Known as Dead Alive in North America, Braindead elsewhere
“You know what they are saying about you don’t you? You’ve got funny in the head! A real bloody weirdo!”–Roger, Dead Alive
FEATURING: Timothy Balme, Diana Peñalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Stuart Devenie
PLOT: An explorer discovers a Sumatran “Rat-Monkey” on Skull Island; the creature is safely housed in a Wellington zoo. The animal escapes and bites Lionel’s overbearing mother, who becomes a zombie and infects anyone she comes across. Lionel then juggles the advances of the local shop owner’s daughter Paquita and the machinations of his blackmailing uncle with the zombies mounting in his basement.
- Written before the controversial puppet black comedy Meet the Feebles, but filmed afterward. This was the first script co-written with longtime Jackson collaborator and partner Frances Walsh. The story originated with the third credited co-writer, Stephen Sinclair, who originally conceived of it as a stage play satirizing New Zealand society.
- Partly funded by taxpayer dollars through the New Zealand Film Commission.
- The film won Best Screenplay at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards in 1993. It won Best Film (and Best Special Effects) at the 1993 edition of the Fantasporto Film Festival for genre pictures.
- Released as Braindead in New Zealand, Australia, and other countries, but as Dead Alive in North America to avoid confusion with the practically identically titled 1990 horror film Brain Dead (directed by Adam Simon).
- The uncut version was banned for extreme violence in several countries, including Finland, Singapore, and South Korea.
- Came in it #91 on Time Out’s 2016 poll of the greatest horror movies.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Grand Guignol finale where Lionel cuts down a horde of zombies with a lawnmower. Three hundred liters of fake blood were used in this scene.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sumatran Rat-Monkey; zombie baby; the Lord’s ass-kicker
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: From the seemingly benign and placid surface of 1950’s New Zealand society, director Peter Jackson spews forth undead geriatrics consuming German Shepherds, amorous zombies who impregnate each other, sentient viscera, oedipal vaginal imagery on an epic scale, and an inexplicable excursion to the local park with a zombie baby. The invention and gory slapstick of this film are comparable to a Looney Tunes episode where Wyle E. Coyote falls into a spool of razor wire. Or perhaps the antics of and the Keystone Cops defending themselves from an undead invasion after ingesting speed-balls.
Original trailer for Dead Alive
COMMENTS: I fondly remember Braindead from my 1990’s adolescence, days of VHS and weekends spent with friends, trying to outdo each other with the most obscene and entertaining tapes we could find. I remember this sitting on shelves in my local store, the stretched out lips of its cover 3D embossed and raised in a strange marketing ploy to set the film apart. I didn’t watch it until many years later, allowing Jackson’s previous film Meet the Feebles (1989) to assault my senses before arriving at this pinnacle of Jackson’s bloodlust. As a maker of VHS shorts fueled by the strange excesses of movies like Delicatessen (1991) and Freaked (1993), the virulent, grotesque energy of Dead Alive and the fluid invention of its framing and narrative made it a treasured stop in my journey as a film maker. The satirical nature of the film and its transgressions against comfortable, codified 1950’s New Zealand society also made it ideally suited to my teenage mindset. With its glut of bodily humor and gore, it’s probably best suited to that age group.
The prosaic beginning of the film belies the gushing outpouring of insanity to come. Lionel, our milquetoast, accident-prone protagonist, stumbles into the affections of Paquita, who, following a Tarot reading from her Grandmother, believes Lionel to be her romantic destiny. Standing in the way of Paquita and Lionel’s affections is his dominating mother, Vera, who, while jealously spying on the couple at the local zoo, is bitten by a Sumatran rat monkey (in a nod to one of Jackson’s favorite films, King Kong, the rat monkey is found in a “Skull Island” prologue). The bite becomes infected and Vera starts to decompose, leading to a perversely funny scene where Vera and Lionel entertain a local Women’s Group representative and her husband, only for pus to spray from Vera’s infected wound into the unwitting husband’s custard while Vera’s ear falls into her own. A discerning woman, she spits out the earring and consumes the rest.
After rotting a little more, Vera dies, only to come back as a zombie who attacks and infects anyone she encounters. Not knowing how to treat them, Lionel decides to stash Vera and the growing number of zombies in his basement, keeping them sedated and trying his best to keep them from sight. Corpulent, sleazy Uncle Les arrives to further complicate matters by seeking a share of Vera’s estate. The joy of this film, however, is not in the fairly straightforward main narrative, but the episodic staging of comedic moments with the zombies, and the invention Jackson employs in zombie creation and destruction. We get flip-top head Nurse zombie, baby zombie, upper-torso zombie, head-sliding-around-floor-on-its-teeth zombie, and headless-with-garden-gnome-in-its-place zombie, all of whom become the source of running gags that build as the film progresses. Scenes not essential to the narrative, such as Lionel feeding the zombies at the dinner table or Lionel taking a zombie baby to the park, are vital to the effectiveness of the comedy—highlights of the surreal, unhinged atmosphere. As a horror film, it falls firmly in the category of “gore-comedy” and owes a debt to its antecedents to the Evil Dead series (especially II) and Re-animator (1986), as well as Monty Python, silent comedy, and slapstick.
All the running gags and innovation reach their apex in the film’s bloody climax, which is likely the goriest sequence of bloodletting committed to screen (although more recent entries like Tokyo Gore Police, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, and particularly Why Don’t You Play in Hell? may have since topped it). Zombie dismemberments happen quickly, leading to all variety of undead in stages of half-torsos, lopped limbs, even a zombie with its head lit from within by a light fixture. Uncle Les quickly loses his hairpiece and becomes a sped-footage killing machine, leaving a wriggling pile of zombie bits in his wake. The blood pours and pours, till the lawnmower wielding Lionel is barely recognizable beneath his coating of plasma. All this, and the film still manages a mid-carnage detour to reveal Vera’s back story, culminating in a true rush of the red stuff at the film’s end. It’s a calculated, anarchic killing spree at its finest.
While the teenage me would have happily awarded this film his highest rating, the adult me has to take a slight step back from the carnage and gross-out comedy. Some of the luster of the aggressive application of blood has worn off, and I crave a little more subtlety in my comedy and more character development in my leads. It remains one of the most inventive and fertile gore-comedy horror films I’ve seen, and it’s decidedly weird due to the multiple self-contained deviations it takes from the main plot—and doubly bizarre for the fact that these comic departures work, never detracting from the pacing or storyline. Any film that features the sound bites, “Your Mother ate my dog!” and “I kick arse for the lord!” is worth your time, and worthy of a place on the Certified Weird List.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“[Jackson] has a great instinct for what will drive us into squeals of giddy disbelief… a groaner of cult-classic dimension. After you see it, you want to race out of the theater and recommend it to your sickest friends right away.”–Peter Rainer, Los Angeles Times (contemporaneous)
“Jackson choreographs the mayhem into a bizarre form of slapstick, while ensuring that the gore is never the sole point; rather, he peoples the movie with engaging characters who are funny even when they’re not splattering or being splattered.”–TV Guide
“…there is that moment where Braindead finally breaks through to achieve a transcendentally surreal glory of excess where Tim Balme wades into battle against the zombies armed with a lawnmower, drenching an entire room in showers of blood… The film is a work of perverse genius.”–Richard Scheib, Moria: The Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Review (DVD)
IMDB LINK: Dead Alive (1992)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Braindead | Film | NZ On Screen – Basic info, and a nice essay and behind-the-scenes photos, from a New Zealand film database
Dead-Alive – Trailers from Hell – Mike “Big Ass Spider” Mendez breaks down the film for “Trailers from Hell”
Your Mother Ate My Dog! Peter Jackson and Gore-Comedy – Dontao Totaro examines the “gore comedy” subgenre, ranking Dead Alive as one of its apexes
The 5 Greatest WTF Moments from DEAD ALIVE – NSFW compilation of moments compiled by Blumhouse, coincidentally published two days before this review
Movie Censorship.com – Dead Alive has been cut so many times for so many different releases that Movie Censorship has three separate pages of comparisons (and is still incomplete)
Movie Discussion: Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive (1992) – Two average horror fans have an in-depth conversation about the film
DVD INFO: This Lionsgate/Trimark Pictures Region 1 DVD release (buy) offers only the original theatrical trailer as a special feature. The film is presented in 16×9 widescreen, in Dolby Stereo (which inexplicably had separate 5.1 elements on my sound system), with Spanish and French subtitles. This 1998 release is now out-of-print and pricey, and the movie is not available on Region A Blu-ray or from on-demand services. This state of affairs is odd for such a popular cult title.
(This movie was nominated for review by “Cody,” who actually suggested “any of Peter Jackson’s first movies from the 1980s through the early 90s.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)