by Mel Valentin
Could "Dead Alive" (aka "Braindead") be Peter Jackson's finest film? Not by a long shot. Following the advice of fellow horror fans, I finally decided to give "Dead Alive" a view. After all, given my twisted affection for zombie movies, how could I miss a movie legendary for its mix of horror, comedy, and gore? Alas, I learned firsthand what another friend meant when he described the first 20-40 minutes as interminable. I almost wanted to give up. It took extreme willpower for me to get that far, but once the zombie mayhem began in full force, "Dead Alive" went from nearly unwatchable to, well, watchable.Surprisingly, Peter Jackson decided to make Dead Alive a period piece, setting his film in a bucolic 1957 New Zealand (for no discernible reason). Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) is a thirtyish, unadventurous type who still lives with his mum, the fiercely protective and possessive Vera (Elizabeth Moody). Finally taking the first tentative steps toward adulthood and independence, he begins romancing a local, Paquita (Diana Peñalver). His mum, sensing a threat in Paquita, follows them on a date to the zoo. Distracted, a Sumatran Rat Monkey reaches through a cage and takes a bite out of Vera. As we learned in the superfluous prologue, the Sumatran Rat Monkey has been imported from “Skull Island” no less (yes, the same Skull Island where King Kong made his home, and will make his home in Jackson 's upcoming remake). From there, the plot follows a simple path: mother goes terminal, dies, and is resurrected, definitely worse for wear. The protagonist, suffering from a bizarre mother fixation, can't bear to dispatch his now zombified, ravenous mother. Instead, he keeps her sedated in their basement. She escapes, of course, spreading the zombie virus (presuming, that is, a pseudo-scientific explanation for the toxic spread of reanimated corpses and their hunger for flesh).
"When gross-out gags become routine, so does everything else."
On the plus side, Dead Alive has an overabundance of gross-out gags, all tied to bodily functions (or decaying, putrescent bodies). With so much blood and gore, it was a dinner-table scene, featuring tranquilized zombies and custard, which almost turned my stomach. In a different vein, the second best scene in Dead Alive involves the village minister, whose hidden talents are revealed when the zombie menace overwhelms the local graveyard (capped by a hilarious line that must be heard to be believed). In his exuberance, Peter Jackson is more than willing to borrow ideas and conventions from other, seemingly unrelated genres. In the graveyard scene, Jackson borrows from Hong Kong/Asian kung fu/action films. It’s a brilliant, out-of-nowhere moment. Another scenes worth noting is the climactic dismemberment party, with the protagonist taking on a house full of zombies with a lawnmower. Throw in some zombie sex (yes, you read that right), and the inevitable offspring of said unprotected zombie sex is something to behold for splatterfest fans.
On the minus side, the opening 40 minutes overindulges in exposition at the expense of action or horror. Peter Jackson tries for a campy, jokey feel, over-relying on hyperactive camerawork and tight close ups (and tracking shots that end in tight close ups). Jackson over-punctuates every line of dialogue, every character moment and emotion with track-in camera movements, a technique that quickly grows tiresome. Some of the gore effects are, to be charitable, unconvincing, and Jackson shows a lack of restraint in the climactic battle between the monstrously large zombie mother and her rebellious, blood-soaked, gore-drenched son. Using an oversized, badly constructed puppet makes for a joke that rapidly loses its punch (womb shot to the contrary). By that point, however, most viewers will be more than ready for the end credits to roll on Dead Alive. Mercifully, Jackson obliges. The less said about the amateurish, histrionic performances, the better. Jackson may be a filmmaker of many talents and skills (mostly on the technical side), but subtlety isn't one of them.
Tangent: having heard so much about Dead Alive for so many years, I was fully expecting the protagonist's mother to transform into a half-conscious zombie, in constant need of feeding (maybe I was subconsciously channeling Little Shop of Horrors), with the main character turning into a cold-blooded killer to provide his ravenous mother with new "meat" to satisfy her hunger. That might have made for a better setup and payoff later on, story wise. Instead, once the main character's mother crosses over into Zombieland(tm), she's just another generic zombie (in the climactic transformation scene, she speaks, but that entire scene makes zero sense, given her inability to speak beforehand).In sum, "Dead Alive" fell short of expectations, the occasionally inspired splatter gag or inventive idea notwithstanding. There were, alas, too many missteps (e.g., a scene involving a blender and a zombie baby, a gleefully twisted, sick idea admittedly, didn't pay off properly). Overall, in part because I saw "Dead Alive" under extreme duress (actually more like extreme pain from an earlier dental appointment), and in large part because of the gore content, comic bits, and gross-out gags, "Dead Alive" deserves, if not a pass, then a marginal recommendation (but only for gorehounds).
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originally posted: 06/01/05 19:30:03