Long before Peter Jackson knocked viewers’ socks off with the sturm und drang of the Shire’s shoeless denizens, or cobbled together his lo-fi, low-budget remake of Marco Ferrreri’s Bye Bye Monkey (which he wittily rechristened King Kong), he was a self-professed purveyor of Bad Taste, the title of his 1987 debut film, one of the pioneers of “splatstick,” a subgenus of horror that specialized in shifting gears with unpredictable abandon between extreme gore and outrageous humor, whose apotheosis is the unrelenting gag-fest Dead Alive. Inventive to a fault when it comes to image and incident, betraying an antic and anarchic gusto that calls to mind Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II, Jackson’s film is an escalating series of nauseating set pieces (little can rival the revolting “pus in the custard” scene), culminating in hands down the goriest sequence ever committed to celluloid, as Jackson and his FX team shift into maximum overdrive for a marathon of mutilation and mayhem guaranteed to test your intestinal fortitude. (Hint for the newbies among us: We’re talking a zombified, and flagrantly flatulent, GI tract run amok.)
Open on remote, forbidding Skull Island where redoubtable explorer Stewart (Bill Ralston) has come in search of the legendary Sumatran Rat-Monkey, the illegitimate love child, or so the story goes, of a horde of slave ship rats that descended on the island and gang-raped its gentle tree-monkey inhabitants. If the location seems familiar to viewers more invested in Jackson’s later filmography, maybe that’s because these scenes were filmed in the Putangirua Pinnacles, which also doubled for the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. When Stewart gets a little too close to his new ward, the ornery critter takes a few nibbles out of him, to the instant alarm of his indigene coolies, who proceed to hack away each and every infected limb. One last swing of the machete yields a spray of blood that turns into the film’s crimson title credits.
Over in Wellington, New Zealand, young Lionel (Timothy Balme) has female troubles, torn between the under-my-thumb influence of overbearing Mum (Elizabeth Moody), poster girl of the prim-and-proper school, with all the hypocrisy that entails, and his instant attraction to exotic Paquita Maria Sanchez (Diana Penalver), the down-market daughter of a local grocer, whose grandmother is the type of fortunetelling old Gypsy woman you’d find in just about any version of The Wolf Man. Unluckily for Lionel and Paquita, Granny’s cards betoken a strange brew of love and death. Stalker Mum shadows the lovebirds on their first date to (you guessed it!) the Wellington Zoo, where Paquita delights in “zee leetle monkees,” until our old friend, a.k.a. Simian Raticus (as a helpful placard informs us), puts the bite on Mum before being squishily dispatched under her high heel. It doesn’t take long for the disease to take hold, and Mum steadily deteriorates, one might even say disintegrates.
Devoted Lionel does his best to minister to her needs, pasting errant tatters of flesh back into place and dressing her festering wound as duty dictates. But nobody, least of all Mum, can keep it together when Mr. and Mrs. Matheson of the Wellington Ladies Welfare League decide to pay a visit. Things fall apart, as they say, and so does Mum. Her wound discharges a spurt of pus straight into Mr. Matheson’s custard, who insensibly slurps it up, exclaiming with delight, “Rich and creamy, just the way I like it!” And when Mum’s ear slides into her bowl, she promptly gobbles it down, spitting out her pearl earring almost as an afterthought. Queasy-making in the extreme, rarely has a scene treaded the fine line between what horror writer William Paul calls laughing-screaming with greater assurance.
Zombie Mum kick-starts a contagion, going after her victims with rabid rapacity, which Jackson films with skin-shredding, flesh-gnawing glee. Lionel does his best to keep things under wraps, setting up a zombie model home in the basement as the “family members’” number keeps growing. At about this point, were we watching a Lucio Fulci film, City of the Living Dead for instance, we might conclude “and now all hell breaks loose…” with complete confidence. But we’re dealing with Peter Jackson, who’s much more liable to confuse eschatology with scatology. Accordingly, he offers up a karate-loving priest, who “kicks ass for the Lord,” administering a righteous beat-down on a gang of zombie hooligans, the admittedly hilarious “pram in the park” scene, with Lionel slamming a recalcitrant zombie baby against everything in sight (it’s Jackson at his slap-stickiest), and an unfortunate incident involving Paquita’s prized pet. Paquita: “Your mom ate my dog!” Lionel: “Not all of it…”
When you see Ving Rhames getting busy with an outboard engine near the end of last year’s lamentably underrated Piranha 3D, thin-slivering all those ferocious fish into so much sashimi, it’s hard not to think about Dead Alive‘s notorious lawnmower finale, wherein Lionel scythes his way through the undead partygoers like a diesel-powered Grim Reaper, churning up a composted muck of innards and extremities. It’s bewildering, bewitching, and exhausting all at once. But the fun’s hardly over yet: There’s still a massive, misshapen Mum-ster to contend with, set on offering Lionel a one-way ticket back to the womb. Grotesque and carnivalesque, his intrauterine odyssey embodies Barbara Creed’s notion of the “monstrous-feminine” with a vengeance.
Never fear the outcome, however; it’s as pat and non-threatening as ever a viewer of The Lovely Bones could want, since Jackson also lacks Fulci’s fondness for the ambiguous and open-ended, instead opting for normative and affirmative, in effect proclaiming in earnest Robert Browning’s ironically-intended “God’s in His heaven, all’s right with the world.”
Considering the limited means available to Jackson and company when filming the awe-inspiring amount of viscera and gunk on display in Dead Alive, the 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is as lurid and sharp as anyone could hope for, several outbreaks of pesky mosquito noise notwithstanding. The lossless DTS track conveys the cheesy score and assorted splat-track sound effects, though maybe a more uncomfortably immersive remix might've been nice.
Just a theatrical trailer.
Lionsgate's visceral, albeit barebones Blu-ray package lets viewers really sink their teeth into Dead Alive.