This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today we took our first request and revisited a film one reader asked us to weigh in on because, really, once you’ve seen Dead Alive you just have to talk about it.
It’s easy to forget now, but Peter Jackson once trafficked in films that reveled in bad taste (including a film called Bad Taste). He’s left much of those scrappy shock-value origins behind him, preferring the company of Hobbits and Elves to zombies or R-rated puppets, but if you look back at those earlier films, you can see the filmmaker he would become, rabid enthusiasm for the genre and an almost insidious glee that he’s been given the chance to actually create images for the screen.
Dead Alive, the gory, goofy horror comedy I’ve chosen to focus on, traffics in the kind of blood and guts-filled imagery that would be horrific were it not presented with a manic comic imagery. It drowns the screen in gallons of blood and organs but treats the viscera as the height of shock comedy. If you showed it in a marathon with Evil Dead 2 and The Re-Animator, it would be a night of ghastly gruesome imagery and splatstick that goes so far over the boundaries of good taste that it achieves a kind of surreal brilliance.
The film’s plot spins around a gloriously fake-looking creature known as the Sumatran rat-monkey, smuggled into a New Zealand zoo. When the creature chomps down on the thoroughly unpleasant Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody), it results in an infection that turns her into a zombie, complete with pus-filled boils and ears that drop into porridge. Like a comic version of Psycho, it’s up to her hapless, and perpetually put-upon son, Lionel (Timothy Balme) to try to cover up every murder and resulting zombie until he has his own zombie family, complete with zombie baby, down in his basement, fighting to get out. It’s up to his almost-girlfriend, Paquita (Diane Penalver) to get him out from under his zombie-mother’s severed thumb and force him to finally stand up for himself.
Before that, however, there will be blood. And then more blood. And then more blood on top of that blood. And then there will be a lawnmower, and if you think that lawnmower won’t be used to rip zombies to bloody, dismembered shreds, you don’t know what kind of film you’re watching.
Much of the comedy, when it’s not centered around gore, stems from Lionel’s attempts to appear casual when there’s absurd levels of horror happening around him and his relationship with his “Mum.” She’s a horror even before she’s a flesh-chomping, body parts-losing zombie, which gives Lionel’s protective impulses a perverse logic, as the zombie version of his mother is only marginally worse than the one he’s been living with all his life.
His attempt to appear normal while trying to conceal the increasingly horrific, ever-increasing collection of the undead in his basement functions as a heightened version of a sitcom premise. It’s a character trying to act like everything is fine even though madness is breaking out just off camera. Credit goes to Balme who throws himself into the film’s manic physical comedy with reckless abandon, while also slightly underreacting to things that happen in the presence of others. He’s a likable, hapless everyman, and he kind of has your sympathy because he’s such a dominated, victimized son. When the character finally confronts the monster his mother has become, he’s confronting years of mental abuse and domination, and it’s satisfying both for the gore and the emotional satisfaction.
Let me stop for a minute because I don’t want for a second to imply that Dead Alive has any kind of subtext. It does not. Not of any kind whatsoever. This is a film in which pus lands in pudding that is eaten with relish, a zombie baby (that results from two zombies in the basement getting a bit too amorous) is walked through the park in a stroller and thrown through the air when it becomes too tough to handle, and a priest proclaims, “I kick ass for the Lord” before trying to karate-chop a zombie and ending up impaled on a particularly sharp grave ornamentation. Everyone on screen seems to have manic glints in their eyes and a heightened line delivery. Subtlety is not this film’s pursuit.
And I love it for that. It’s so joyously giddy and in love with its disgusting self that I find it impossible not to love it too. The film’s manic energy keeps it zipping along, and the film ends up being watched with a mixture of shock and horrified laughter because you just can’t believe what’s happening on-screen. It might be a bit much for some viewers. I couldn’t really be too angry if you said you watched with a mixture of nausea and revulsion, but I adore the film completely. The first time I watched it, I sat with a gleeful, slightly deranged smile on my face, and I’ve had much the same reaction with every subsequent viewing.
I don’t love it as much as I do Evil Dead 2 or Re-Animator, but I think that stems from the lack of a Bruce Campbell or a Jeffery Combs, someone who can give an iconic performance full of manic, twitchy energy in a way that elevates the film. Timothy Balme gives a wonderfully ridiculous performance but he doesn’t distinguish himself in the same way Campbell and Combs were able to do. He’s fun, but it’s also understandable that he didn’t emerge in the same way they did.
No matter, though. Dead Alive delivers gleefully horrific laughs and so much goopy violence and carnage that it should satiate even the hungriest of gorehounds. It’s not high art, but it shows Jackson’s nerdy enthusiasm for whatever genre in which he finds himself playing and his love of creating truly unique imagery. It’s not deep, but it’s incredibly fun.
Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:
- Day 1: Hold the Dark
- Day 2: Hell House, LLC and Hell House, LLC II
- Day 3: Critters
- Day 4: Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn
- Day 5: The Gate
- Day 6: The Fly
- Day 7: Return of the Living Dead
- Day 8: Train to Busan
- Day 9: The Serpent and the Rainbow
- Day 10: The Babadook, Under the Shadow & Dark Water
- Day 11: House of the Devil & The Sacrament
- Day 12: Oculus
- Day 13: The Apostle
- Day 14: The Frighteners
- Day 15: Hands of the Ripper & The Perfume of the Lady in Black
- Day 16: The Blackcoat’s Daughter
- Day 17: Berberian Sound Studio & Matinee
- Day 18: Halloween (1978)
- Day 19: Halloween (2018) & Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon