Dead Alive/Brain Dead (1993) ****
Somewhere between the directorial sensibilities of Sam Raimi and John Waters, you will find that of New Zealand’s cult hero, Peter Jackson. Jackson is a top contender for the title of world’s most talented director of horror-comedies, and his first major film, Bad Taste, became a world-renowned classic of the genre about twenty minutes after it hit the theaters. Dead Alive/Brain Dead is Jackson’s take on the Romero-style zombie movie, arguably the genre best suited to his peculiar vision and talent for comedy through outrageous excess. Dead Alive (the unrated version, anyway) is, in all probability, the goriest movie ever made, and if current and future horror directors have any sense at all, they will allow it to remain that way, standing forever as the reductio ad absurdum of the gore film.
One day in 1957, a man from New Town, New Zealand (you know you live in a tiny country when one of your bigger cities is called “New Town”), goes to Sumatra to capture the island’s legendary Rat Monkey. The man dies in the attempt (he is dismembered by his native guides when the monkey bites him), but the Rat Monkey finds its way to New Town’s zoo nonetheless. Then, in the great B-cinema tradition, the movie abruptly jumps to what almost looks like a different flick altogether. A pretty Hispanic girl named Paquita (Diana Peñalver) is working the cash register at her parents’ store. One of her customers that day is a young man whom she fancies, but her grandmother swiftly sets her straight on the viability of their relationship, demonstrating by means of a tarot reading that Paquita is destined to be with someone else, someone whom she will recognize by the sign of the star and the moon. Okay, Grandma, whatever. But wouldn’t you know it, not five minutes later, a skinny, shy, dorky little guy by the name of Lionel (Timothy Balme, who would go on to appear in Hercules in the Underworld, one of the TV-movie spin-offs from “Hercules: The Legendary Journeys”) comes in to drop off an order, and knocks over a can of ball-point pens on the counter, creating in the resulting debris field... the sign of the star and the moon!!!! Paquita needs no further convincing; she instantly falls for Lionel, despite the fact that she was only seconds before in love with another man and contemptuous of Lionel’s manifest lack of suavity.
But there’s just one problem-- Lionel’s mother (Elizabeth Moody, from The Scarecrow and Heavenly Creatures). Lionel’s relationship with his mom is not what you would call a healthy one. In fact, I can easily imagine Lionel getting a real Norman Bates thing going, were he given half a chance. And Mom does not like Paquita. One day, she follows Lionel and Paquita to the New Town Zoo, spying on their date. Wait a minute... New Town Zoo... oh shit, the Rat Monkey’s at the New Town Zoo! Goddamned right. And what does the Rat Monkey do, do you think? Yup, he bites Lionel’s mom on the arm after killing one of the other monkeys. And what do you think happens to people who get bitten by the Sumatran Rat Monkey? That’s right, they turn into zombies!
The change doesn’t happen all at once, though. Lionel’s mom has just enough time before her transformation cranks into high gear to attempt to play hostess to a delegate from the Ladies’ Welfare League, which is currently scoping out Lionel’s mother for its presidency. I don’t think she’s going to get the job. Not only does she squirt a dollop of virulent pus into the delegate’s husband’s custard, she reduces the delegate to a spasm of projectile vomiting by eating her own ear when it drops off of her head! As you might imagine, this Sergeant Leper’s Falling Parts Club Band act signals the onset of Mom’s full-blown zombification, and she suddenly flips out, pulling her nurse’s head most of the way off when the latter woman attempts to come to her aid. The nurse too becomes a zombie, and before long, Lionel is reduced to locking the two women in the basement while he goes looking for something to help him control them.
What he comes up with is a powerful tranquilizer, which he receives from a mad doctor who appears to be an escaped Nazi war criminal. Lionel finds that he can sedate the zombies by injecting the tranquilizer directly into their brains, through either the nose or the eye, and he foolishly allows himself to believe that he has found the key to re-normalizing his life. Now, if you’re like me, you’re thinking, “What the hell? You mean he’s going to try to live in a house with two zombies?!” and the only thing I can think of by way of explanation is to remind you that one of the zombies is his mother, and Lionel has clearly always been quite the little mama’s boy. But this can’t possibly last long, and soon enough, Lionel is forced to bury his mum.
It occurs to Lionel, however, that his mother is not likely to stay put in her coffin, so he goes to the cemetery the night after her funeral to dig her up and inject her with more tranquilizers. He is prevented from doing so by the intervention of a gang of greasers who beat him up and piss on his mother’s grave. I think you know what’s coming. But this is a Peter Jackson movie, so there has to be an unexpected twist on the expected development, which in this case takes the form of the priest who officiated at Mom’s funeral rushing in to bail Lionel out of his peril at the hands of his mother and the now-zombified greasers. “I kick ass for the Lord,” the priest (Stuart Devenie of The Frighteners, who also supplied a number of voices for Meet the Feebles) says, and then leaps into full-on Shaw Brothers kung fu action. But just as suddenly as he appeared, the priest is dispatched by his undead opponents and turned into one of them, leaving Lionel with no choice but to return home with all five zombies!
It just gets crazier from there. The next 45 minutes will witness the birth of a zombie baby (and what did you think would be the outcome of two zombies having sex, hmmm?), an attempt by Lionel’s uncle (My Grandpa is a Vampire’s Ian Watkin) to blackmail Lionel into giving up his inheritance, and a party at Lionel’s house that turns into a zombie bloodbath when the poison with which Lionel attempted to euthanize his undead boarders ends up supercharging them instead. I promise you, you have never seen anything quite the like of the climax (unless, or course, you’ve already seen Dead Alive). Suffice to say that it involves hundreds of nearly indestructible zombies, a homicidal living digestive tract, and Lionel getting all Bruce Campbell on the monsters’ asses with a fucking lawnmower. It also involves Lionel’s mom being transformed into a 20-foot mega-zombie with steatopygia. (Look it up, you lazy fuckers.)
I rather regret that I never saw Dead Alive when it was new. Back then, its manic, deranged sense of humor and its phenomenally over-the-top gore effects would have floored me. But instead, I ended up waiting until I was so burned out on horror comedies that my capacity to appreciate its undeniable charm was greatly diminished. Seven years ago, this movie might have garnered my highest rating, but now, my patience for this sort of thing is all but exhausted, and it takes something nearly this inspired to make an impression on me at all. But “inspired” is definitely the best word for Dead Alive. It is perhaps the ultimate party movie, and carries my unhesitating recommendation.