Appellate Judge Tom Becker swears he will never eat custard again.
Your mother ate my dog!
There have been plenty of gory, flesh-eating zombie comedies, but I'm not sure if many have been as gleefully gross as Dead Alive.
The third feature by future auteur Peter Jackson—following cult faves Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles—Dead Alive is witty, inventive, and at times so disgusting you might find yourself turning away from the screen. But that's part of the fun.
Our story opens with the capture of the rare Rat Monkey on Skull Island in 1957. Before the monkey is brought off the island, it bites a zoo official, causing the locals to…well, let's just say that they're aware that Rat Monkey bites are too troubling to ignore.
We then find ourselves in a quaint New Zealand town, where romance is blossoming between the lovely Paquita (Diana Penalver) and the dweebish Lionel (Timothy Balme, Jack Brown Genius). Trouble is, Lionel lives with his overbearing mother (Elizabeth Moody, Heavenly Creatures), who does not approve of her son having any kind of life away from her.
When Paquita and Lionel slip off for a day at the zoo, Lionel's mother follows them, and while spying on the couple, she's bitten by—the Rat Monkey.
Lionel's mum goes through some horrendous changes until finally, blessed death takes her—only, it doesn't. Rather, Mum becomes a violent, flesh-eating zombie. Dutiful son that he is, Lionel tries to keep this a secret from the locals, but as anyone who's ever dealt with a flesh-eating zombie knows, this is more complicated than it looks.
Two things distinguish Dead Alive and help it earn its cult status. One is that it's gross and gruesome. Yeah, that might seem redundant, but Jackson's yuckfest doesn't just ladle on scenes of spewed guts and mangled body parts. One turn-away-from-screen moment involves a group of people eating custard, for instance. Jackson finds the gross in places other directors might not think to look. Of course, he doesn't skimp on the requisite carnage; in fact, this film is reported to be the one of the bloodiest ever made.
The other thing about Dead Alive is that it's funny. Genuinely funny, inventively funny, not just gross funny. As Lionel, Balme is a decidedly unique hero; he can barely jumpstart his romance with the lovely and willing Paquita, so how can he effectively save mankind from a zombie plague? Balme's hilariously understated reactions—not to mention his gift for physical comedy—help carry the film.
Jackson fills the film with macabre, outrageous set pieces and bits of business, including a kung fu-fighting priest, a pair of amorous zombies, and—as a result of their undead transgression—a zombie baby, whose visit to the park with Lionel rates as one of the most memorable sequences in this film and one of the most bizarre ever put to film by a (future) major director.
If only the quality of the disc matched the quality of the film.
This release from Lionsgate is a Blu-ray in name only, sporting an unimpressive transfer that barely seems to be an upgrade from standard def. It doesn't look cleaned up at all, with an overabundance of grain, speckles, softness, and bits of damage. Audio is a clear, if unexciting, DTS 2.0 track. The only supplement is a trailer. You'd think that after making some of the most successful films of all time, a studio might want to capitalize on this early work of Jackson's and offer up some meaningful extras, but no dice.
At least we get the 97-minute Unrated cut. The American theatrical release ran 85 minutes, with lots of the grue left out. Jackson's original cut ran 104 minutes, but it's reported that the 97-minute one is his preferred version.
Dead Alive is a wickedly funny and wildly gross cult item. Lionsgate's release really doesn't do the film justice, but for now, it's all we've got.
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