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. 🙂