Long before he was given the reigns to make the Lord of the Rings trilogy, New Zealand’s Peter Jackson made a name for himself making lower budget horror movies. 1992’s Dead Alive (Braindead in NZ and the rest of the world that isn’t the United States) is famous for holding the “goriest movie ever” record for the sheer volume of fake blood it contains.
In 1957, a Sumatran Rat Monkey is brought to the Wellington Zoo in New Zealand, where it bites the jealous mother of a shy young man who is on a date with a young woman. The mother dies, becomes a zombie and starts turning other people into zombies. Hilarity ensues as the young man tries to keep his mother from causing trouble and failing. By the end, things get…Freudian.
Lionel Cosgrove: Our Hero is a shy mama’s boy with a domineering mother. When he meets Paquita, he starts to fall in love and the two begin going out, but mum’s interference…complicates things. His whole arc is about eventually confronting his mother issues (and shucks howdy, does that get surreal). He’s also pretty handy with a lawnmower.
Paquita Maria Sanchez: The Girl. She works in a store and has a tarot-reading grandmother that predicts a young man she will become entangled with in the future. Lo and behold, when she sees Lionel, she leaps at him. A nice girl, she doesn’t understand why Lionel starts avoiding her when the zombies start popping up. It was also quite interesting to hear a Spanish accent on New Zealand English.
Vera Cosgrove: Lionel’s dear old mum, and a first degree harpy. Alive, she hams up the screen, berating her son while dusting with a kitchen knife. Dead, she becomes the main Villainess, infecting victims in the goriest ways possible and becoming the subject of a running gag where Lionel keeps trying to keep her sedated with animal tranquilizers.
Sumatran Rat Monkey: “Story goes, these great big rats come scuttling off the slave ships and raped all the little tree monkeys.” Now THAT’S a pedigree for the virulent little bastard. Anyway, it’s the stop-motion critter that gets the whole zombie uprising started. I just tossed it on here so I could put that quote with it.
Uncle Les: Vera’s younger brother, he’s a slimy, greedy, lecherous bastard with eyes on the inheritance.
Baby Selwyn: This movie has a ZOMBIE BABY. Not a baby that turns into a zombie, but a baby conceived by and born by ZOMBIES. Despite reason saying “that’s not physically possible” it turns into absolute hilarity down the line.
Father McGruder: Now we come to this film’s Badass. The local preacher is a small role. When Lionel is attacked by greasers as he’s trying to dig up his mother for another sedative dose, they become zombies themselves, and Father McGruder gets involved, saying that the situation “requires divine intervention.” He proceeds to leap into the fray, says the line I used for this headline, and proceeds to use karate to beat the limbs off of a zombie greaser. That’s so awesome it bears repeating in italics. He beats the limbs off of a zombie greaser with karate. Sure he becomes a zombie himself, but that fight scene alone is transcendently GLORIOUS.
Despite being a low budget film, you can tell Peter Jackson is a director with potential. I wonder what would happen if you gave him an actual budget? (Oh yeah, an Academy Award or two) Anyway, in this film, Jackson brings a lot of Sam Raimi-esque touches to his own over-the-top horror comedy, but you can also see his own style coming through. There’s lots of zooming in and out at appropriate scenes and a general playfulness to everything. Jackson is very good at framing and building atmosphere, and also throws in some great visual gags with a trolley car.
As for the visual effects, it delivers buckets and buckets and buckets and buckets and buckets of liberally applied blood (and other oozes) It starts off as simple zombies, but, as zombies are so prone to wear and tear, it becomes so much more than just people in makeup shambling around. The climax of the film, in a house party gone horribly wrong, just keeps heaping up OUTRAGEOUS effects, which are too numerous to list here. Of course, there’s a lot of gross out stuff to tide you over between zombification scenes. One of the fellows involved is named Richard Taylor, who worked with Jackson on a large number of films, is the guy who runs WETA Workshop and is a big deal in special effects nowadays. Jackson himself was also involved in the effects. Some of the effects aren’t as great, like the stop motion on the rat monkey and some of the parts with the zombie baby, but that’s probably more to do with the limitations of the budget.
Screenplay by Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh and Peter Jackson (the busy little bee also has a cameo in the film). The story succeeds in being both bloody disgusting and hilariously quotable. It also puts forward the notion of a zombie family, just hanging out in Lionel’s basement, tied to their chairs and sedated on animal tranqs. Also, the Father McGruder fight scene.
The score by Peter Dasent works for the most part when it focuses on the eerie piano. The more synthesized parts didn’t do anything for me.
This really is my kind of horror movie. It delivers monsters and mayhem in spadefuls and is a hell of a fun time to spend 90 or so minutes. On top of the general hilarity of the film, Jackson is a fantastic director. The action is OUTRAGEOUS without being idiotic, and the movie knows its being ridiculous and revels in it. I can see why it’s a cult classic, and I can, with a healthy conscience, recommend it to fans of B movies, indie horror movies and those with the stomach for gory comedy. It is very similar in tone to Evil Dead II if you really want to make a comparison.