Dead Alive (1992) Revisited – Horror Movie Review

If you haven’t seen Peter Jackson’s splatter comedy Dead Alive (a.k.a. Braindead), it’s the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

These days, Peter Jackson is best known for directing big budget spectacles. He took the Hobbits to Mordor, he cast Benedict Cumberbatch as a dragon, he brought us the sight of a motion-capture King Kong smacking around a bunch of dinosaurs. But when he was just getting his career started, he was making very different kinds of movies: horror comedies that were drenched in blood and pretty much every other bodily fluid you can think of. In 1992, he brought the world what may be the bloodiest film ever made: a zombie comedy he would call Braindead, but many fans know it as Dead Alive. And if you haven’t seen this one yet (you can watch it HERE), it’s the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw.

Peter Jackson never had any formal film school training, and not just because they didn’t have such courses in his home country of New Zealand. Even if they had been available, he wouldn’t have enrolled. He didn’t want to be told or shown how to make movies, he wanted to learn by doing it himself. His interest in movies started with a desire to be a special effects artist. Since he was making his own effects at home, he needed to film them. That led him into making shorts. Then he dedicated four years worth of weekends into making his feature debut, the alien invasion gross-out Bad Taste, which he considers to be his own version of going through film school. While he was working on that project, he met fellow New Zealand based writers Stephen Sinclair and Fran Walsh, with the latter soon becoming his wife and starting a family with him. Sinclair had an idea for a zombie movie, so the trio fleshed that idea out into a screenplay, drawing inspiration from George A. Romero’s Dead trilogy, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead films, and Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator while also mixing in a gleefully maniacal sense of humor that would make the guys in Monty Python’s Flying Circus proud. Jackson decided to make his subversive splatter puppet movie Meet the Feebles before getting the zombie movie into production, but once he was done working with drug-addled, homicidal, sodomy-loving puppets, he circled back to the living dead.

The title on the script was Braindead. That’s what Jackson always intended for the film to be called. It was released as Braindead in some territories. But in other territories, it was released as Dead Alive. Since that’s the title that seems to be used most often when the film is referenced, that’s what we’ll call it here.

Dead Alive Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

The story is set in 1957 because Jackson figured viewers would be able to buy into the insanity of the events more if it were a period piece. It begins on Skull Island – the setting of King Kong and a place the director would revisit a decade later. A New Zealand zoo official has come to obtain a creature that can only be found on the island, a vicious little beast called a rat monkey. Something that is said to be the product of rats breeding with unwilling tree monkeys. The natives, who use the rat monkey in black magic rituals, aren’t happy about this intrusion, but it’s the zoo official’s associates that hack him to pieces when they realize he has been scratched by the rat monkey. The nasty critter is taken to the Wellington Zoo, where it happens to scratch one of the guests: Vera Cosgrove, the overbearing mother of the meek Lionel. Lionel takes his mum home and tries to take care of her, but the scratch of the rat monkey soon has her falling to pieces, turning into a monstrous zombie… and patient zero in a zombie outbreak that Lionel at first tries to contain. Then, it becomes obvious that he’s going to have to destroy these undead creatures. With the assistance of his love interest Paquita and his sleazy Uncle Les, he sets out to end the zombie threat, leading to a glorious final sequence that’s an extended bloodbath.

Relative newcomer Timothy Balme was cast as Lionel. Ian Watkin, who already had two decades of credits at that point, plays his hilariously unpleasant Uncle Les. Elizabeth Moody, who also had several credits, is Lionel’s mum Vera. Apparently Jackson drew from his own life when coming up with the idea of Lionel and Vera’s living situation, since he lived with his own mom until he was 27, around the time he married Fran Walsh. Thankfully, he has assured that his relationship with his mother was much healthier than Lionel and Vera’s. Mrs. Jackson wasn’t a shrew with a homicidal past.

At one point, there was a possibility that Dead Alive might be a New Zealand and Spain co-production. So Jackson decided to cast a Spanish actress as store cashier Paquita, whose Tarot card-reading grandmother says she’s destined to be romantically entangled with Lionel. The role went to telenovela star Diana Peñalver, who had never seen a horror movie before, as she wanted to avoid having nightmares about them. But while the potential Spanish investors ended up backing out, Peñalver stayed with the production. She gave a charming performance, and even delivers one of the film’s most memorable lines: “Your mother ate my dog!”

Jackson was able to secure the three million dollar budget through the New Zealand Film Commission, which had also funded Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles. Then filming began, with an eleven week shooting schedule. Most of which the cast had to endure while coated with gore that was provided by Richard Taylor and his special effects team, soon to be known as Weta Workshop. The actors were uncomfortable and irritated. The gore was sticky. The main set started to smell so bad that it would make people queasy. The syrup in the fake blood fermented under the lights. Yet everyone carried on without complaining.

Making a film with so many special effects would have been a challenge for a lot of filmmakers, but Jackson has said that he actually found the production to be an easy experience. He loved being surrounded by effects, having an excuse to blow things up and make monsters. And he definitely got to do that on this movie. His approach to Dead Alive was to push the splatter beyond the saturation point. To make it so ridiculous, there would be no way viewers could be shocked or offended by it, they would just have to laugh at it with the filmmaker. Jackson didn’t have any interest in making serious, hardcore horror films. As he told Film Threat, “I like comedy too much. I could never make a film that took itself too seriously. Fundamentally, I just want to entertain people, so I usually trade in cheap laughs for true horror. The more over-the-top a gag is, the funnier it will be. I don’t see a problem with that so long as it’s properly executed.”

Dead Alive Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

Rather than the effects, the challenge for him on this one was working with the cast. As he said, Dead Alive was his first opportunity to work with real actors. And working with them made him more interested in the dramatic scenes than he had been previously, opening a new door for him as he moved forward in his career. He wouldn’t be sticking to only making over-the-top horror comedies from this point on.

As Dead Alive started to make its way out into the world in 1992, Jackson learned that not everyone found it palatable. Some did still manage to get shocked and offended by the bloodshed. Some countries were just fine with it. New Zealand and Australia had no problem putting it in their theatres under the title Braindead. The British Board of Film Classification was won over by its light-hearted, comical nature. They considered giving the film a 15 certificate, allowing younger movie-goers to check it out, but in the end figured it had to have an 18 certificate simply due to the amount of gore. Meanwhile, the movie was outright banned in South Korea, Singapore, and Finland, although Finland later reversed the ban. There are versions available in Germany where much of the gore and violence has been removed. The uncut version is banned there, and it’s illegal to show it.

American distributor Trimark is the one that changed the title, since there had just been another horror movie called Brain Dead, starring Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton, released in 1990. Jackson wasn’t enthusiastic that they decided to call it Dead Alive, but he has let it be known that the 97 minute version released in the U.S. is his preferred cut of the film. That’s seven minutes shorter than the unrated Braindead available in other countries, but those lost minutes aren’t the result of censorship. Jackson made the cuts himself and feels the film plays better without those minutes. There is an R-rated cut available in the U.S. that is only 85 minutes long. The minutes in that one were lost due to the censors, and it’s not recommended that you seek it out. If you watch Dead Alive, you have to see the unrated gore. The film is a fun, quirky comedy even between the gross-out moments, but you need the experience of seeing the blood and pus spew across the screen. That’s all part of its charm.

The actors give great comedic performances. Balme’s Lionel bumbling through the zombie situation. Moody’s Vera trying to impress visitors even while her face is falling off. Peñalver’s Paquita pursuing a romance with Lionel despite all the weirdness around him. Watkin’s Uncle Les being inappropriate and repugnant. Or even, in a smaller role, Stuart Devenie as the martial arts skilled Father McGruder, who sets out to remove some zombie hoodlums from the cemetery while declaring, “I kick ass for the Lord!”

Jackson was right, his movie is so silly that you can’t take any of it seriously, no matter what happens on the screen. From mutilation to dog eating, it’s all a joke. And it’s a great, hilarious joke. While paying tribute to the likes of Romero, Raimi, and Gordon, Jackson made something worthy of being ranked alongside the films made by those legends. He and his co-writers set out to show viewers zombie gags they had never seen before, and somehow they were able to do that. The zombie encounters in this movie are packed with cool, clever moments. A zombie with a light bulb in its head. One that has a garden gnome in place of its head. Uncle Les pulling out zombie teeth with pliers so they can’t bite. Zombies that are hopped-up on animal stimulant. Zombies having sex. A zombie baby! We had seen a zombie getting taken out with a lawnmower in Night of the Creeps, but Jackson takes it much further.

Dead Alive Best Horror Movie You Never Saw

It’s impossible to talk about Dead Alive without mentioning the lawnmower scene. It definitely makes an impression. Online trivia claims that three hundred liters, or seventy-nine gallons, of fake blood were used in the filming of this scene… Although an interview with Jackson in Fangoria magazine indicates it was a whole lot more than that. Jackson said the lawnmower was rigged to shoot out three hundred liters of blood per minute. So you can see why this would be the favorite scene of a lot of viewers.

But there are so many great moments in Dead Alive, it can be difficult to choose a favorite. The martial arts fight in the cemetery is definitely a contender. And Jackson has his own pick… a scene that doesn’t have any gore in it at all. It’s a scene that easily could have been removed without having any impact on the film. For a while, it looked like there might not be enough time or money to film it at all. But Jackson managed to fit it in at the very end of the shoot. It’s the scene where Lionel takes the zombie baby Selwyn out for a day in the park. Jackson told Fangoria, “It’s a very Buster Keaton, slapstick kind of sequence. It wasn’t necessary to the plot or anything, but I knew it’d be a real fun scene. We went to the park to shoot it on a day which happened to be beautiful and sunny. After a month spent on the gore-drenched house set, where everyone had just about started to go crazy, it was great. It’s also become my favorite scene to watch.” This scene is great to watch with an audience during theatrical screenings. When a drunk in the park cheers at the sight of Lionel punching the zombie baby and beating it against the side of the swingset, it might get the biggest laugh of anything in the movie.

Dead Alive was a financial failure in the United States. It couldn’t even reach 250,000 dollars during its theatrical release. But it quickly gained a cult following, with horror magazines like Fangoria letting their readers know that Dead Alive was something they needed to see and Peter Jackson was a filmmaker to keep an eye on. As we all know, he did just fine without Dead Alive setting the box office on fire. His next film was the psychological drama Heavenly Creatures, which earned him and Fran Walsh their first Best Screenplay Oscar nomination. He made one more horror comedy, The Frighteners, then he was off to the worlds of Hobbits and Kong, with more Oscar nominations and some wins along the way. Including Best Picture, Best Screenplay, and Best Director.

A while back, Jackson said he was going to restore Dead Alive and possibly Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles for 4K releases. Fans are anxiously waiting to see those… And we’re also desperately clinging on to the hope that someday he’ll return to horror comedy. It’s been more than thirty years since he made a splatter movie, and that’s way too long. It’s time for him to go back to his roots. Set the prestige and big budgets aside and give us something that’s down and dirty and coated with gore.

While we wait and hope for that to happen, Dead Alive is still just as fun to watch now as it was when it first came out. So if you haven’t seen it yet, seek out the unrated cut. Whether it’s the 104 minute Braindead version or 97 minutes of Dead Alive, you’re bound to have fun. Put it on and take a trip to Wellington, New Zealand. Visit with Lionel Cosgrove and his friends and family. And bask in the joy of watching them get splattered with blood and guts. As one of the taglines says, “You’ll laugh yourself sick!”

A couple previous episodes of the Best Horror Movie You Never Saw series can be seen below. To see more, and to check out some of our other shows, head over to the JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channel – and subscribe while you’re there!

Source: Arrow in the Head

About the Author

Cody is a news editor and film critic, focused on the horror arm of, and writes scripts for videos that are released through the JoBlo Originals and JoBlo Horror Originals YouTube channels. In his spare time, he's a globe-trotting digital nomad, runs a personal blog called Life Between Frames, and writes novels and screenplays.