When one thinks of Peter Jackson’s filmography, it’s typically of either the Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit trilogies. But long before he had hobbits traversing snow covered mountains, or monster-filled caverns, this New Zealand maestro released what many critics have called “the goriest film of all time”. And surprisingly enough, it’s one that not everyone, even many horror fans, even know about. So as we celebrate its 25th anniversary, let us lovingly look back on the gorefest known as Dead Alive (or as we Yanks call it, Braindead).
At its core, Dead Alive/Braindead is a zombie flick. I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to give that away. And one of the things I most enjoy about zombie movies is the how. As in – how did our heroes or heroines find themselves in their current situations? What brought on the zombie apocalypse this time? And while most movies play the human card; human error, a virus gone amok.. Dead Alive takes a completely different tact. No, in this film it’s all caused by a little claymation beastie known as a Sumatran rat-monkey; the product of and what happens when plague infested rats from British cargo ships invade an island and begin raping the monkeys there. Yeah. It’s that kind of movie!
Our adventure begins on Skull Island (King Kong anyone?!) where a team of zookeepers from New Zealand have come to snatch up one of the Sumatran rat-monkeys. Despite the natives’ restlessness and attempt to persuade them otherwise, and all hell breaking loose, said ugly rat-monkey does make its way to the New Zealand zoo where it becomes an exhibit for everyone to enjoy. Note the sarcasm.
Enter our bumbling hero Lionel (Timothy Balme), his domineering mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody), and his Spanish señorita Paquita (Diane Penalver). Lionel and Paquita have a love that is written in the stars. This pisses his mum off greatly, who decides to stop at nothing to break them apart. Unfortunately our favorite Sumatran rat-monkey has different plans. While on a date to the zoo, Vera wanders a little bit too close to the rat’s cage, and suffers a bite. The rest is, as they say, zombie movie history.
Okay, well maybe just a tad more. Lionel decides that rather than do what needs to be done and dismember dear old mum, he keeps her, and all those she infects, in his basement and cares for them as though they’re children. Probably not the best idea, but hey! You have to give the guy props for even trying. What ensues is chaos and mayhem of the highest order. Word of warning. If your dear old mum ever becomes infected with such a virus, deal with it for the love of God. You don’t want what happens here happening to you. And that, as they say about the rest, is movie history.
When writing a retrospective of a movie, especially when it’s turned 25 years old, there are several things that you need to look for. First, you need to see it through the lens of its age and when it was made. Could this movie be made now and still be a viable entry into the genre? In the case of Dead Alive, the answer is a resounding yes! If it were to be made today, and almost exactly the same way it was then, it would still be a fantastic movie.
Once that’s established, there are two other things I have to be looked at. The good and the bad of the film itself. Let’s start with the bad. Is there any bad? In all honesty, very little is done wrong in this movie. I’ve been watching it again recently in order to write this article, and thus was intentionally looking for flaws and things to point out. I wanted to be nit-picky if I possibly could. But it didn’t happen. There just wasn’t anything that I could pinpoint that rubbed me the wrong way. Was some of the acting over done? Of course. Was some of the dialogue cheesy? Yes. Were the effects the best I’ve ever seen? No. But did it affect the quality of the film itself? The answer is a resounding no.
So what does Dead Alive do right? Darn near everything! The first thing you’ll notice if you watch this film is that everything is perfectly paced. Where as many zombie movies take time to get going, this one starts out with the gore, and ends with the more. And not only that but as far as the gore factor goes, and the action, the pacing is perfect. It starts out fairly slow, like the beginning of a narrative or a song, but by the end it reaches a crescendo where everything is so bat shit crazy that you’re left shaking your head wondering what you just saw. It’s that different from all of its predecessors and everything that’s come behind it.
At the end of the day, Dead Alive is a nonstop fun romp from beginning to end. Much like his contemporaries Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, it does an amazing job of blending comedic hilarity as well as action and gore, which leave you squealing from beginning to end. It’s definitely worth a look if you’ve never seen it before, or a revisit if you have seen it before. It’s a timeless classic but just never gets old.