Dead Alive (1992)

Thoroughly engrossing…

by Adam Miller


Critics of Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy may have some good points about the films’ sprawling, their somewhat shallow allegorical nature, their racial attitudes (light skinned good, dark skinned bad), and the interminable ending(s) of RETURN OF THE KING. I have my problems with the fantasy genre myself, but I’ll give credit where it’s due: Peter Jackson brought fantasy to the mainstream, to Best Picture of the Academy Awards—a feat even STAR WARS couldn’t pull off. It’s the depiction of Jackson as mainstream which clashes most with a viewing of some of his early works (BAD TASTE, MEET THE FEEBLES).

The subject of this review is Jackson’s zombie flick DEAD ALIVE, billed as the grossest horror film of all time, and with some merit. The film begins with an homage to a later Jackson adaptation, KING KONG, as a scientist imports a mysterious Sumatran rat-monkey whose bite produces zombie like effects in its victims. The horror of this rat-monkey (animated with hilarious cheap stop-motion) is unleashed on a small New Zealand town when the our hero, Lionel’s, mother is bitten by the beast. The film delights itself with the mother’s slow transformation into a zombie (including several puss-filled gross outs), before hitting the familiar zombie flick stride (the number of town’s people infected grows exponentially).

The gorey-line, so to speak, acts as the foil to Lionel’s blossoming relationship with Paquita, a superstitious shop girl. Borrowing a bit from Hitchcock’s PSYCHO (and Psychoanalysis 101), Lionel is forced to choose between his devotion to his over-controlling, and undead, mother, and a new, mature life with Paquita. These basic Mommy issues are resolved with a lawnmower and gallons of fake blood, climaxing in a literally Freudian moment when Lionel is graphically pulled back into his undead, mutated mother’s womb.

DEAD ALIVE, in other words, wears its thematic heart on its sleeve, but at least this gives the viewer something to connect with other than slew of special effects—some laugh inducing, others vomit inducing, but none terribly offensive. In fact, in one scene the characters are so good mannered as to say nothing when the mother’s decaying ear falls into her soup and is promptly consumed.

I have fonder memories of BAD TASTE, especially one running gag with a man who must perpetually hold his brains in his head, but DEAD ALIVE is nevertheless a great cult favorite. It really makes one wonder what the heck New Line was thinking when they gave him the reigns to LotR… but I guess genius has to come from somewhere.

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