Peter Jackson is, without question, a visionary director. His take on the the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is some of the greatest filmmaking in modern times. His remake of KING KONG, while deeply flawed, has wonderful, moving moments that the original never fully conceptualized. That Peter Jackson is an important contemporary storyteller is beyond dispute. It is easy to forget, then, that he started his career in Horror. Not just Horror, but micro-budget Horror - and not just micro-budget Horror, but really twisted and gory Horror. He made several of these in his early filmmaking life, and there is no better example of this than his splatter-filled zombie film, DEAD ALIVE.
DEAD ALIVE is not a great movie. It suffers all of the problems that most low-budget films suffer from; sketchy acting, subpar visual effects, etc. Despite this, DEAD ALIVE is a very entertaining and funny film. This is due partly to the tight scripting by Fran Walsh, Stephen Sinclair, and Jackson himself. It is mostly, however, due to the fact that this film is the first of Peter Jackson’s early work that gives us a real glimpse of what he would become.
This film showcases much of the cinematic technique that would later become Peter Jackson’s signature style; Sweeping, dramatic camera moves, shots held for longer than most directors would dare, and the use of New Zealand’s natural wonders just for starters. However, some of Jackson’s bad habits haunt this film, too. The pacing can drag at times, and there is his tendency to overdevelop supporting characters that don’t amount to much, but these shortfalls are more than made up for in the film’s delirious climax.
When the zombie attack inevitably arrives and the heroes must fight for survival, Peter Jackson gives us some of the greatest, most inventive, and hilarious kill gags in the history of zombie films. It is a relentless, kinetic romp of gore, violence, and comedy that is the zombie equivalent of the Mines of Moria fight in FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING - culminating in the greatest use of a lawnmower you’ll ever see in film. So expertly planned and staged is this battle sequence (yes, ’battle’ is a good word for it) that once it is finished, we almost feel winded at the action that just happened - and just as happy for our own survival as the protagonists.
DEAD ALIVE is not a film for everyone, but it is a very important one in the filmography of one of our great directors. Peter Jackson has never waned in his abiding love for Horror movies. He regularly (and gleefully) seeks out and supports new directors in the genre. It is wonderful that he does this, but at the same time, wouldn’t we all agree that perhaps it is time for him to revisit the Horror genre now that he has more resources available to him? Just a thought…
Oh, what a thought that is!!
DEAD ALIVE fun facts - In subsequent films either directed or produced by Peter Jackson, watch for a reference to the Sumatran Rat-Monkey. It is a nod to the animal that is the genesis of the zombie mess in DEAD ALIVE.
In the climactic scene, fake blood was pumped through the lawnmower at five gallons per second.
Lionel- “That‘s my mother you‘re pissing on!”
Mum - “This place is infested with vermin!”
Lionel - “They‘re not dead exactly, they‘re just sort of rotting…”