A Review of Dead Alive

I realize now that there has been a lull in both this blog and the theater. Once the Oscars are announced, everyone seems to hit pause. Hollywood seems to be waiting until May, when it can release its torrent of expensive CGI crap. Art directors are waiting for the Cannes film festival. Terrence Malick has a film coming out later this year, and I know we’re all waiting for that. But it gives me slim pickings on the review side. Looks like I’ll have to resort to my old standby – looking on my shelf and seeing if there’s something that catches my eye.

So here’s a review of….I don’t know…something…ah, here we go. Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive.

I’m not sure how many people know about Peter Jackson’s pre – LOTR career. He used to be well known in his native New Zealand for creating some of the most outrageous, offensive B-films that have ever been seen by mortal eyes.

Jackson himself has dismissed these efforts, most famously in his acceptance speech after he won best director for Return of the King. But those films are not without merit, and in many ways help show how Jackson managed to pull off the impossibility of putting Tolkien on screen. They also show that Jackson has a keen sense of humor, something tha the has not explored in his work for quite a while.

Jackson does not limit himself at all in Dead Alive, which is why the film is often viewed as a comedy rather than grotesque horror. This technique actually points out how absurd many of our traditional horror conventions are. Supernatural soothsayers become senile dopes, the demonic baby/child creature (from The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby) becomes a mischievous Muppet, and zombies driven by “pure instinct” become mewling toddlers and sexual deviants. Even Alfred Hitchcock finds (bloody) pie in his face – the motivations for the hero are the same as Norman Bate’s. And yet Lionel (the nerdy lead character) is the hero whose violent rampage is viewed as the ultimate heroic act, rather than terrible horror. Bates killed two people, Lionel shoves hundreds into a lawn mower.

Of course, when you go this far, you are bound to offend a few people. I have met many people who  could not watch this film due to the excessive amount of gore. Now, the fact that there are more disembodied limbs than speaking roles is all part of the humor, in the same way that the Black Knight’s dismemberment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail was meant for laughs. Dead Alive was written at a time when slasher films were trying to outdo each other with gory set pieces. Dead Alive seems to take this trend with the proper amount of exasperation: “You want to see people diced up with a lawn mower? Here’s a room full!” It would entice people, but at the same time, it would help show just how dumb this trend was at creating horror. Was anyone scared by Jason Voorhees stabbing someone by the time Part 6 rolled around?

Evil Dead 2 did something very similar, but Dead Alive outpaces it in every way. Mostly because Dead Alive at least tries to have a plot (I love Evil Dead 2, but from any measurable standpoint, that film was practically written on a cocktail napkin) and because it addresses more cliched horror tropes. Yes, it’s got more gore than a slaughterhouse, but at least it’s sensible enough to point out how silly that game of one up man ship is amongst horror directors.

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