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The Test of Time: Dead Alive (1992)

We all have certain movies we love. Movies we respect without question because of either tradition, childhood love, or because they’ve always been classics. However, as time keeps ticking, do those classics still hold up? Do they remain must-see? So…the point of this column is to determine how a film holds up for a modern horror audience, to see if it stands the Test of Time.

DIRECTED BY PETER JACKSON

STARRING TIMOTHY BALME, ELIZABETH MOODY, DIANA PENALVER, IAN WATKIN

Say now, of the 13 feature films he’s directed thus far, what is your all-time favorite Peter Jackson flick? Remember, despite becoming an expensive A-list Hollywood blockbuster man at the start of the 21st century, Jackson is a bona fide horror movie maven at heart. Aside from the HOBBIT and LORD OF THE RINGS trilogies he’s become universally synonymous with, every other film Jackson has directed has been firmly entrenched in the horror/thriller genres. Some more campy and comedic than others, a la BAD TASTE and THE FRIGHTENERS, with others like HEAVENLY CREATURES and THE LOVELY BONES taking on a more gravid tonality. But the fact remains: Jackson adores the cinematic horror realm more than any other.

Case in point, my personal favorite Jackson horror flick, the indefatigable gonzo-zombie gore-bath, DEAD ALIVE aka BRAIN DEAD (WATCH IT HERE / OWN IT HERE). The hysterically histrionic, campy and cartoonish slapstick picture bears the distinction of being arguably the bloodiest splatter-flick ever assembled. The queasy gut-pulverizing visual emesis of the film was so gnarly upon its initial release that, in Sweden, the VHS rental came equipped with complimentary barf-bags. But what about the equally sickening 2020? Does the movie still have the same staying power as it once had? We shall see when DEAD ALIVE goes toe-to-toe with The Test of Time below!

THE STORY: Scripted by Jackson and his longtime writing partner Fran Walsh from a story conceived by Stephen Sinclair, DEAD ALIVE kicks off with a nod to King Kong’s Skull Island. At the remote location, an explorer is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey and is viciously dispatched by his crew-members before the sickness can spread. But that doesn’t stop officials transporting the infected Rat-Monkey to a Wellington zoo. Cue Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), a timorous man living under the thumb of his stern mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) in a town nearby. Lionel meets a Spanish woman named Paquita (Diana Penalver) at a local shop and instantly falls in love with her. Later, Lionel takes Vera to the zoo where they happen upon the rabid and ravenous Rat-Monkey, which of course has to bite Vera before having its head squashed into wet pulp-matter like a grape tomato.

Back at home, Vera grows ill in a quick. Yet, the sicker she gets, the bigger and more indestructible she becomes as well. Vera aggressively accosts a pair of in-home nurses who have their throats slashed, gashed, and gnashed into an eruptive volcano of gore-sodden viscera. Lionel dumps them, along with his mum, into the basement where he keeps them until procuring a large jug of animal tranquilizers from a foully sweaty and drooling veterinarian. Upon returning home, Lionel finds neighborly friends and houseguests present, all of which become a veritable smorgasbord for Vera to vitiate like Joey Chestnut in a f*cking dog-eating spar. The harder Lionel tries to quell the grisly onslaught, the more victims arrive to meet their gruesome demise. At one point during the relentless carnage, Lionel says to hell with mum and decides saving Paquita is his chief priority.

WHAT HOLDS-UP: In watching the film again nearly 30 years after its release, there’s still much to admire about how Jackson swiftly directs DEAD ALIVE. Despite an instance or two, the gory special and practical visual effects are simply beyond reproach. But in addition to the voluminous hemoglobin and eviscerated entrails dousing the celluloid, what really make the movie hold up are the dynamic camerawork and rapid editing style, as well as the overall sense of humor that roots the movie with a lighthearted playfulness and good-nature that entertains first and foremost then disturbs with cheeky over-the-top violence secondly. In fact, this waggish tone was recognized by the BBFC, which almost bestowed the film with an age “15” certificate when claiming the violence so harmlessly comical and inoffensive. However, there was simply too much gore to tag the film with anything other than an “18” (R-rating) code.

As such, there are too many standout sequences to enumerate. For reference, 300 liters of fake blood was used for the final lawn-mowing bloodbath alone, during which five gallons of blood were pumped onscreen per minute. But even before the fiendish finale, the sticky, icky, squeamish bodily fluids come early in the form of Vera’s moldering ear falling into her bowl of custard, which Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) gleefully slurps up with reckless abandon. The early stints of abject carnage are highlighted by the nasty wet-work Vera makes of her two medical orderlies, slicing the cheek of one and folding it like a piece of gory origami, and the other having her entire throat ripped out and her neck bent backward until a ruddy geyser of grue spouts out.

I love how well the basement scenes hold up in the film, reflecting a neon-drenched Bava-Esque catafalque steeped in green, purple, pink, and blue lighting. Once Vera is embalmed and begins flooding bilious green goo from every orifice, the film kicks into another gear entirely. Hell, even prior to that, the scene in the graveyard still provides tons of fun as a raft of punks get their gory comeuppance and that one stuffy-looking dude gets savagely impaled by a statue. Brutal! Same goes for the revolting rib-cage sequence in which a victim is essentially turned inside out, and one of the all-time favorites, when another victim has his face peeled off in one fell swoop, revealing a blood-caked skeleton beneath. Or how about the dude above ferociously fisting his hand through the back of this poor woman's dome and gorily exploding it out of her maw? Shite' sheer unbridled insanity! Of course, the absolute show-stopper comes when Lionel has had enough and grabs the lawn-mower and turns his living room into a deep pool of grue that rivals Kubrick’s elevator of blood in THE SHINING. The scene perfectly marries the mordant yet playful sense of humor with the repulsive yet farcical sense of horror.

Speaking of the absurd humor, the slapstick tone of the piece also holds up quite well. The jokes are one thing, a la Vera growing bigger and stronger throughout the movie until she becomes a monstrously towering zombie-demon in the finale, or yet a farting pile of demonic intestines stripped from the human body, but it’s the off-eat comedic performances that stand up as well. Balme is perfectly cast as Lionel, who always comports himself with a silly demeanor that perfectly mirrors the subject matter. Watkin as Uncle Les is still absolutely hilarious in his ridiculous quips and asthma-inhaling affectations. But the perfect blend between DEAD ALIVE’S humor and horror is crystallized through the depiction of the demonic baby. The scene in which Lionel takes the baby to the park is reportedly Jackson’s favorite scene in the film and only came about because he had two extra days and $45, 000 left from the original budget to film it.

Even the dynamic camerawork and fluid pacing of the picture reflects the slapstick tone of the overall aesthetic. The movie is flooded with rapid zooms, extreme close-ups, and ingeniously framed violence where half of the props remain out of view. The breathless pacing of the film has an early Sam Raimi vibe, with jarring imagery that is so raw and unvarnished that it borders on amateurism. The camera moves are exaggerated just as the performances are heightened to a histrionic level, and just as the violence is pitched to an astronomical bar. It’s no surprise that Jackson continued working with editor Jamie Selkirk, who went on to win a Best Editing Oscar for LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING.

WHAT BLOWS NOW: Looking back, It’s hard to miss how raw and unpolished the movie is, especially given the standard in 2020 and the subsequent work Jackson has turned in since. The movie was filmed for $3 million in 11 weeks, so as much is expected from a nascent filmmaker working on his third feature. With that said, a couple of gauche technological aspects struck me while revisiting the film. Two of them come during the zoo trip, in which an underwater shot of a hand gripping a box appears painfully outdated. I also think the claymation sequence involving the Rat-Monkey does not hold up very well. It looks too raw and rudimentary to convince. And because the movie is so unrelenting in its barbarity, a break is desperately needed even for a brisk 94-minute runtime. Seriously, a 20-minute pause is in order to get through the film in a way that doesn’t feel overbearingly unpleasant.

THE VERDICT: While there may have been subsequent films to challenge DEAD ALIVE as the bloodiest movie ever assembled, on the whole, Peter Jackson’s infamous splatter-fest remains one hell of a bloody good time. The gory FX remains top-tier in their efficacy to both tickle and sickle the nerves, the slapstick absurdist humor retains its side-splitting irreverence, and the dizzying camerawork and editing rhythms perfectly mirror the tonality cleaved perfectly between the humorous and horrific. BRAIN DEAD or not, DEAD ALIVE is alive and well on its way to hell!

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