Butcher Block is a weekly series celebrating horror’s most extreme films and the minds behind them. Dedicated to graphic gore and splatter, each week will explore the dark, the disturbed, and the depraved in horror, and the blood and guts involved. For the films that use special effects of gore as an art form, and the fans that revel in the carnage, this series is for you.
Love is in the air this week, which means celebrating romance in horror. Not just any romance, though, but Peter Jackson’s splatstick love story between meek mama’s boy Lionel Cosgrove and hungry-for-love shopgirl Paquita Maria Sanchez. And the horde of undead by way of Skull Island Sumatran Rat-Monkey that stands between them, naturally. Without Peter Jackson’s zombie love story, we wouldn’t have Simon Pegg’s Shaun of the Dead, a zombie rom-com on which Dead Alive (Braindead in New Zealand) played a major influence. It also happens to be the 25th anniversary of the film, having released in the U.S. on February 12, 1993.
At its core, it’s a narrative about Lionel finally standing up to his overbearing mother, Vera, and confronting deep-seated guilt regarding his upbringing with the help of new lady love Paquita, a woman who believes they’re destined for each other thanks to a tarot reading. In other words, these two lovebirds are perfect for each other. When Vera sees her firm grip on her only son slipping away, she gets herself bitten by the Sumatran Rat-Monkey and begins rotting away, zombification taking root. Her bite wound squirting bloody puss into the pudding of her luncheon companion, eating it up and enjoying every disgusting bite, unaware that anything is amiss. It’s this gross-out scene that signals the extreme bloodbath that’s to come, but it still doesn’t quite prepare you for what Peter Jackson and creature and gore effects leader Richard Taylor unleash.
A practical effect haven that defied its low budget, Dead Alive showcased Peter Jackson’s talent for stop-motion animation, puppeteering, and a slew of creative gore effects. The Cosgrove household was built on a set four feet off the ground so that the special effects team could get underneath to puppeteer. As for the Rat-Monkey, there was no animal reference, just Peter Jackson dancing it out on camera for a visual reference point to create the frame by frame animation.
One of the film’s most infamous zombies is that of baby Selwyn, the zombie offspring between the zombie Nurse and zombie “I kick ass for the lord!” Father McGruder. A costume built for a two-year-old, that impressively, they actually talked a mother into letting their child wear for the film. My personal favorite zombie would be the puppet zombified entrails that become a huge nuisance for poor Lionel.
Quite possibly the bloodiest film of the decade, if not all time, the final climactic battle that culminates in one last showdown between Lionel and a monstrous Vero was said to have used nearly 80 gallons of fake blood, though this number is far too low to be anywhere close to accurate. The best sequence of the film, involving Lionel’s use of the lawnmower as a weapon, pumped in about 5 gallons per second. That alone would be impressive, but the lawnmower had real blades that were being fed wax limbs for the zombie slaughter effect. With that much blood covering nearly every surface, the floor had to have been extremely slippery. Which meant Richard Taylor, the only one brave enough to feed the lawnmower fake limbs, could have easily lost one of his own limbs with one slick misstep by either him or lead actor Timothy Balme as Lionel, the one wielding the lawnmower.
Dead Alive may be one of the greatest splatter comedies in existence, but it was one that took a long time to build an audience. It bombed at the box office, and while the memorable VHS cover art lured in devoted viewers, it was Jackson’s work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy (also with longtime effects partner Richard Taylor) that caused even more to seek out his older work. Though Jackson’s older work in gory horror superficially has little in common with his more recent visual spectacles, Dead Alive made it easy to see why Jackson was handed the reigns for J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary classic. Insanely creative with an uncanny ability to do so much with budgetary limitations, Dead Alive could’ve easily gotten away with its insane gore and blood-geyser effects. But Jackson wove in clever pathos with Lionel’s family history and a touching love story between Lionel and Paquita. Theirs is a bloody romance worth celebrating this Valentine’s Day.