers, though: the US DVD release was grossly butchered from the original NZ/Australia release, so anybody looking to snag this had best check whether the version they’re looking at is the full bloody version or not. Trap for younger players, that.
Great review, Will. I’m gonna have to find a copy and re-watch this soon. It’s been too long.
EEK! I hope I didn’t get that chopped up version. But I doubt I did. There was way too much crazy going on to be highly edited. Even more madness than I already witnessed? I can’t even imagine. (IMDB lists it as 104 minutes, and Netflix lists it at 97, so maybe something was cut out…)
Ahh, zombie baby. That was a ton of fun. I’m afraid I was a bit too flabbergasted at the concept at first to fully appreciate it, though.
I think you’re good. See my comment to Rodney about the different versions. This website has a report of what was cut out by Jackson: http://www.movie-censorship.com/report.php?ID=3888
Zombie baby is great.
Hahahaha, glad we can agree on this one. I can only imagine your guests’ surprise at the madcap insanity of the film. Did you brief them at all about what they were going to see? That had to be quite the shocker!
If we want to get into the different cuts, the US R-Rated theatrical version had nearly all the gore removed and is 85 minutes. As far as I know, that one’s only ever been released on VHS in the US. The DVDs have all been of the Unrated cut, which is 97 minutes, and is Peter Jackson’s preferred cut. He cut it down himself during a lull in the film’s US release because they were required to change to title to avoid confusion with another movie called Brain Dead. I do wish Peter Jackson would make good on his promise to release full special editions of all of his films, similar to what he did for The Frighteners and LOTR, so that we could at least have those extra scenes on the DVD somewhere.
Totally with you on this. No matter how many times you go back to Bad Taste and Braindead, they still entertain. It’s good to have these, but I’d love to see him ‘do a Nolan’ and take the money from a franchise and go back to his roots. Imagine what he could do with his fee from any of his past few films?!?!?
Yep, always pure entertainment.
It would be amazing the things he could do with the money he has now. And the basic team that did this film is still working with him too. I’m sure Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor have had some wicked gore ideas in the years since this one, and I hope they’ve been writing them down and saving them for another gonzo extravaganza.
This is an awesome review Will! If you like Bad Taste even more than Dead Alive, I’m now even more interested to check that out. It’s hard to find a movie more freaking fun than Dead Alive.
Thanks! I do love Bad Taste, but I think most people would side with Dead Alive. But definitely check out Bad Taste, it’s a low-budget gem!