Friday, August 20, 2010


Many, many years ago, plague rats on an isolated island managed to rape some tree monkeys, and the Sumatran rat-monkey was the result.  If you're not sure if this movie will meet your definition of good taste, just reread that sentence.

This is an early directorial effort from Academy Award-winning director Peter Jackson, so some people that are big Lord of the Rings fans might look to this earlier work as an indication of things to come.  They shouldn't.  Back in the day, Peter Jackson was known as a master of splattering gore, usually used for humorous purposes.  The term "splatter gore" alone should give you a pretty good idea of what this movie is about.

A Sumatran rat-monkey bites an overbearing mother (Elizabeth Moody) and infects her with a zombie virus.  Her son, Lionel (Timothy Balme), realizes that his mother has become a natural abberation (instead of just an awful person), but doesn't want to alert the neighbors or scare away his new girlfriend, Paquita (Diana Penalver).  His solution is to hide his mother in the basement.  As you might guess, that doesn't work out so well.  Mummy dearest gets loose, bites other people, and kick starts a miniature zombie apocalypse, focused on Lionel above all else.  Lionel isn't on his own, though.  Aside from Pequita, he receives zombie-fighting  aid from a local priest (Stuart Devenie), who issues the film's most memorable line: "I kick ass for the LORD!"  And then he gets bitten and eats the lips off of a woman zombie, who later bears his zombie child.  Let me tell you, the living dead love child of a zombie priest and a zombie woman with no lips is less cute than you might think.  In the end, it is ultimately up to Lionel to kill the zombies, stand up to his monstrous mother and earn the love of his girlfriend.

When this movie gets boiled down to its main concept, Dead-Alive (AKA Braindead in its native New Zeland) is a zombie movie turned around.  Instead of discovering zombies and trying to barricade them out of his home, Lionel opts to barricade them in, so nobody notices.  This opens the movie up to a lot of comedic moments, most of which are alien to traditional zombie movies, although not less gross.  For example, there's a scene that involves zombie puss and pudding that is worth pointing out, but probably not polite to describe in detail.  That's not the only type of humor, though.  There's some slapstick and there's some socially awkward stuff, too.  I wouldn't go as far as to say that there is something for everyone in this movie, but it's funnier than zombie movies tend to be.

The star of this movie is really the gore.  It's a zombie movie, so you naturally expect to see some heads get blown off, but I don't think (though I could be wrong) there is a single gun used in this film.  Instead, the gore is very personal, and it gets all over.  When the zombies attack, they pull their victims apart.  There are many zombies that look relatively unmangled, but there are others that are less fortunate.  One might have just his head with his body always looking for it, another might have a torso with independent legs, and another might have had his chest ripped out.  These wounds don't happen off-screen, either.  You witness the violence, in all its glory.  The best scene involves a room full of zombies and Lionel resorting to a lawnmower shield to push his way through, but it is far from the only imaginative kill in this movie.

For such a gross, gory movie, the tone is surprisingly light.  Most of the time, gory films tend to have dark humor and rely heavily on the script for their kinda funny moments.  The lighter tone here allows the film to get away with a lot of socially awkward moments and visual jokes that are usually reserved for second-tier comedies.  Would this movie be any good without the zombie aspect?  No, the zombies, violence and gore are what make this worth watching, but the lighter tone makes it more fun.  How many zombie movies have happy endings?  Almost none, and there are even fewer that fans want to end happily.  Dead-Alive manages to walk the line between traditional zombie movie (excessive gore) and romantic comedy and still appeal to the hard-core horror fan, although it undoubtedly repels the traditional rom-com fan.

As time passes, this film becomes more significant in a historical context.  I doubt Shaun of the Dead would have ever been made if this had not.  This is also an early example of the special effects from the people who would eventually form the Weta Workshop, which did such a great job on the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This is also an early example of Jackson's screenwriting partnership with his wife, Fran Walsh, with whom he writes all his screenplays.

Is this a movie for you?  It is a messy and gross movie.  I'm not particularly squeamish, and there are some scenes that make me wriggle in my seat.  Still, this is a unique film experience and it is interesting to see the obvious talent of the filmmakers and the special effects team in a movie that doesn't take itself seriously at all.  That's just an intellectual argument, though.  You know you should see this movie if you like seeing zombie movies and you enjoy a varied, humorous approach toward disposing of the undead.

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