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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Retro Review: Dead Alive (a.k.a. Braindead)

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.

15 comments:

gord said...

I watched this with my girlfriend the other week, her first time, and although she loved the film, when she told me that she thought she was going to be sick during the dinner scene, all I could think was 'mission accomplished'.

B-Sol said...

My sentiments exactly!

Anonymous said...

I turn people on to this under rated classic all the time and they are always glad I did! Great Film!

Anonymous said...

I feel i may be the only one that didn't care for this film. I actually turned it off half way thru because I thought it was so stupid.

B-Sol said...

Sorry to hear that, Anonymous #2! Guess it ain't for everyone. What kind of horror flicks do you normally go for?

BJ-C said...

oh zombie sex...when will you become a reality for me?

great review. one of my favorites. i was going to say "i kick ass for the lord" but you definitely opened with that...

B-Sol said...

Yeah, it was the only way to do. Father MacGruder is my idol. I wanna be him when I grow up lol...
As for zombie sex, you'd first be required to be a zombie, wouldn't you?

Soap Magic said...

Dead Alive remains the best horror-comedy I've ever seen, but it's a comedy with horror elements, not vice-versa. Horror-comedies like Dead Alive are different movies from straight-up horror movies like [REC], yet a lot of people consider it one of the best horror movies of the modern era. This has always bothered me.

B-Sol said...

Well, I'd agree, it is definitely more of a comedy than a horror movie, as amazing as that is, given all the gore in it. I'd have to say the one movie that perfectly balances the two completely would have to be The Return of the Living Dead.

MonsterScholar said...

To Anonymous #2: This is definitely a postmodern horror film so you were probably turned off by the over the top gore, other horror movies references and what have you (which I love).

And I don't know if I'm quoting correctly but my favorite line is from the uncle on stag films:
"Is that the one with the donkey and the chambermaid?"

Anonymous said...

I guess for me, I never cared for when horror tries to turn into comedy, that was never my cup of tea. I just want straight up gore and horror!

B-Sol said...

A point of view I can certainly respect! :-)

Justin B. said...

Great review. This is probably my favorite zombie movie ever. And I'm glad that someone else appreciates the depravity of early Peter Jackson. This movie gets a lot of love, but Meet the Feebles never gets mentioned, and I love that flick! I'm STILL waiting on a decent DVD release of it (I've got the crappy DVD that's currently available).

Here's a new idea for a Top 10 for you: TOP 10 HORROR-COMEDIES. Or... TOP 10 COMEDY-HORRORS (think Young Frankenstein, The Man With Two Brains)

B-Sol said...

Nice one, Justin! I'll keep it in mind...

scary clips said...

great review on a great flick!

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