Dead Alive

Review by Mike Finkelstein

Director Peter Jackson has had an interesting career. He’s known now largely for the Lord of the Rings films, but the great trilogy of movies adapting Tolkien’s big trilogy of novels, and the far lesser Hobbit films (which, frankly, shouldn’t have been made), but there was a time when he was an independent director best known for making strange, out-there horror films. Movies like Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles were his bread and butter. It’s how he cut his teeth in the industry, and he certainly made his mark with those gonzo films. But, good and bad, a film he was most known for at the time (right up until Lord of the Rings launched him in a completely different direction) was Dead Alive (aka Braindead outside the U.S.).

Dead Alive is an infamous movie. It’s one of the goriest films ever made, and that’s not hyperbole. This film regularly shows up on lists of films for gore-hounds, and it’s always at the top. The entire third act of the movie is one long series of scenes with blood, guts, disembowlings, sprays of visceral, and more. It is a film so over-the-top with its gore that it can make most members of the audience queasy (even those, like me, that generally can laugh off all the gore in the world). The film wants to have a gory good time and it absolutely commits to that.

But it was also a Box Office bomb, likely because it was so over-the-top with its gore. Made on a budget of $3 Mil, Dead Alive only managed to pull in a hideously low $242.6 Thousand in theaters. What the film was selling audiences weren’t buying, this despite generally positive reviews from critics. And, really, it’s easy to see why audiences were repelled by the film: it’s rather repellant. The film has a go-for-broke energy that’s easy to respect. Like The Evil Dead and Re-Animator, there is no special effect that Dead Alive can’t over-do, no concept that can’t be taken five steps too far. This film goes so far beyond the bounds of good taste that if Jackson hadn’t already made a film called Bad Taste I’d think that would be the perfect title for this movie.

And, you know what? It’s glorious. This is not a film that skimps out. There is no holding back, no saying, “maybe we shouldn’t do this.” The film never once shies away from doing anything and everything it can to deliver the most shockingly hideous experience for its audience, and there’s clearly no remorse about it. The goal was to make the biggest, most disgusting, most gonzo horror film ever and Dead Alive delivers just that. It might not be an easy film to stomach, and there are plenty of times where I had to turn away for a second because of what was on screen (puss, gaping wounds, and stabs to eyes being among the various bits I couldn’t watch), but damned if I don’t absolutely respect how far this film was willing to go.

At its core, weirdly, Dead Alive is a love story. Paquita María Sánchez (Diana Peñalver) is a clerk at a general store. She has the hots for a local doctor, but when her grandmother does a card reading for Paquita, she learns that her soul will be bound not to that doctor but to local weirdo Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme). Lionel lives with his mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody), and has lived under her thumb his whole life. But when Paquita comes around, and invites him out to the zoo, Lionel realizes that there might be more for his life than just doing whatever his mother wants all the time.

The only problem is that his mother doesn’t want this. She follows him to the zoo to ruin his date, but she then gets bitten by a freakish-looking rat monkey (a recent, cursed import from Skull Island). Lionel has to take his mother home at that point, and then as she gets sicker and sicker, he has to spend more and more time taking care of her. She dies, then comes back as a zombie and bites her nurse, then they bite other people, and soon Lionel has a small cadre of zombies living in his basement. He tries to keep them tranquilized so they won’t bite anyone else, but he keeps struggling to keep them under control. And when they get out (and they do get out) all hell will break loose for him, Paquita, and everyone living nearby.

The movie gets the scares and gore in early, right from the outside when a New Zealand zoologist goes to Skull Island (a nice reference by Peter Jackson to King Kong there), gets bitten by the rat monkey, and then sees his companions cut off one limb after another to try and cut away all the bites (spoiler: it doesn’t end well for him). But once the mother gets bitten by the rat monkey, the film heads right off the deep end. It gets its gore in early, with puss and flapping skin, falling off limbs and disgusting noises. And then it just keeps going, never stopping, always looking for some way to ratchet up the disgust factor again and again. By the time you get to a scene where two zombies have sex, immediately leading to a zombie baby who scampers around causing Gremlins-style carnage, you know you’re in for a hideously delightful time. And, bear in mind, these are just what happens in the first two acts.

The entire last act of the movie is famous (and infamous) for the amount of gore that is splashed (literally) on screen. A party full of people get mauled by zombies, and then they all come back (of course). Then we have zombie limbs in blends, zombie organs getting splattered everywhere, zombie organs coming back and attacking people on their own. It all culminates in the most talked about sequence in the film, when Lionel plows his way through a whole pack of the undead while wearing a lawn mower (facing outwards, naturally) on his chest. So much gore is sprayed in this sequence that, even if the rest of the film had been a staid and sedate documentary about Hummel figurines, it still would have taken the title for goriest film ever.

Credit to the film, though: it does try to actually have a story and not just be a vehicle for gory (although it is mostly a vehicle for gore). Lionel is a tragic figure, always trapped under the control of his mother. His arc is all about trying to find peace for himself, to break free of her control, even as the sickness, death, and then undeath puts further and further roadblocks in the way of him having any kind of life. Paquita is his hope, his escape plan, his one lifeline to break free, but he has to go through a barrel of drama (and even more viscera) to get there in the end.

For her part, Peñalver is absolutely fantastic as Paquita. Her job is to sell the love story between herself and Lionel, and damn if this actress didn’t absolutely nail it from minute one. She managed to exude love-struck charisma in every scene and even though they only have one real date, and a couple of pretty solid kisses, you still buy that Paquita is hung up on Lionel. It’s a solid performance, and it helps sell the idea that through all of this blood and guts there really is a happy ending waiting for them on the other side.

Whether or not you get there, though, is another matter. Dead Alive absolutely isn’t for everyone and if this level of gore, blood, guts, puss, and more sends you off the deep end within the first few minutes, shutting the film off so you can watch anything kinder and safer (like The Thing, for example), well, I can’t really blame you. This is a film made for a very specific audience and when those horror fans found this movie they turned it into a legitimate cult classic. For everyone, though, this is a hard film to stomach. You either can make it through this film (campy and silly as it really is) or you can’t, and I respect that either way. I’ve seen the film twice and after this second time I said, “yep, I’m good to wait at least another decade before I do that again.” I like the film but… I can’t handle it all that often.