Friday, February 29, 2008


Director Peter Jackson found himself in a strange position with DEAD ALIVE (the clumsy, Trimark-inflicted title of what was originally called BRAINDEAD). Th 1992 film had catapaulted him from relative obscurity, but he was still several years away from the groundbreaking LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, beginning what could be dubbed his fan-boy period--a period, I'm sure, many wish he'd never emerged from.

We're all familiar with the movie, so I'll skip the usual synopsis. The film still holds up well as a slapstick splatter film (splatstick?) but I found it interesting viewing it after Jackson realized his dream of remaking KING KONG. In many ways DEAD ALIVE is a dry-run for that Hollywood epic, not only the references to Skull Island and its racially-insensitive depiction of its natives (not calling Jackson a racist, he was simply mimicking a movie he loved), but it was here that Jackson took his first tentative steps away from the frenetic, Raimi-esque camerawork that marked BAD TASTE to a more in-depth and developed style of filmmaking. It's kind of odd to say, given the movie features a farting pile of guts that moves of its own accord, but DEAD ALIVE's a turning point in Jackson's maturity as a director.

We see it early on, as Jackson establishes a fairy tale-like framework for his story, one that appears to be about predestined love before revealing the most dysfunctional mother-son relationship since Norman and Mrs. Bates. Jackson employs quite a few newfound flourishes--one of my favorites is when Lionel's Mum suffers the effects of the Rat Monkey's bite as he loses his virginity, a bit of thematic symbolism the film will return to later--before doing what he does best: setting in motion a series of splattery but undeniably funny sequences as Lionel deals with his snowballing zombie problem, ratcheting up the tension (on both a character and dramatic level) while carefully raising the outrageousness until reaching its legendary, balls-to-the-wall slaughterfest climax.

As he would go on to do quite famously (or, rather, infamously) in KONG, Jackson allows his climactic assault to go on longer than necessary, dulling the edge of much of its effect; at times during the 30+ minute-long setpiece it feels as though the first two acts were an excuse to stage a wanton, gleefully unrelenting parade of disembowelments, beheadings, and other juicy activities, though as a fan of horror and gore it's hard to hate a sequence which makes the bloodbath Bruce Campbell endured at the end of THE EVIL DEAD look like a refreshing shower. Jackson earned it with his characterization and plot, even if he does get a little self-indulgent.

The culmination of this sequence includes a mutated, oversized version of Mum that also brings to mind Jackson's KONG. The sometimes-awkward but effective puppet serves as not only another homage to the original film, but does an excellent job of embodying the conflict of her relationship with Lionel, best illustrated when Mum intones, "no one will ever love you like your mother," as her womb opens to trap him.

While not exactly cerebral--though it's got plenty of brains, ha-ha--DEAD ALIVE is a curious animal: an intelligent and often tender gore film. Many fans cried foul when Jackson moved on to the more mainstream terrain of HEAVENLY CREATURES, but after pushing the splatter envelope to its (il)logical extreme, the progression was inevitable.

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