Stop me if you’ve heard any of this before. Peter Jackson directs a horror film that has an expedition going to Skull Island to retrieve a horrific primate. Of course, you might now be expecting a review of Jackson’s remake of King Kong. But the primate here is something called a rat monkey, and it only figures into the film’s early moments. Long before Jackson achieved household name status by taking us on a journey to Middle Earth, he was a small filmmaker with no less grand designs.
Dead Alive has become one of those cult films that has managed to keep strong legs for many years, long after the director has gone on to far more successful projects. One of the things that has made Peter Jackson as good as he’s been even on big-budget films is the fact that he’s like a kid in a candy store. He appears to absolutely love making films, and that’s certainly evident on the Rings films. But it’s also very evident here as well. Jackson demonstrates his love for such greats as Ray Harryhausen with some rather nice stop-motion work here and a few direct nods to the master. The stop-motion effects are quite obvious, but they are also quite fun and entertaining. Dead Alive is a bloody good time…literally.
The film opens with that Skull Island expedition to find the elusive and rare rat monkey. One of the professors is bitten and immediately killed by the natives. Why, you ask? You won’t need to wait long for that answer.
Enter Lionel Cosgrove (Balme) who lives with his domineering mother, who always interferes in his life and particularly any chance to land a girl. At the zoo, she’s bitten by the famous rat monkey and soon begins to transform into a zombie-style creature. She tries to eat her way through friends and neighbors while Lionel tries to protect her. Before long she’s turned a whole group of folks into creatures, and Lionel has his hands full, all the while trying to woo attractive Paquita (Penalver). It’s pretty much a romp from here on with a huge climax featuring a rather silly giant momma creature.
The film was originally entitled Braindead and has kept the name for some markets worldwide. The first half hour or so of the film might is a bit slow. Jackson does take quite a while to get to the point. There’s a bit of wasted time on the Lionel and Paquita business, and it takes mom a long time to reach her putrefying best. But if you’re willing to stick with the pace, this things heats up fast once it gets into gear. There are plenty of incredibly over-the-top kills with less attention to any gritty realism and more attention to blood and guts as well as other pussy oozings. You really have to watch the film with your tongue planted firmly in your cheek. Jackson’s not trying to scare you so much as entertain you. That he does.
Dead Alive is presented in a slightly altered aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average only about 18 mbps. There have been a lot of versions of the film released over the years including a pretty bad laserdisc version. It’s a low-budget film, and most of these prints really make the film look pretty bad as far as production values go. This high-definition image presentation doesn’t change the perception that much but it is about as clean and sharp as I’ve seen the film. Jackson does a pretty good job with what little he has, and I think this is the first time I’ve seen the film with any appreciation of the production values. Much of the picture is soft and often a bit washed. Black levels are still pretty weak. But the film has an ambience that does manage to break through here. It’s worth the upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is pretty much a mono mix. That’s the way the film was made, and there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple here. In fact, anything more would merely be distracting and stick out like a sore thumb. You’ll hear the dialog and enough squishing sounds to make it all work. What more do ya need?
It’s a lot of fun to revisit the early work of a Sam Raimi or Peter Jackson. These are the kind of guys who make films for entertainment value and appear to have a lot of fun along the way. Dead Alive is never going to be a classic or must-see film. The version here is barely an HD upgrade, but it’s one of those films that once you’ve seen it for the first time, “You are marked”.