A young man's mother is bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey. She gets sick and dies, at which time she comes back to life, killing and eating dogs, nurses, friends, and neighbors.
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Peter Jackson’s 1992 horror-comedy is the bloodiest film of all time, and that’s not a matter of opinion. That’s a matter of gallons. The gory kills in this one come thick and fast, starting with a title written in blood and culminating in a nightmarish spin on the miracle of childbirth. Yet at the heart of all the gruesome effects lies a surprisingly sweet love story, as well as a wicked dose of dark humour.
Set in Wellington, New Zealand during the 1950’s, “Dead Alive” (a.k.a. “Braindead”) follows the story of Lionel Cosgrove, a mild-mannered delivery boy. Living under the thumb of his tyrannical mother, Vera, Lionel is tormented with guilt over the childhood accident that claimed his father’s life. Our hero gets a chance at happiness when he meets Paquita Maria Sanchez, a charming shopkeeper who believes she and Lionel are destined for one another. Vera isn’t at all happy at the idea of another woman in her son’s life, and she’s determined to keep the two lovers apart. But after sustaining a bite from an infected Sumatran Rat Monkey, Lionel’s mother begins to change. The zombie virus soon spreads to whoever is unfortunate enough to run into the undead woman, but poor Lionel doesn’t have the heart to destroy the bloodthirsty creatures. Instead, he ties them up in his cellar and keeps them docile with animal tranquilizers. Naturally, Lionel’s secret eventually busts out of the basement…straight into an unsuspecting crowd of party guests.
Diana Peñalver is a total delight as the lovely, gutsy Paquita, whose loyalty to Lionel seemingly knows no bounds. She’s put through all manner of gory misadventures, from a tragic incident with her beloved dog to the horrific final standoff against the undead. Yet despite it all, her devotion is unwavering.
As Lionel’s domineering mother, Elizabeth Moody is classy yet despicable, and is just the sort of woman you wouldn’t want for a mother-in-law. She alternately treats her son like a servant and a helpless child, but there’s a hidden darkness to her that lends her character a distinct air of menace. She has it in for Paquita, and this hatred stays with her even after she’s become a zombie. The undead incarnation of Lionel’s mum is apparently played by Elizabeth Brimilcombe, who conveys an animalistic athleticism even as the character falls apart.
Lionel’s Uncle Les, played by Ian Watkin, is another excellent supporting character whose sheer nastiness almost makes him more repulsive than the zombies. When he discovers Lionel’s stash of tranquilized corpses, he tries to blackmail his nephew into giving up his home and inheritance in exchange for Les’ silence. As if that weren’t bad enough, Les sets his eyes on Paquita, and his attempts to have his way with her – whether she likes it or not – are enough to make your skin crawl.
Stuart Devenie plays Father McGruder, although the character’s zombie phase is portrayed by Stephen Papps. Devenie has the distinction of uttering one of the most crowd-pleasing lines in cinema history, and you’ll know it when you hear it.
Rounding out the cast of zombies are Brenda Kendall as Nurse McTavish, who takes a disturbing liking to Father McGruder, and Jed Brophy as Void, who is easily one of the funniest zombies around. Special mention should also go to Morgan Rowe and Sean Hay, who portray a hideous zombie baby – yes, a zombie baby – with Vicki Walker doing the vocals for the little critter. All the actors display a talent for physical comedy that transcends their revolting makeup, and even if it doesn’t make them sympathetic, it makes them entertaining to watch.
Also keep an eye out for a brief cameo by the director himself, who can be seen playing an undertaker’s incompetent assistant.
The creature effects in “Dead Alive” are remarkable in both their execution and their sheer imagination. They’re certainly not for the faint of heart. Forget shotguns and chainsaws; in this movie, the zombies meet their bloody ends via blenders, lawnmowers, and even garden gnomes. “Restraint” is not a priority in “Dead Alive.” At one point, a fleeing Lionel can’t figure out why he doesn’t seem to be running very far. Looking down, he realizes that the floor is so slick with blood, his feet can’t get any traction. The only solution? Use the dismembered body parts of the slain party guests as stepping stones, of course. That pretty much sums up the tone of “Dead Alive”: the answer to gore is more gore.
The finale lives up the rest of the mayhem, when Lionel’s mother makes one last bid to reclaim her son. Her final incarnation, which sees a fusion of mum and monkey, features the most grotesque puppetry this side of the “Fly” series. There are also some entertaining stop-motion effects early in the film, when we first encounter the Sumatran Rat Monkey that sets the chaos in motion. Also, be on the lookout for murderous zombie intestines, especially those with pleading little eyes.
Besides the violence, what sets “Dead Alive” apart is its wonderfully dark sense of humour. This is down to Jackson and his co-writers Stephen Sinclair (who also came up with the original story) and Frances Walsh. Just look at the scene in which Lionel, in a delirious attempt to bring some normalcy to his situation, brings that mischievous zombie baby on an outing to the park. Of course, the baby escapes, and a struggle ensues. This scene is certainly one of the film’s more surreal moments, and you might think there could never be anything funny about a grown man punching a toddler in the face and bashing its head into the side of a swing-set. Well, what if the child in question was a giggling little zombie? What then? Okay, you still might not find it funny, but at least this movie will put that to the test.
There are also moments that are unexpectedly moving. Lionel and Paquita’s love story is adorable, defined first by shyness and then by fierce devotion. The viewer can’t help but get drawn into their romance, which remains the core of the film no matter how much time is spent on the zombies. Also, there’s something poignant about how Lionel cares for his mother, even after she’s become a horrific monster. Without giving too much away, there is a scene between them that carries a great deal of emotional gravity, where Lionel must make a decision on what to do with the creature that was once his mother. Although the situation itself is still well within the realms of horror-fantasy, Timothy Balme plays the scene so sincerely that despite its strangeness, it has a surprising emotional power.
Finally, the credits feature a lovely song called “The Stars and Moon,” performed by Kate Swadling. The title refers to a mystical part of Lionel and Paquita’s story, while an instrumental version serves as the love theme throughout the film. It lends an amusing tone to the film’s finale, since it seems incongruously mellow after all the carnage we’ve just witnessed.
These days, Peter Jackson is known for polished productions like the 2005 remake of “King Kong,” and of course, for the “Lord of the Rings” series. He certainly deserves praise for these lavish epics, but it’s a treat to see the director’s early low-budget efforts. The difference between Jackson’s earlier and later work seems like night and day, but there’s no question that no matter the material or budget, the director’s talent shines through. For those who want to see the rougher, cheekier side of Jackson’s work, “Dead Alive” is a wild ride: delivering thrills and laughs even as it turns your stomach.