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Movie Rewind: Peter Jackson’s Dud “Dead Alive”

Nick Anderson | Monday, January 25, 2010

One of the most fascinating concepts of the entertainment industry is the idea of an artist’s early work. Art snobs infallibly love any popular artist’s early work. There is often great merit to this love. Although they are stuck with a low budget and questionable surrounding talent, creative genius, incredible energy and an unjaded vision shine through in these B movies. Working through the back catalogues of visionary directors like Sam Rami or Christopher Nolan will undoubtedly reward the viewer.
However, this is not always the case. Sometimes the early work of an artist is downright embarrassing. See Justin Timberlake’s work with N’Sync or Dr. Dre as a member of World Class Wreckin’ Cru. There is a third, much more rare possibility; the early work is just confusing. This is the case with the masterful Peter Jackson.
Jackson started his career scrapping money together in New Zealand to create low-budget horror films. Among the best of these was the oddly titled zombie flick “Dead Alive.” Treasured by horror buffs, this plot-light, blood-heavy film has carved its own niche in the already crowded cult movie scene. Like many cult classics, a small but disproportionately vocal group of fans champion the merits of this exercise in gore.
The narrative is a timeless story. Lionel, the unassuming protagonist, is a young man thoroughly devoted to his mother, reminiscent of “Psycho’s” Norman Bates. When a hybrid rat monkey bites his controlling and manipulative mother, Lionel is forced to continue caring for her with heavy tranquilizers, sedating her to keep her from eating both him and others. As will happen, a single zombie quickly grows into a horde including a local hoodlum, a kung-fu fighting priest and an infant. Lionel’s zombie zoo is discovered by his uncle, who turns the situation to his advantage through blackmail. As more zombies are created, violence soon becomes the only feasible solution.
Jackson shows a deep appreciation for the slasher films of the 80’s, liberally applying gore in every scene possible. What is missing in character development and a coherent plot and a special effects budget is replaced by copious amounts of fake blood. While multiple films have claimed to be the goriest film ever made, “Dead Alive” makes a strong claim to that title, utilizing more fake blood than any movie to date.
The film itself contains many remarkable moments that sit finally on the line between horror and comedy: Scenes of zombie digestive systems, slap stick violence, a prominently featured garden gnome and a climax heavily dependent on a helpfully placed lawnmower. Embodied in these moments is the B movie majesty so loved by horror fans.
For the unfamiliar, horror movies share a commonality with country music. Both are rich in history and deeply loved, but lack critical recognition and are near inaccessible to a wide stream audience. In the realm of horror movies, “Dead Alive” is George Jones. Unapologetic and unappealing, but loved for exactly what it is.
“Dead Alive” is exactly what one would expect of a movie that was sold in many places in a combo pack with vomit bags. While it gives no indication of the man who would direct the most epic trilogy in film 15 years later, it occupies its own special place in the horror cannon. Never widely popular, influential or important, it aspires to be nothing more than a cinematic feast in gore; a blood filled experiment of film making. For those fans with an affection for methodical mutilation, mindless violence, and unceremonious zombie death, a viewing of “Dead Alive” is akin to catching a glimpse of the Holy Grail.