Before Peter Jackson went to Middle Earth or fulfilled his lifelong dream of visiting Skull Island, he was an ambitious horror junkie, churning out over-the-top splatter flicks in New Zealand. Dead Alive, his third feature length film, furthers the idea of something lurking behind the white picket fence seen in earlier efforts – aliens in Bad Taste; sexual depravity, drugs, and mob antics in Meet The Feebles – while using three hundred gallons of fake blood for a slapstick gore set piece. Unlike his first horror production, Jackson had a shooting schedule and a budget that would let him finish the film in under four years, and a script – which was reportedly not changed at all during production – instead of a random assortment of ideas he came up with during the week prior to shooting. Tightly directed by Jackson, Dead Alive is a dumb but incredibly fun horror-comedy with more than a few memorable scenes and one of the best movie quotes of the 90’s.
In conservative 1950s New Zealand, Lionel (Timothy Balme) is harboring a terrible secret: his house is filled with zombies. After his overbearing mother ruins his date with Paquita (Diana Penalver) and is bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey at the zoo, she becomes ill and falls into a degenerative state. After succumbing to the sweet embrace of death and becoming one of the undead, the always faithful son keeps her immobile with anesthetics but, for one reason or another, she keeps escaping and turning others. Lionel rounds up all of the zombies and keeps them sedated in his basement, and somehow manages to keep the sweet Paquita in the dark about everything until Uncle Les – who’s a bit of a cad – shows up and begins blackmailing the undead babysitter for his inheritance.
Though it has been substantially scaled back since The Frighteners, Jackson’s bizarre and outlandish sense of humor was at its peak in Dead Alive. Like Evil Dead II, a film which the Lord Of The Rings used as a template for his early output, the tone is set through the ridiculousness of the special effects gags, which range from simple zombie bites to having Lionel going full-on Ash with a lawnmower instead of a chainsaw in what could be one of the greatest scenes in genre history. The only downside to the non-stop barrage of gore and Three Stooges nods is that there’s never a truly scary bit in the film, and yet Jackson’s frenzied momentum is enough to make Dead Alive work.
Dead Alive basically boils down to a Freudian journey of a man living in fear of his mother. Lionel is subservient to her, not even able to hold a steady relationship without her becoming involved – directly or indirectly – in it. The infection is the result of her poking her nose where it didn’t belong and being sneaky, and even in her undead life, she consistently makes things difficult for him. She becomes such a handful that the climax of the film is a rebirth of sorts – a grotesquely fun one at that.
Lionsgate’s 1080p transfer is incredibly uneven, with some parts stirring up bad memories of the studio’s early high-def output. During the opening scene with Stewart trying to escape Skull Island with the Rat-Monkey, the picture quality is on par with a print that’s been through the ringer; there’s noticeable digital noise of all kinds. Similar problems do pop up for the remainder of the film, but the heavy grain and softness are more distracting. Those hoping for the 104-minute international cut will be sorely disappointed but, if it’s any consolation, Jackson prefers the unrated 97-minute version that’s featured on the disc.Dead Alive wasn’t made on a huge budget and the finest masters available are almost assuredly not in immaculate condition, but there’s nothing here beyond a few shots with fine detail that make the HD upgrade worth purchasing. Same goes for the lossless 2.0 mix, which balances Peter Dasent’s goofy score and the gushy sound effects nicely but isn’t really anything to write home about. Father McGruder might kick ass for the Lord, but this Blu-ray definitely doesn’t.