Back before The Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson was known to the world for his explicitly graphic, darkly funny horror films, and no film may better exemplify his original aesthetic than Braindead, or Dead Alive as it is known stateside.
Considering his nosedive since his Oscar-winning romp, culminating with the barely watchable The Lovely Bones, it may be hard to conceive that he once used his New Zealand stomping grounds to write and direct an appalling tale of the undead. Nevertheless, Dead Alive begins on Skull Island, a homage to which Jackson would return in King Kong, with a scientific researcher attempting to bring a terrifying monkey back to his homeland. Naturally he doesn’t live more than a few minutes, and when loner Lionel Cosgrove’s mother is bitten by the beast, it engages him in a domestic drama of gag-inducing proportions.
While Dead Alive is mostly an excuse to churn stomachs, there are a few ideas worthy of mention. Turning zombies into one of life’s banal irritations has been explored by numerous films concerning the undead, but the idea of having a loner decide to keep them under control in his own house to prevent public embarrassment is among the best; injecting them with tranquilizers, attempting to socialize them at dinner, and keeping them hidden in the basement opens the doors for surprisingly more laughs than truly gross moments.
Naturally Dead Alive isn’t distinguished by its Shakespearean acting or awards-caliber script. If ever there was a film conceived to make a squeamish person throw up, Dead Alive is certainly it. Decaying body parts, pus-shooting wounds, zombie sex culminating in the birth of a zombie baby, endless dismemberments, an inventive and horrible use for a lawnmower, and a finale that must set some kind of record for the amount of blood stage the proceedings.
Seemingly nothing is beyond Jackson’s taboo, and what makes Dead Alive great is that someone, somewhere had to do it at some point. It seems only appropriate that it should be done with a sense humor, and even those who know what they are getting into will likely find one moment where their laughter in response to the jokes gives new meaning to the term ‘gag’ reflex. There aren’t too many ‘clean’ jokes in the movie, but one of the few features a priest trained in kung-fu who kicks ass for the Lord.
Indeed, Dead Alive doesn’t share the down-to-earth scares and social commentary of films like Night of the Living Dead or Dawn of the Dead, instead aping the non-stop violence and occasional cheeky humor of The Return of the Living Dead. Thank god. It’s not that films using zombies to explore social issues are boring or overdone, but sometimes you need to switch your brain off and enjoy a heaping helping of blood and guts. Fitting, then, that the film’s original title is Braindead.
That Jackson would advance beyond this material seems to be a foregone conclusion. The budgetary constraints occasionally appear in the acting, editing, and cinematography, but they do certainly suit the material, and Jackson’s clever ideas and fun writing would take a step toward the serious when he tackled true crime drama with his Oscar-nominated follow up Heavenly Creatures before finding theatrical exposure in the United States with the unfairly maligned The Frighteners, and his work would go on to inspire similar genre classics like Shaun of the Dead and Cemetery Man.
There’s no doubting that one of Jackson’s favorite parts of filmmaking comes in the design, and while that would damn him with The Lovely Bones and see him set box-office records with The Lord of the Rings, he cut his teeth here, and the world is grateful that he never truly lost the sense of mischief he puts on display in Dead Alive.
Due to some oversight that I can’t fathom, Dead Alive is currently unavailable on DVD or Blu-ray, though copies of each are still available for fairly exorbitant prices on Amazon. However, if you find that your collection is missing an ungodly amount of barf-worthy gore, it may make the perfect zero-hour Christmas gift!