Father MacGruder kicks ass for the Lord. That's really all I should need to say, but since I should probably fill a little more space, I'll go on.
The early '90s was a heady time for direct-to-VHS horror, with mom-and-pop video store new release racks filled to the brim with disposable frights, packaged in garish cardboard boxes. After a while, it became tough for any one flick to stand out from the rest. That's why I can honestly say I might never have discovered Peter Jackson's Dead Alive back in 1992, had it not been for that striking box cover art, still among the most memorable I've ever seen.
And I wasn't alone, either. Because unbeknownst to me, both my horror-lovin' dad and my then-girlfriend had also rented the movie, both drawn in by that box cover as well. See, folks? If you're a foreign filmmaker frustrated because your movie can't get an American theatrical release, just slap a bone-jarringly surral/gruesome image on the box, and the video rental profits will wipe your tears away.
Of course, once I got the tape home, I quickly discovered that this movie was more than just a flashy cover. As I soaked in the cornucopia of deliciously over-the-top gore and literally laugh-out-loud humor, I found myself asking the question, how have I not heard of this movie?? Because, you see, this was at the time when I was already started to consider myself quite the know-it-all when it came to horror movies, regaling my school friends with my arcane knowledge and oh-so-precious self-made lists of the best horror flicks of all time.
Well right here was one worthy of being up there among my top picks--and unlike almost all the rest of the films I revered at the time, this one was brand new! Because for anyone who remembers this period of horror history, there was kind of a dearth of anything worth describing as good. But Jackson's movie knocked my socks off.
The best way to describe it based on that first impression would be to say that if Monty Python had ever made a horror movie, this would be it. Off the top of my head, I'd have to call it the goriest flick ever made, and yet the gore is so outrageous that the movie somehow successfully remains a comedy right up to the end. The violence, as insanely graphic/imaginative as it is, is also firmly in the realm of the cartoonish. And quite frankly, I was eating up every erupting pustule, flesh-stripped skull and glistening digestive tract with a spoon.
The genius of Dead Alive is in the writing, thanks to a screenplay by Jackson, wife Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair. Jackson & Walsh would later collaborate on the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which was also excellently written, but in a completely different way, needless to say. In fact, it's often hard to reconcile that the same guy who made this flick and others like Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles is actually the mainstream auteur of LOTR and King Kong!
But I digress. Dead Alive, thanks to a brilliant screenplay, is overflowing with more classic horror gags than you can shake a severed arm at. Who can forget the infamous graveyard priest vs. zombie kung fu melee? Or Baby Selwyn on the rampage in the park? And let's not forget, Jackson gave us zombie sex back when the guy who made Dance of the Dead was still begging his mommy to buy him Count Chocula at the supermarket.
Just when you think the movie has gone completely insane, it takes you bravely into a whole new level of madcap insanity. And the whole thing is anchored by a razor-sharp comic performance from Timothy Balme (as the ultimate shlemeil Lionel Cosgrove) that would make Chaplin proud. And Elizabeth Moody, who would later appear briefly in Jackson's Heavenly Creatures (and also as Lobelia Sackville-Baggins in the extended DVD cut of The Fellowship of the Ring) is unceasingly entertaining as Lionel's clutching, petty, decaying, flesh-eating mother.
Cap it all off with what has to be described as the single most bizarre, Freudian climax in movie history, and you have a film that fairly crackles with creative energy, showing the passion of its makers on the screen for all to see. I know I instantly fell in love with it, adding it to my pretentious list, and also making it the official movie I would use to completely freak out any of my friends or my girlfriends' friends who weren't used to horror movies.
To paraphrase Lionel's sleazy Uncle Les, it's a bit of alright.
"QUITE SIMPLY, THE BEST HORROR-THEMED BLOG ON THE NET." -- Joe Maddrey, Nightmares in Red White & Blue
**Find The Vault of Horror on Facebook and Twitter, or download the new mobile app!**
**Check out my other blogs, Standard of the Day, Proof of a Benevolent God and Lots of Pulp!**