Peter Jackson wouldn’t become a household name until his critically acclaimed success directing The Lord of the Rings Trilogy. His career naturally didn’t begin in 2001 though. He gained notoriety in Hollywood for his award winning 1994 lesbian romance film Heavenly Creatures.
Anyone who has seen his early works though can tell you the name of Peter Jackson meant something very different at one point. His early low budget films comprise a set of black comedies and over-the-top horror films like Bad Taste and Meet the Feables. His most famous early work though is definitely his 1992 horror-comedy Dead Alive.
Originally titled Brain Dead at its New Zealand release, the film was renamed when it was distributed to America. It didn’t do terribly well in the box office but it garnered a retroactive reputation upon being released on DVD and Jackson’s name becoming tied to one of the biggest blockbusters in history.
That said, Dead Alive is kind of a hard film to sell at its face. It’s a movie of intense extremes and that pushes a lot of taboos about violence to the breaking point. It’s is one of the grossest films you’ll ever watch. I recall watching it for the first time with a hardened horror enthusiast who was actually disturbed by how intense some of the gore and viscera was in the film.
What makes the film interesting though is the way it takes the gore full circle. It’s premise isn’t taken too seriously. The ratchets up it’s gore and melodrama to the point where the movie comes full circle and manages to make itself absurdly funny. For all its pretense as a horror film though, Dead Alive is more properly characterized as a romantic comedy. It’s a horror film in so far as it’s a gore laden zombie film but the story is first and foremost a love story.
The film’s main character Lionel is a recessive young man living in a Victorian mansion in New Zealand with his cruel and domineering mother Vera. When Lionel falls in love with a Spanish woman named Paquita, Lionel starts feeling pressured by his mother to focus on caring for her in her old age instead of dating the eccentric foreign woman he cares for.
Thus the central joke of the film. It’s a zombie movie where the zombism is an allegory for its central characters inability to stand up for himself and assert his right to be an independent person who can love who he wants. In that mindset, the gore makes sense. This is a story about a character psychologically burying his problems until he’s forced to confront them in the most extreme way possible.
Even for a comedy, the gore is not for the faint of heart. Rotten bodies peel skin and drop body parts in every direction. People are torn apart and evicerated with hilarious ease. Characters perform medical procedures on pulsating open wounds. Monsters bite humans with bloody results. Zombies mutate and melt with incredible ease as they spew buckets of blood. At one point, a grotesque giant naked zombie woman destroys the mansion like a Godzilla rampage.
Unlike The Thing though, none of this is intended to be disturbing. The scenes don’t focus on the twisted body horror for long. Outside of the gross-out scenes like the one where a woman accidentally eats a human ear, the gore is intended to be comical. You don’t have a movie where a Kung Fu priest fights zombies screams “I kick ass for the Lord!” And not expect the film to be taking its premise seriously…
There is a certain personality type and a type of horror fan movies like Dead Alive are made for. You need to LOVE fake movie gore and think it’s funny for the movie to be at all enjoyable. Otherwise the film is just too grotesque of a watch for most viewers who will be put off by its nauseating set piece moments. If you can watch for the fake seams and let the absurdity and melodrama of the film wash over you, you might be able to groove on it the way it’s intended and enjoy it for the comedic masterpiece it is!