Dead Alive Movie Retrospective: Still Gross after 20 Years

May 20, 2012 No Comments by

“Some things won’t stay down… even after they’re dead.” This is the tagline for Peter Jackson’s cult classic Dead Alive, one of the most unique horror films ever made and one that is, in this writer’s opinion, widely overlooked by many horror buffs out there. It stands as the odd man out in many ways because it’s not the typical style horror movie people would constantly see on store shelves or see on basic cable TV, nor would you see it on a late night horror movie show. This article will detail many of the reasons why it is a unique movie and since the movie came out 20 years ago I will give some background of the film’s legacy, including its release, the cult status it’s achieved, the obstacles it’s had to overcome, and the many collaborators who worked with Peter Jackson on earlier films and his later ones.

Before we go too far into this, here’s a little background for those of you who are not familiar with this film.  Dead Alive was made back in 1992, originally titled Braindead in New Zealand, by director Peter Jackson. Yes people, before he won three Academy Awards for the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, he made this fun little romp about a man named Lionel, a momma‘s boy who‘s forced to become a zombie killer. Lionel takes care of his domineering mother, who manipulates her son to be her servant and wait for her beck and call. On one of those calls, Lionel makes a run to the grocery store for his mother where he meets a girl named Paquita, a store clerk who begins to have feelings for Lionel thanks to a very coincidental tarot card reading. He ends up taking Paquita to the zoo on a date. His mom follows and ends up bitten by a Sumatran rat monkey. She becomes a bloodthirsty zombie and instead of putting her down, Lionel keeps her alive and hides her in their home, which unearths disastrous consequences. She begins to bite and infect nearby people who come close to the house, which forces Lionel to tranquilize the recently dead zombies and hide them in his basement. Eventually they break out and Lionel and Paquita are forced to battle the undead by any gross means necessary, which includes putting a zombie’s head in a blender, splitting one in half through a door, and having a zombie’s head shoved into a lamp that creates a rather interesting light show.

With that aside, it’s time to discuss the legacy of Dead Alive. It’s hard to believe this film is now 20 years old and it’s still achieving an ever-growing fan base thanks to filmmaker Peter Jackson. This film’s popularity increased tenfold after the successful release of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and so did Peter Jackson’s popularity.

Dead Alive wasn’t exactly a huge hit when it was released theatrically. It did perform very well in its home country of New Zealand, even surpassing Batman Returns in ticket sales. It had a limited release in the States, grossing a little over $240,000. It performed better worldwide but not enough to cover its $3 million NZ budget (Wingnut Films, the group that released the film, was an independent company at the time so that would explain the film‘s low budget). Even though it was considered a bomb, it developed a cult following through video, DVD, and Blu-Ray sales and rentals. Much of the highly ranked sales are due in part to the excessive gore factor and special effects featured in the film, as well as word-of-mouth. On RottenTomatoes.com, Dead Alive received an 85% Fresh rating. 27 reviews were written for the film and 23 of the reviews were positive.

Even though the movie has achieved a cult status and received mostly positive reviews by critics, Dead Alive had to overcome a couple obstacles, mainly being dogged by strange circumstances. For example, when the movie was released to video in Sweden, the video rentals came with supplemental vomit bags due to the movie’s gross gore factor.  Also, a plaintiff filed a lawsuit against Wingnut Films, the company that financed the film, due to the fact that the film contained pictures of the plaintiff’s family tombstone in the graveyard scenes.

In the years that followed the release of Dead Alive, there were three versions of the film available. The film was heavily trimmed down to an 85-minute R-rated version, which is available on home video only. There is a 97-minute unrated version, which is also available on home video, as well as DVD and Blu-Ray. The full-length 102-minute version is only available in a few countries and mainly bootleg DVD copies. Peter Jackson himself personally prefers the 97-minute cut of the movie because he was allowed to personally take care of it himself. I just happen to own a copy of the full-length 102-minute cut of the movie.

Many of the actors in Dead Alive have collaborated with Peter Jackson since then. Jed Brophy, Elizabeth Moody, Stuart Devenie, and Harry Sinclair all appear in Dead Alive and are recurring “Peter Jackson” actors. Jed Brophy played the Void zombie in Dead Alive. Later, he played John in Heavenly Creatures, various Orcs and Warg Riders in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a Venture Crew member in King Kong, James Hope in District 9, and will be the dwarf Nori in the upcoming two-part movie The Hobbit. In fact, Jed Brophy is the only actor from Dead Alive who has collaborated again with Peter Jackson on The Hobbit. Stuart Devenie played the kung-fu priest in Dead Alive. He also worked with Peter Jackson in doing many of the puppets’ voices in Meet the Feebles and as the museum curator in The Frighteners. Elizabeth Moody played Lionel’s mom in Dead Alive. She also worked with Peter Jackson as Miss Waller in Heavenly Creatures and as Lobeila Sackville-Baggins in the extended version in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. The Fellowship of the Ring was also her last film role. She passed away in 2010. Harry Sinclair played Roger in Dead Alive and he worked with Peter Jackson again as Isildur, the Gondor soldier who cut the ring from Sauron’s hand in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So, with that said, here are five reasons as to why Dead Alive is a unique movie:

1. The film is tongue-in-cheek.

The movie does not take itself seriously. Nowadays it seems that there are only horror comedies (like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil or Zombieland) or straight horrors (like Let Me In or Insidious), but this movie seems to fail somewhere between those areas. The movie is less serious to maintain a more entertaining level by balancing horror and comedy together. Jackson adds comedic elements throughout the picture to break the tension while keeping the horror element intact. Even though the story represents a horror film it also functions as a straightforward comedy as well. Some of the horror moments in the movie pertain to the moments seen in many zombie movies where the humans are outnumbered by the undead and getting stuck with nowhere to go. Comedic moments are basically physical or slap-stick comedy, like watching a zombie getting his head bashed into a tombstone or watching someone get kicked in the balls with a detached leg.

2. Dead Alive contains multiple genres.

Expanding on reason #1, Dead Alive stands apart from many horror flicks because it successfully encompasses multiple genres. It’s a horror movie, a comedy, a love story (with Lionel and Paquita as the lovers), and it’s a period piece. The movie is set in 1957 with the antique cars and 50‘s scenery. That is impressive to have so many categories set in one film and to keep the pace going strong without things getting too convoluted. It also keeps you drawn into the characters just enough to keep your interest with more than just some gross-out guts and gore.

3. One of a kind creativity.

There are unusual moments that occur in the film, to be sure. There is a priest who suddenly has kung-fu abilities and takes out zombies in impressive ways, including limb removal and decapitation via said kung-fu. There are two zombies who have sex (yes, it’s true, one of the few zombie movies ever made in which two undead monsters make out and bang) and they make a little baby zombie. There’s even a precious moment in which Lionel takes the little undead tyke out to the park for a little fun time and it escapes. There’s a zombie who has its teeth pulled out by pliers and one with a garden gnome in place of its head. Somebody even gets attacked by zombie intestines. This list will go on and on but I think I hit the highlights. Oh, and I almost forgot, to top it all off, Lionel pulls out one of the most effective and awkward weapons to dispatch the undead with: a push lawnmower, strapped to his chest like body armor, ready to puree the undead.

 

4. Amazing effects without CGI.

Dead Alive features amazing special effects. What makes the effects amazing is that no CGI is used at all in this film (not that there was an abundance of CGI that looked good on screen in 1992).  The special effects are all practical effects, largely comprised of facial and body makeup with detachable prosthetic limbs that had blood packs and geysers used to achieve the explosive gore gags seen in the film. Most of the carnage sequences use effects that look extremely real, some of which involve very clever cutaways with certain “body parts” being removed and creating some intense, eye-catching death and dismemberment scenes. The makeup and gore effects were all achieved by Richard Taylor, who was a frequent special effects collaborator with Peter Jackson for almost 25 years, and has won five Academy Awards to date under Jackson’s direction (winning for visual effects and makeup for The Fellowship of the Ring, makeup and costume design for The Return of the King, and visual effects for King Kong).

5. Wild band of characters.

There are the wild characters without which no horror-comedy movie is complete. Dead Alive is filled with some interesting characters that you normally would not find in most other films. There’s a Nazi doctor who sells Lionel the tranquilizers for the zombies. There are the two explorers who find the rat monkey on Skull Island of all places. When the natives arrive, one of the explorers shows them a permit to take the monkey off the island. There’s the aforementioned priest who takes out zombies with kung-fu abilities. Then there’s Lionel’s uncle Les, a fat and perverted money-grubbing swindler of a guy with a rug on his head. As obnoxious as Les can be to both your eyes and ears, he becomes a character you‘ll have a love/hate relationship with. You’ll laugh and cheer at him since he delivers most of the film’s physical humor by taking multiple hits to the crotch when his balls become the prime target for most flying objects and you’ll hiss and boo at the screen when he locks Lionel in the cellar to face the zombies alone, just to be a jerk. However, you might find yourself rooting for him towards the end when he channels his grotesque behavior and bulk and redirects it at the hordes of the undead, becoming a ferocious zombie killer. Even the undertaker’s assistant during the embalming scene is a character to enjoy, since he cracks up during the “cranial blowout” moment. By the way, the assistant is played by none other than director Peter Jackson himself in a small cameo appearance.

Alas, this movie will not grab everybody’s attention. The biggest reason this film will turn many people away is the excessive gore factor. On bloodydisgusting.com this movie is still ranked number one on the Goriest Movies of All Time list, and it has earned that most deserving spot at number one for a couple of scenes in particular: one in which the mother eats a dog, the blender scenes, the fleshless legged victim, and finally the lawnmower attack!

In closing I will say that if you can stomach the excessive gore and the tongue-in-cheek humor, it’s a must see for horror lovers, and an essential part to any serious horror fanatic‘s movie collection. If you haven‘t seen this film and you call yourself a horror buff, you’re lying to yourself and the people around you.  As I said, this movie will not appeal to everybody, especially with the extreme gore, but it’s a movie that’s not meant to be taken seriously. A warped sense of humor and a strong stomach are two strong necessities one should have when taking in this flick. It has a perfectly blended mix of comedy, horror, and romance in it, which few other horror movies possess (much like Army of Darkness or The Frighteners, another film made by Peter Jackson), but when you add in the list of wild characters, creative shocks and awes, and some insane practical special effects into the pot, you end up with more than a one-of-a-kind movie. You have something that is simply legendary.

Peter Jackson deserves a pat on the back for creating one of the most bizarre and eclectic horror movies ever made (well he did, he got knighted in England). Twenty years later this film has managed to stay relevant and generate a new legion of fans around the world, long after its low box-office intake and a few obstacles to overcome. With three versions of the film available in various formats, Dead Alive is an easy film to come by and maybe you can see at first hand that “some things won’t stay down… even after they’re dead!” Now grab your lawnmowers you little rat monkeys, strap them to your chest, and pop this flick in! The zombie party is about to begin!

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About the author

Gregory Watson lives in Bridgeport, Ohio. When it comes to horror he’s in love with it all: splatter, scares, wild makeup and special effects, horror comedies (sometimes parodies), you name it. And while he really doesn’t have a favorite, the scarier the better. His philosophical motto for horror movies is: Make the popcorn go flying. We all could use a few scares in our lives.
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