Thursday, October 04, 2012

Making Monsters #4: Dead Alive

Long before the Oscar-winning, blockbusting Lord of the Rings trilogy astonished the world with the meticulous, cutting-edge effects that brought Middle Earth and many of its denizens to life, Peter Jackson was already a skilled and versatile director of effects-driven movies. The only differences were, instead of his own top-of-the-line visual effects house and large-scale fantasy epics, Jackson was baking makeup appliances in his parents' oven for the low-budget, gross-out horror comedies Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles. For 1992's Braindead (titled Dead Alive in the U.S.), Jackson worked with professional medic and makeup artist Bob McCarron (who would later work on The Matrix and other big-budget studio productions) to bring his ultragory zombie comedy to life. In Dead Alive, milquetoast Lionel (Timothy Balme) struggles to continue to care for his mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody) after a bite from a Sumatran rat monkey turns her into one of the living dead. As Vera infects other characters and the situation rapidly escalates, Jackson orchestrates a nonstop series of bloody sight gags that are so over-the-top disgusting that they become hilarious - he matches the Looney Tunes-inspired slapstick approach to splatter of Sam Raimi and takes it up to eleven. Oh, and there's also a priest who does kung fu.

When the zombies break loose at a house party in the last half hour, the film becomes like the most inventive and lovingly crafted realization of an extremely gifted ten-year-old's most horrifying notebook sketches, culminating in the most hilariously literal, disgusting Freudian metaphor ever committed to celluloid. But before that, we're treated with the movie's showstopper, as Lionel, equipped with an upturned lawnmower, hacks a few dozen zombies to smithereens. It's a pretty straightforward effect - a lot of writhing extras, plenty of prop limbs and organs and fake blood pumped through the lawnmower at a rate of five gallons per second. It's the sheer showmanship that makes the scene so satisfying - it's Jackson taking the zombie movie as far as it can go, a bloodbath that, like a splatter version of Sideshow Bob stepping on rake after rake, takes a gross-out joke past the point of its novelty, until it's completely repetitive and numbing, and then past that  until the sheer scale of the bloodbath achieves a sublime, demented kind of genius. That Jackson just stretched one 300-page children's book into three movies suggests, sadly, that he doesn't have another Dead Alive in him; hopefully, as with some of the best moments in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, his new trio will contain flashes of the gifted young filmmaker who knew how to craft the perfect sick joke.

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