Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dead Alive

Peter Jackson is one strange fellow. He has to be; there's no other explanation for how the man who directed The Lord of the Rings is also responsible for the likes of Meet the Feebles. Dead Alive (1992), one of the decade's relatively few zombie movies (at least compared to the 80s and today), is one of the strangest movies I've ever seen, incorporating splatter horror with a zaniness of Monty Python, crazier in a way that even Sam Raimi hasn't matched.

It's certainly the goriest movie I've ever seen. It makes Friday the 13th look like Halloween. It makes The Thing look like The Thing from Another World. Hell, when it comes to the level of blood and guts on display, it makes Night of the Living Dead look like Bambi.

Wellington, New Zealand, 1957. Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) lives under the tyrannical thumb of his overbearing and (let's be honest) evil mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody). But then, Lionel and a lovely girl, Paquita (Diana Penalver), hit it off, much to Vera's intense dismay and jealousy. She follows them on a date to the zoo where one of the animal, a Sumerian rat monkey, bites her on the arm. Before long, Mum has turned into a flesh-eating zombie who begins to bite everyone she can, thus creating more of the walking dead, and it's all Lionel can do to keep things from getting even more out of control.

Be prepared for a lot of awkward, distorted close ups of pretty much every character. Jackson jams his camera into everyone's face, their eyes bugged out, faces contorted into twisted, exaggerated expressions. The camera swoops, pans, and flies; it hardly ever feels like it stops moving. By comparison, Terry Gilliam's style seems like the model of restraint and sedation. If the Evil Dead movies function as gory Three Stooges bits, then Dead Alive is more like Looney Tunes, a live-action cartoon that operates on a whole different level of reality.

Several sequences could have been pushed for intense horror, but Jackson plays them for kooky slapstick. In one scene, Lionel finds himself surrounded by zombies and tries to run away, and yet he remains running in place. Looking down, he finds he can't escape because he's slipping on a pool of blood. There's also a high-society lunch that Vera insists upon hosting, seemingly nonplussed by the fact patches of her body keep falling into the meal.  There's also the kung-fu priest who re-enacts the Black Knight bit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail with a zombie, Lionel taking a zombie baby to the playground, the zombie baby's conception (in a word, ew), and the final twenty minutes involving a horde of zombies, zombified intestines, a blender, a lawn mower, and probably the most disgusting example of being born again I've ever witnessed.

The violence is plentiful; the movie, you might say, has a surfeit of blood and viscera. In addition to the bites and dismemberments that come with a zombie movie, you got disembowelments, bodies chopped into wiggling pieces, limbs shredded down to the bone, heads dangling by a thread off the spine, puss and slime shooting out of wounds, and faces yanked off. Amazing how soft and easy humans and zombies prove to be. It might be hard to take except it's obviously fake and filtered through jokes.

The movie has a single pace - frantic - and a single style - batshit lunacy. It never pauses, it never slows down, and it never stops the onslaught of gags, goofiness, and gore. Undeniably in bad taste, but in its own cockeyed way, it's brilliant.

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