In the splatter cinema world, it’s not all that rare to have your film trimmed down a bit for censorship, voluntary ratings certification, or for just “the greater good” of the masses. Hollywood has had to do it. The UK has had to do it (oh, those nasty videos…). Asia is all over the place. But, regardless of territory, you have likely seen Peter Jackson’s DEAD ALIVE (aka BRAINDEAD) in various forms throughout the years and maybe never once in its original form.
DEAD ALIVE was released in 1992 as BRAINDEAD at 104 minutes, prior to traveling over many miles of ocean to the United States in 1993 at a very truncated 85 minutes. Leaving much of the more extreme gore out of the picture for the R-rated theatrical cut. Home video viewers in the US have more than likely seen the 97 minute cut which is unrated and adds a considerable amount of carnage to the occasion, and has been approved by Peter Jackson. Regardless of which version you do view, DEAD ALIVE remains one of the more slippery movies of its (or any other) day. If we understand slippery as literally covering as much of the frame as possible in red, and not of the exploded pen variety.
DEAD ALIVE is not the most typical of zombie films. For audiences weaned on the good ol’ American zombie tales of the 60s, 70s and 80s, it could be even a bit jarring. Gone is the rugged hero/heroine, out of the window is any truly “logical” explanation for the reanimated corpses, and any hint of terror is replaced by gallows humor. Sure, we had our comedic zombie films thanks to RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, REDNECK ZOMBIES or even the more sci-fi geared NIGHT OF THE COMET, but nothing existed in quite the “splatstick” coining realm of Peter Jackson’s early work.
Jackson preceded DEAD ALIVE with the not-as-well-known BAD TASTE, but the progression seems natural. BAD TASTE was a vomitous attempt at an alien invasion film, with plenty of sight gags on screen and barf bags in the audience. It is clearly the work of filmmakers that hadn’t yet truly established what it was that they were doing, but they were clearly having fun. DEAD ALIVE takes that all to as much of a next level as one can expect. The narrative work is tighter, the performances stronger (especially the comedic timing), and the effects are flat out fucking disgusting. At least in BAD TASTE the blood looked like really thin red paint, but in DEAD ALIVE it is truly gross. It’s like a chunkier version of the real thing, practically littering the floor with something akin to Manwich.
DEAD ALIVE isn’t all just gross out though – not that it isn’t that 80% of the time – it does work as a comedy. Jackson unfortunately hasn’t pursued comedic work in recent years, with his last intentionally (this is meant to exclude THE LOVELY BONES) funny film being THE FRIGHTENERS, which is a shame as he really has a gift for it. DEAD ALIVE’s humor skews mostly to the physical, which works exceptionally well with all of the practical gore work on display. If The Three Stooges had a chance to work with Herschell Gordon Lewis, similar results would be likely.
Simon Pegg has often cited DEAD ALIVE as one of the major influences for SHAUN OF THE DEAD and with the amount of comedy that works in both, alongside the nastier images, it makes sense as to why. If the chemistry of 80s and 90s buddy cop films helped to perfect the camaraderie and zeal on screen in HOT FUZZ, it would be obvious for DEAD ALIVE to be SHAUN OF THE DEAD’s LETHAL WEAPON. Both are from filmmakers that started with a zom-com only to go on to (much) bigger things. Jackson was able to hold on to his affinity for practical effects (alongside plenty of CG) for the LORD OF THE RINGS films and we can only hope that Wright is able to keep much of what makes SHAUN OF THE DEAD so enjoyable in his upcoming ANT-MAN. One thing is for sure though, it won’t be nearly as bloody.