October Horrorshow: Dead Alive, aka Braindead

It’s raining again. Cold, dark rain. If I close my eyes, the sound of the drops slashing against the windows and spattering on the roof sounds just like a shower of blood. For this is October, when innocent thoughts turn to dreadful deeds, when the creaking of an old house at night is nothing less than the sinister wanderings of evil spirits, and when an innocent trip in the wilderness becomes a fight for one’s life. October is the month of Halloween, and to celebrate, Missile Test is dedicating the entire month to watching and reviewing horror films. Speaking of blood, today’s review is of a film that has plenty to spare.

When I was young, I remember thinking that John Carpenter’s The Thing was the grossest film ever made. Rob Bottin and Stan Winston really did some class work for that film. Rank, disgusting, far too much for the eyes of an impressionable youngster. Of course, there was no way any filmmaker would dare to cross the line in the sand that those two had drawn. I used to think that, until I saw Dead Alive (or Braindead, if you live outside of North America).

From 1992, Dead Alive is one of director Peter Jackson’s earliest efforts, and if he hadn’t gone on to more grand projects, it would probably still be his most singular accomplishment. Dead Alive is, without a doubt, the single goriest movie I have ever seen. There is blood, there is slime, there are dismemberments, decapitations, severed limbs, impalements, electrocutions, disembowelments, malicious tooth extractions, on and on and on. If you can think of it, Dead Alive probably did it. And, to top the whole mess off, Dead Alive is a comedy!

In 1957 New Zealand, the local zoo has a new attraction, the Sumatran rat monkey. The descendants of slave ship rats that raped and impregnated the local simian population, one bite from Dead Livethe rat monkey is enough to turn the victim into a bloodthirsty zombie out of proportion to most other film undead. Jackson didn’t go for slow and lumbering. These zombies are quick, deadly, and insanely violent.

The rat monkey’s first victim is Vera Cosgrove, played by Elizabeth Moody. She’s an overbearing mother to her son Lionel (Timothy Balme), forcing him to wait on her night and day, and to keep a large house clean and spotless. Moody’s character is despicable. There’s nothing to like about the old hag at all. While watching it, I couldn’t help but notice how much of a pro Moody was. She was handed one of the most absurd scripts she probably ever saw, and ran with it. She appeared to be game to whatever Jackson could throw her way, and I think she put up the best performance in the film. After her role changed a bit (no more of a spoiler than that), she was replaced by a stunt actor for the remainder of the film. A big part of me wishes Jackson could have found a way to keep up her involvement.

As for Balme, Dead Alive was his big screen debut. His character required a great sense of comic timing and ability at physical comedy. He nailed it.

After Vera turns into a zombie, Lionel decides against seeking further help for his mother. Rather, he seems to figure that keeping up appearances is more important than preventing a zombie apocalypse. He even hides his mother’s condition and the increasingly complicated situation he is in from his new girlfriend, Paquita (played by an adorable Diana PeƱalver).

Lionel’s problems continue to escalate, engulfing more and more townspeople, until the final climax in Lionel’s house. This part of the film must be seen to be believed. It is one of the most outrageous sequences ever put to film. I would recommend that no one with a weak stomach watch the ending zombie rampage, but if a viewer has made it this far into the film, they have already tested and proved their fortitude. I’ve read and heard rumors that five gallons of fake blood were used per second while shooting this scene. This smacks of urban legend, but I can report with all honesty that a massive amount of fake blood was indeed used. As were a sizable amount of fake limbs, fake bones, fake heads, fake organs...

The amount of gore in this scene is incredible. It defies reason, description or explanation. It’s so over the top one can only imagine the legendary demands which must have been placed on cast and crew. And every bit of it works. It’s a cartoonish masterpiece of violence. It’s irreverent slapstick at it’s most heinous, and it caps the film perfectly. Dead Alive is one of those films that a horror fan can’t let slip by. Anyone else curious enough to check it out will be rewarded with a very funny, and very sickening, film.

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