Dead Alive 

“No one will ever love you like your mother.” —Mum, Dead Alive

The trajectory of Peter Jackson’s career—from the homemade slapstick gore of Meet The Feebles, Bad Taste, and Dead Alive to the refined studio spectacle of the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, King Kong, and The Lovely Bones—has been a case study in how special effects have changed, if not necessarily improved. Back when he was cobbling together those hilarious little creature features in New Zealand in the late ’80s and early ’90s, all the money and expertise in the world wouldn’t have given Jackson the resources to render the films’ stop-motion and puppet effects in CGI. And who would want to do that, anyway? By the same token, the Helm’s Deep sequence in The Two Towers has a level of pixelated detail that wouldn’t be possible in stop-motion—and who would want to do that, anyway?

Yet the thinking of these effects is often wrong, and Jackson’s fervent embrace of new technologies as a Hollywood filmmaker hasn’t helped matters. The important point isn’t that effects have gotten better, and that CGI is somehow superior to stop-motion, but that they’re different, and audiences respond to them differently. Who, besides maybe Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman, would argue that Rob Bottin’s spectacularly grotesque stop-motion creations for John Carpenter’s 1982 version of The Thing are inferior to the fluid ones-and-zeroes of 2011’s remake? Yet it would be inconceivable for a stop-motion version of The Thing or any other science-fiction/horror film to be financed by a studio in 2012, for fear that the effects would poke out from the visual fabric of the rest of the film. Gleiberman used the word “fake,” but why should we put a premium on realism when it comes to effects? Effects are not necessarily diminished by the audience recognizing them as effects. No one ever mistook Ray Harryhausen’s creations for seamless photorealism or Nick Park’s thumbprint-pocked Claymation wonders for the fluidity of computer animation. And yet they’re pleasing in ways that CGI could never be, perhaps because they’re so handcrafted and personal. 

All of which is to say that 1992’s Dead Alive (a.k.a. Braindead), Jackson’s last film before the transitional (and brilliant) Heavenly Creatures led him out of his private sandbox and into Hollywood, is also his most giddily entertaining. (Though arguments could be made for the demented puppet action of Meet The Feebles, or the satirical twist at the heart of Bad Taste.) The obvious point of comparison for Dead Alive’s gory shoestring slapstick is Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, which also pits a beaten-down but indefatigable hero against comically relentless supernatural forces, like The Three Stooges meets George Romero meets Herschell Gordon Lewis. Yet Jackson approaches the genre with a pocketful of other classic reference points, too, like King Kong and Psycho, all while ratcheting up a manic comic tone that hails more distinctly from his corner of the planet. And the effects are fake as all get-out—which is good, because otherwise, this would be the most horrifically gratuitous display of human carnage ever committed to film. 

The hat-tips begin with an opening sequence on Skull Island, home of King Kong and doom-saying natives, where the vicious Sumatran rat-monkey holds sway. Waving his permit around while dashing away from tribesmen à la Raiders Of The Lost Ark, an oblivious zoo official from Wellington, New Zealand smuggles one such monkey back to his quaint little city for open display. When the monkey takes a hunk out of Vera Cosgrove (or “Mum,” played by Elizabeth Moody), the priggish future treasurer of the Wellington Welfare Ladies League, it leaves her with an infection that turns her body into a giant rotting pustule with a craving for human flesh. Her hapless son Lionel (Timothy Balme), cowed into being a mama’s boy well into adulthood, doesn’t pick up on the zombie symptoms quickly—maybe because “Mum,” under normal circumstances, is something of a hideous monster. The mother-son dynamic feels like Psycho: The Early Years, before mother died and Norman Bates cracked. Shots like this one, the first exterior of the Cosgrove home, affirm the connection. 

Lionel’s efforts to contain the zombie uprising—mostly hiding it from his perky would-be girlfriend Paquita (Diane Peñalver), but also from the higher-ups at the Wellington Welfare Ladies League and a creepy uncle (Ian Watkin) who wants a piece of Vera’s estate—provide much of the slapschtick, as he dashes around with jugs full of tranquilizers and tries to play Weekend At Bernie’s with a growing number of decomposing corpses. Lionel sticking around the house rather than fleeing or asking for help speaks to his lingering devotion to “Mum,” who has him so flush with guilt and denial that he can’t get out from under it. She’s the beast he must destroy, but his impulse is the opposite, since the zombie Vera isn’t that much more unpleasant than the harridan Vera who orders him around. The burden of appearing normal has Lionel flummoxed under the best of circumstances, and keeping the chaos at bay is a hallmark of classic comedy, from Charlie Chaplin with the wrenches in Modern Times to Lucy and Ethel at the candy factory in I Love Lucy. In the funniest sequence in Dead Alive—and, not surprisingly, the one Jackson spent the most time crafting—Lionel carts a zombie baby through the park in a carriage and tries to imitate the doting mothers, with decidedly mixed results: 

Affably daffy as he is, Balme is no Bruce Campbell—granted, a standard that precisely zero people on the planet besides Campbell could hope to touch—and Jackson’s devil-may-care style favors manic flourishes over a more precise striking of comic notes. Where Dead Alive pays off is in its immense gore, the aggressively disgusting yet utterly palatable geysers of plasma and peelings of flesh that just keep escalating as the film goes on. The business end of a lawnmower turns out to be the weapon of choice, which says everything about the film’s commitment to subtlety: There’s nothing elegant or clever about grinding up zombies in whirring mower blades, and that’s the way Jackson likes it. The idea here is to be epically gross, and the overall effect is as giddily abstracted as a Warner Brothers cartoon. 

To that end, Jackson acclimates the audience with small gross-out jokes before anything goes, like a squirt of pus in the pudding (“Mmm… rich and creamy, just the way I like it!”) or a wry gag about preparing Vera’s remains for the funeral viewing. (“It’s been a damn difficult embalming job.”) But once Lionel stops trying to cover up the zombie threat and starts fighting it, Dead Alive becomes a delirious showcase for molds, squibs, and other old-fashioned horror effects. Horrors like zombie lovebirds literally sucking face, disembodied torsos and legs moving independently of each other, skin peeled off as if a face were a banana, an intestinal system that takes on a sinister life of its own—the human body becomes soft, moldy, and malleable, and Jackson and his artisans treat it like kids treat a mound of Play-Doh. 

Now that Jackson has graduated into respectability—that’s the kindest possible assessment of The Lovely Bones—there’s an assumption that he’s more evolved and mature than the juvenile Fangoria subscriber who made Dead Alive. These are the same assumptions that will have you believe that the “fake” exploding flesh-sacks in Dead Alive have nothing on the fires of Mordor. Peter Jackson is a different director now than he was back then, and he has the Oscars to show for it. But in fundamental ways, he’s not necessarily better. 

Coming up: 
March 22: Cabin Boy
April 12: Hackers
May 3: Ichi The Killer