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Something like six years ago New Zealand’s own Peter Jackson was officially dubbed the highest paid director (initially, not including backend) of all time, and he was handed the cash for bringing his long gestating dream project, a remake of King Kong, to the big screen. Jackson earned such capital, and became a household name because of his tireless work on the epic (in every sense of the word) Lord of the Rings trilogy. For his efforts he also won a bunch of Oscars, and the Lord of the Rings series raked in a few billion dollars world wide in box-office receipts, along with god knows how much in video and toy sales. Jackson was given a shot at J.R.R Tolkien’s fantasy trilogy because he proved he could work with special effects while making his first Hollywood production, The Frighteners, and proved he could deal in genuine, human drama with the critically acclaimed Heavenly Creatures, which is still, likely, his best film. But back in the mid-'90s, even the most avid Jackson fan wouldn't have imagined for a second that the creator of such bad taste comedies as, erm, Bad Taste, and Meet the Feebles would end up anywhere near a multi-million dollar Hollywood set. If you'd asked me what the apex of the Kiwi director’s career would always be 15 years ago I would’ve answered Dead Alive. Or rather, Braindead, because nerds prefer using original release titles whenever possible to convince themselves they’re somehow superior, before, you know, going home to watch the same movie for the 34th time in a year.

Dead Alive
The story goes a little something like this: Lionel (Timothy Balme) is a lonesome momma's boy, guilted into caring for his perfectly capable middle-aged mother (Elizabeth Moody) through years of mental abuse. Paquita (Diana Peñalver) is a shamelessly romantic immigrant girl, looking for the right man to complete her life. The Sumerian Rat Monkey is a beastly creature that wants nothing more than to eat flesh and spread his horrible zombie disease. When Paquita is told she is fated to love with Lionel, she cannot be stopped, and her innocent allure is a threat to Lionel's mother, who follows them on their date to the zoo, where the Sumerian Rat Monkey savages her while she spys on them from behind the bushes. Lionel is once again guilted into caring for his now zombifyed mother, finding no time to continue his budding relationship with Paquita. When mother escapes the house and is hit by a bus, she is pronounced dead, and Uncle Lester (Ian Watkin) comes looking for his share of the inheritance. The problem here being that Lionel's mother isn't actually dead, but undead, a fact that Lionel has decided to keep under wraps. How will he deal with the spreading zombie virus, how can he quell his gold digging uncle, and how can he win back his love? One thing's for sure, mayhem will ensue.

Dead Alive may not seem like one of the three logical precursors to The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, but this was a major step for Jackson, who was a consistently ‘do-it-yourself’ director right up until the point he couldn’t physically control the scale of his massive sets. Bad Taste saw him directing, writing, supervising and creating many of the effects, and acting in two roles (he has a fight with himself at one point). Later he’d spearhead Weta Digital and Weta Workshop with Richard Taylor, and other Dead Alive effects technicians, in an effort to create state of the art graphics for Heavenly Creatures, and The Frighteners. Dead Alive is brimming with energetic direction that stretches the film’s modest budget to wacky extremes. Jackson’s trademark visuals would definitely be more firmly established with Heavenly Creatures, his love of moving cameras, especially push-ins to character faces, is readily displayed in this film. There are also plenty of grotesque close-ups, and a severe use of wide-angle lenses, which Jackson likely thought would broaden the scope of this production, but which actually give Dead Alive an almost maddening intimacy. This intimacy mixed with the zipping hand-held look, and all the aggressive push-ins fits Jackson’s simplistic script (co-written by long time collaborators Stephen Sinclair and Fran Walsh) quite well, and sells the soap opera melodrama, the childish humour, and the romance quite well. The occasional poor-man’s crane shot gives the pleasantly cheap production a boost of production value on occasion, and the extended, gore-fest climax hints at Jackson’s future as a large-scale action virtuoso.

Dead Alive
It’s hard to convince non-fans, but thanks to unabashed sentiment, adorable performances from Timothy Balme and Diana Peñalver, and probably a whole lot of script influence from Fran Walsh, Dead Alive sits high among my favourite romantic comedies. Outside the juvenile potty-humour and flying viscera, Dead Alive follows the typical rom-com template more or less to the letter, and without so much as an ironic wink to the audience. The reasoning for the sentiment is goofy, and the relationship isn’t given much screen time to blossom in any realistic manner, but it takes a hard-hearted son of a bitch to ignore the charms of this budding relationship. How many women would stand by a man whose mother ate her dog? That's true love. And in the end (spoiler alert) love conquers all, rendering the horror of the situation inconsequential. Who cares if you’ve got to kill a couple dozen neighbors with a lawnmower, what’s really important is the success rate of true love. Jackson's Zom-Rom-Com predates Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead by more than a decade as well. It's too bad he didn't coin the phrase. I suppose being the highest paid director in history will have to have to do. Perhaps the most (arguably) unnecessarily ambitious element of the entire film is its period setting. Jackson could’ve saved himself quite a bit of money had he set the film in the early ‘90s, but the ‘50s setting makes for a more unique, almost timeless experience. The idealistic post-war period piles quite a bit of charm over what could’ve easily been a non-descript, and largely mean-spirited overall thematic impression.

But let’s not play the Mr. Highroad game here, in the end this is really an exercise in splattery one-upsmanship. I'm always hesitant to refer to Dead Alive as a horror film in mixed company, or even a horror-comedy hybrid. It's far too gleeful and lighthearted to really ‘horrify’ anyone. The violence is strictly played for laughs, not animosity or pain, and even the weakest stomachs can usually acclimate to the icky excesses. And just when you don't think Jackson and his team couldn’t possibly take their extravagant gore any further, they do. In spades. The sheer quantity of gross-out gags may still hold a record, as far as I know. I can think of films with more offensive violence, but none with as much visceral glop as Dead Alive.  Severed limbs not doing it for you any more? Have an eyeful of internal organs. Seen enough guts yet? Well, here are some living ones, complete with a gas-spewing anus. And let’s not overlook the maniacally gooey lawnmower sequence. Plenty of viewers will find Jackson’s sense of humour too jejune to laugh along with, and the goopy effects monotonous before Lionel even starts his lawnmower rampage, but the rest of us should feel free to giggle and clap like shriner monkeys over and over again.

For the record, this release features the unrated American cut, which runs 97 minutes. This is the cut most viewers are probably used to, and apparently the cut Jackson prefers (nobody prefers the ridiculously truncated 85 minute long R-rated cut), but the film was originally released in a longer 104 minute cut. The long cut is my favourite, and fills out some fun gaps around the climax (zombie Void escapes from the basement once before the shit really hits the fan, and is force fed hard liquor to quiet him down again), and includes more gore, including a third pass during the lawnmower massacre. The pacing is probably better at 97 minutes, but I miss the extra bits. Perhaps a UK distributor will do a Blu-ray release of the 104-minute cut some day in the not so distant future, and fans like me can have it both ways.

Dead Alive

Video


The super-deluxe high definition release I was hoping for may not have come to pass, and Dead Alive might never look as sharp as The Lord of the Rings, but this no frills Blu-ray is still a measurable upgrade over both my non-anamorphic UK extended cut, and Artisan’s anamorphic unrated cut effort. Lionsgate has taken very little effort to clean up their print. This transfer is covered with minor artefacts, including some tracking lines, shuttering frames, and, most commonly, flecks of white print damage. The bigger problem is inconsistency, and the overall clarity and cleanliness changes noticeably from shot to shot. Details levels mark an improvement over the previous releases, but the film was never intended to be all that sharp. Jackson and cinematographer Murray Milne shoot the bulk of the film in relatively soft focus to sell period, and the light-hearted, cartoony feel. It’s also likely the frosted look was employed to cover up some of the special effects shortcomings, and even in this relatively soft state some of the prosthetics don’t quite stand-up as well as they did on SD video. Colours aren’t that much more vibrant than the DVD release, which is a little disappointing, but also likely the fault of the softer look. Jackson does use a rather wide array of hues throughout the film, and some, like the sickly green of the embalming machine, the blue lighting effects used during the final act to signify night, and, of course, the red of gore, but these rarely pop against the bulk of the palette. The lush New Zealand countryside is a pretty big disappointment, as all the natural greens are relatively washed-out. Black levels are crisper than I’ve seen before, but the darkest night scenes feature quite a bit of graying around the edges of the frame. Lionsgate has chosen to frame the film in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, the same as their DVD release, instead of the original, intended 1.66:1 ratio. This leads to quite a bit of lost real estate on the tops and bottoms of the frame, especially considering the amount of film shot in close-up.

Dead Alive

Audio


Dead Alive features an relatively modest soundscape, mostly devoted to dialogue, and excessively goopy sound effects, most of which are relatively centered on the track. Basic ambience is quite minimalist, but there are a few examples of the stereo and surround channels on this DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track coming into effect. The scene where Lionel visits a Nazi vet for tranquilizers features some effective rear channel animal noises, Lionel’s flashbacks to his father’s drowning feature an immersive water sound, and biggest zombie attack sequences feature some general growling chatter and flame noise around the room. Mostly the stereo spread is utilized for Peter Dasent’s musical score, which itself is pretty thin in terms of layers. Dasent performs (as I understand) the bulk of the score himself on electric pianos and synthesizers, and doesn’t include a lot of bass in his compositions. Still, the bulk of the bass frequencies do come from the score, along with the giant evil puppet’s footsteps.

Extras


Long have I pined for a Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh commentary on a Dead Alive video release, but, alas, this Blu-ray continues the trend of featuring nothing but a trailer. So sad.

Dead Alive

Overall


This Blu-ray release is good to have, but a disappointment overall considering its lack of image remastering (it looks better than any DVD release, but only just), its lack of extra features, its lack of extended scenes (it runs 97 minutes rather than the complete 104), and the apparent lack of interest on writer/director Peter Jackson’s part. Some day Jackson won’t be busy directing more Lord of the Rings stuff (yeah, I’ll be there day one for The Hobbit, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t rather Jackson was doing something more interesting with his time), and he’ll put some effort into a full fledged special edition release. The 20th anniversary is only a year away! Until then, this’ll do (note: there is no rumour of a 30th anniversary release, I’m just wishfully thinking in print).

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.


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