Dead Alive & The Frighteners,
Reviewed October 15, 2019
Two great Peter Jackson movies
oan Rivers once cracked in the 1980s that if ever Elizabeth Taylor were to get an ear pierced, gravy would probably seep out of her lobe once poked. I hate
the fatphobic joke, yet I couldn’t stop thinking it about while watching Dead Alive (1992), where the invoked visual is frequently and disgustingly literalized. Luckily, this little-budgeted splatter movie isn’t gory in a stomach-churning, realism-obsessed way. But that also means that it’s so extravagant and committedly practical effects-driven carnage-wise that a lot of the time, when a body is slashed or full-on maimed, more than blood will spill out of the victim. Often a greenish goop will pour out alongside the blood and pus, looking a lot like the gravy Rivers imagines spurting out of Taylor. The co-writer and director of Dead Alive, Peter Jackson — still about a decade away before getting lifted far and away by the far-less-scrappy Lord of the Rings franchise — clearly has seen his fair share of Herschell Gordon Lewis and Lucio Fulci movies. But with this project it’s as if he’s sought to one-
up the godfathers of gore. Those movies are gross, but what if he made something almost festively revolting?
Dead Alive is the goriest movie I’ve seen in a while. Such a statement shouldn’t be a turn-off for those who get as nauseous around movie blood as I get around the real-life stuff, though: This all is more akin to a gross-out comedy, or a film-length reminder that the human body is fairly icky. If not, Dead Alive is a grimier-than-usual zombie movie. And if it’s not a grimier-than-usual zombie movie, it’s a contagion thriller.
The film is set in New Zealand, in 1957. The conceit is, for a zom-com, a characteristic one. A rabid-acting creature — here a cross between a monkey and a plague-infested rat — bites a human and all hell breaks loose. In the film, the bitten is an old and passive-aggressive woman named Vera (Elizabeth Moody) visiting the zoo. She manages to squash the beast with a high heel, but whatever weird venom was glistening on top of the rodent’s teeth got inside her bloodstream anyway.
At dinner later, with her impassive adult son Lionel (Timothy Balme) and some colleagues, Vera seems totally out of it, not noticing that to others she appears as though she’s begun acting like she’s just dropped acid, or that her skin’s started falling off as if its loose patches were as innocuous as single strands of hair. (The final straw, for the co-workers, is not when Vera’s ear abandons ship like a dollop of frosting sliding off a cake but when she absent-mindedly eats it after it falls into her custard.) Later, after eating a puppy and leaving a mess, Vera appears to die. But then she comes back and munches on a nurse who, moments before, had pronounced her dead another time. Again and again Vera seems to have finally gasped her last breath. Then she’ll announce her return via scene-stealing cannibalism, typically after jump-scaring us first.
Dead Alive lurches forward as we’d expect it to. Vera’s victims turn into zombies themselves, and soon the majority of the residents in her small New Zealand town are also members of the walking dead. It culminates in Lionel, an unflinching love interest (Diana Peñalver), and a few others holed up at Lionel and Mom’s sprawling house, fighting off decomposing ghouls à la Night of the Living Dead (1969). Most of the movie circles around the battle, but never does the film feel numbingly repetitive. With crescendoing chutzpah, Jackson and his cadre give us increasingly nuts scenes of blood-letting that seem to also get progressively giddy. We don't think to be offended.
Splatter movies are only good, I think, when the special effects look sort of bad. Frankly I get a little sick when entrails are slipping out of torsos and it looks real. My eyes and senses prefer it, then, when in front of me is clearly a dummy getting torn up and we’re scratching our heads as to how the moviemakers got the Udon noodles slipping out of its navel to look like that. I like to see practical effects and detect the sweat shed over them. (Sure it’s true that the realer-looking gore the harder the behind-the-scenes work probably is, but chintziness, in the long run, is more charming, because the eager-to-pleasness is more obvious.)
You can really feel the sweat backing Dead Alive. Lots of stop-motion animation is involved, and there’s even this rabid puppet baby thing that looks like a live-action Rugrats character romping around and causing trouble. The bloodshed is so overdone that we’re meant to laugh at it, not think of the futility of violence and life itself, as one tends to do during movies so constantly vicious. In Dead Alive do we have a movie where blood erupts from severed heads like volcanic lava, where there are no bones in one’s body and instead a lot of salsa-looking mess that tends to explode if the orifice just barely containing it is cut open wider. It seems as though there was a lot of laughter during production, though I’m sure at a certain point the deluge of plopped-around corn syrup and its inevitable hardening onto skin and scalps and floors and ceilings got old for some of the crew members and actors who got caked in it. (Everyone here is well-suited to the material; Balme’s a terrific embodiment of comic nervousness forced to get serious because his life depends on it.) But the nastiness never got old for me.
Timothy Balme in Dead Alive, 1992.
he unusual tactility of Dead Alive is among the many things I adored about it. So The Frighteners, a movie Jackson made four years later, is subversively interesting because of how much it 180's the notion.
Whereas Dead Alive's throwback goriness wins us over, for The Frighteners it's its now-dated attempts to look ahead of its time that feed its appeal. Dead Alive extols the virtues of practical effects; The Frighteners, in contrast, tries to make the most of then-nascent computer-animation technology, and looks all the worse for it. In the movie, Michael J. Fox, ever-endearing as a tormented hero, plays an architect named Frank. Following a tragic car accident a few years ago, he's begun not only seeing but communicating as if he were old friends with ghosts.
This premise necessitates flamboyant CGI on two fronts. Ghosts here are just shiny and transparent people. The main antagonist — who resembles the Grim Reaper, just very computerized — looks just like a big bad Sora would battle on the PlayStation 2 variant of Kingdom Hearts (2002). The ghost thing is very Snapchat filterish now, and the Grim Reaper stuff by now is a lot more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)-like than I think Jackson intended. (It’s unsurprising that the director of the latter film, Robert Zemeckis, executive-produced The Frighteners.) But I love the accidental ersatzism. Though I like a particularly effective addition to the haunted-house subgenre, when one is more in the House on Haunted Hill (1959) than The Haunting (1963) vein — meaning silly versus dead-serious — I can’t much help but resist. The Frighteners is like a haunted house movie on wheels, with the haunted house itself able to breathe and speak and laugh.
The Frighteners is very playful. In the movie, Frank, who's for years been using his supernormal abilities to con people, with the assistance of ghosts who are like-mindedly immoral, has to become a makeshift detective. People around his small coastal town are dying at an alarming rate of heart attacks, and he and a couple of others are certain that it’s the work of a malevolent spirit. The latter inference is true, and we know it. (In fact, we see it — foreshadowing’s big here.) But so much of the fun of the film comes from the later-spelled-out backstory, which is smartly revealed. Fun also derives from the truth that, to some people, like myself, The Frighteners is of a kind of horror movie that can sometimes feel relaxing — one of the Hocus Pocus (1993) or Halloweentown (1998) camp where what’s seen is not scary per se but rather palatably spooky. For dedicated horror fans, it will also be a treat to see Dee Wallace, who normally plays maternalistic final girls, playing someone with a wicked streak. It seems like she’s having a ball, just like us.
Dead Alive: A
The Frighteners: A-