Arguably one of the greatest horror- comedies of all time, Dead Alive, aka Braindead, is a marvel, a loving send-up of some of horror’s most frequently navigated topography: the hubristic anthropologist messing where he shouldn’t be messing, the bloodthirsty natives’ unheeded ill portent, the silly jump scares, the nebbish with mommy issues.
It’s also more violent than the movies it sends up — no mean feat considering some of the source material.
A Sumatran rat monkey is being hauled through an island jungle by an Indiana Jones type with a hilariously deferential native guide sidekick stereotype. They’re set upon by spear-wielding natives (which usually inhabit exploitation films like Cannibal Ferox/Dr. Butcher, MD) and the naturalist hilariously proclaims, “PERMIT! I have a permit!” to the group of pre-literate savages out for blood.
Whatever happens, we have got
The Sterling gun, and they have not.
However, he is soon bitten by his cargo, his limb amputated via machete to prevent the spread of a rabies-type infection and wouldn’t you know it, the monkey ends up in a New Zealand zoo.
Meanwhile, meet Lionel, a local nebbish and the unlikely love interest of Latina shopkeep Paquita, who thinks it’s been foretold by her tarot card-reading grandma, that they’re meant to be together even if she has her heart set on the delivery man.
With the heavens’ blessing, she pursues her man and Lionel and Paquita have a first date at the Wellington New Zealand Zoo, where Lionel’s overzealous mother Vera, who’s tailing the duo, is bitten by the rat monkey. She quickly recovers and stomps the beast to death with her shoe (and these rat monkeys have an incredible backstory, the product of forced copulation of smaller monkeys by giant rats that came over on a slave ship).
When Vera gets home, her wound festers and her face peels in terrific fashion, right over dinner and in front of the guests. Despite Lionel’s best impromptu glue surgery, pieces of Vera start falling into her soup. Soon, mom is a rapacious zombie and Lionel is fending her off with an amulet given to him by his girlfriend’s soothsaying grandma.
She won’t succumb to her wounds in hospital though, escaping, shambling through town, biting everything in her path, before finally getting hit by a bus and sent flying through the window of the local bodega: “guess she was discharged a little bit early!”
When the undead mommy dearest meets her demise (sort of), she’s laid to rest in a set piece that has to be seen to believed. And rushing to Lioniel’s aid: a kung-fu fighting minister who “kicks ass for the Lord.”
And that’s only the first half. What follows once sleazy Uncle Les enters the picture is some of the most unbridled, unhinged, goriest and goofiest splatterific cinema you’re ever likely to see. Those that only know director Peter Jackson from his years spent in the Shire and Middle Earth will be (hopefully wonderfully) aghast at what he was up to earlier in his career (for more early PJ brillance, do check out Bad Taste and Meet the Feebles.)
Hallelujah. Bear witness to the wonders of Dead Alive. You’ll be glad you did. And did we even mention the lawnmower scene?
**** (out of 5)