Monday, July 26, 2010

Zomblog Review: "Dead Alive"

“Dead Alive”
New Zealand
Stars: Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin
Writer: Stephen Sinclair, Frances Walsh, Peter Jackson
Dir: Peter Jackson
97 minutes

Peter Jackson has a firm grasp on those things that attract horror film fans. He also has a solid grip on filmmaking. And he has a chokehold on slapstick comedy.
Each one of those masterful ideals collided in 1992, when he unleashed “Dead-Alive” (aka “Braindead”) unto the world.
Peter and I go quite a ways back. I was a freshman in high school when a fellow film nerd recommended I head over to the local video store near the school (not the one named Blockbuster) and check out a film called “Bad Taste.” If this were a blog devoted to alien invasion and absurdity, I would spew praise like a nun first meeting the Pope over that film (and, much to the dismay of my blog counterpart, I have … and he doesn’t quite get why I love that film so much, but, here’s to hoping he will one day go back and look at it with the same eyes that made him love “Shaun of the Dead.” Yes, I am pairing the two. Deal with it.)
Coming back to the subject at hand, when I learned from Fangoria magazine Peter Jackson was making a zombie opus, I was doing backflips (figuratively). I knew he would put his signature wacky imprint onto the genre, and would do so with capable hands.
And, two years later, when it finally hit video stores stateside, I was not at all disappointed, even though the way-over-the-top ending was bizarre even for me.
But, everything leading up to it was incredibly original.
“Dead-Alive” follows a Sumatran Monkey, captured by zoologists, from Skull Island (subtle hint, Peter, you wanted to take on “King Kong” at a later date?) to New Zealand. During the capture of the monkey, a zoologist is bitten (several times) by the hideous creature and, from the reaction of his hired men, has contracted “the bite.” He is hacked to death by said hired hands, but the monkey arrives at the zoo.
Then, we meet Paquita (Penalver) and Lionel (Balme, whom must have given Simon Pegg some inspiration to act during “Shaun”). Paquita is happy to help running her grandparents’ grocery store, while Lionel is miserable taking care of his extremely overbearing and widowed mother (a memorable character quips later that Lionel was set upon with an abundance of “mother-love” in his father’s absence.).
It’s a simple enough of a set-up, and, I would argue, the first zom-rom-com (zombie romantic comedy). Paquita pines for Lionel, the affable and awkward hero, and, while he returns Paquita’s advances the best (and as awkwardly as he can), he cannot help but be devoted to mother.
Mother meets with an unfortunate accident with the aforementioned monkey at the zoo (complete with grotesque Harryhausen-esque stop-motion effects), and mother begins to change into one of the undead — she gets “the bite.”
Lionel, being consumed with “mother-love,” tries to keep mother a functioning member of society as she begins to rot, die, and change into a zombie. In his efforts to protect “mum,” he buys animal tranquilizers from a suspect veterinarian (whom may or may not be a Nazi defector — who am I to judge a hefty German accent and possible exposed Swastika?)
Along his way to protecting mum, Lionel inadvertently causes “the bite” to be spread to a nurse, a priest, and a gang member. He collects the newly turned and holes them up in his mother’s basement, in a mansion on a hill his jealous uncle wants to inherit, despite Lionel’s mother — when Lionel can no longer hide she is dead, and a hilarious funeral follows — leaving all of her fortune to her doting son. Lionel, unable to hide his secret any longer, gives in to his greedy, sick, perverted uncle’s wishes.
And, in a plot lifted from just about any 1970s porno or bad joke, the priest and nurse decide to do “what comes natural.” Yes, zombie sex. And, as nature allows (in this film, at least) a prodigy is produced — an extremely hyper, ugly, and mischievous zombaby is born. And, with this character introduced, the film hits some of its best slapstick strides.
Needless to say, the uncle taking charge of his nephew’s home, and his insistence of having a party, leads to the revelation of Lionel’s secret — and full-on, incredible, bloody carnage ensues as each party attendee is attacked, bitten, or devoured.
This film is an absolute delight from start to finish. Jackson uses a lot of film-school clichés (close, quick zooms, the Raimi-following cam, and sped-up film) to elicit laughs from the audience and to hammer-home the absurdity of the film. And he does deftly. Anyone who tries to take the film serious will be disappointed. If you shut your sensibilities down and go with it, a reward is to be had. The film is what Moe, Larry, and Curly may have attempted had they lived as long to see zombies become a mainstay. Jackson has moved on to grander films and I salute him. He started by making a gross-out and genuinely funny alien-invasion film with “Bad Taste.” He made me wonder what really happened behind the curtain with “The Muppets” when he made “Meet the Feebles.” And, he made it OK to make a zombie film over the top, gory, and funny all at the same time. Edgar Wright had to have been inspired.
And horror fans are grateful.

Romero Rules Followed: 4/5 (The zombies are created from a rare animal bite, but have all the characteristics of Romero’s incarnations, including a voracious appetite).
Gore factor: Off the charts. Will anyone look at a lawnmower as anything but a weapon after this one?
Zombies or Wannabees? Zombies
Classic, fine, or waste of time: Classic
Additional comments: Shut-off your logic sensors. Enjoy it as slapstick for the modern age.


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