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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Dead': Head, Shoulders Above Its Genre

July 14, 1993|PETER RAINER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

How delicately can I put this? "Dead Alive" is the most hilariously disgusting movie ever made. It makes something like "Re-Animator" seem like a UNESCO documentary about Mother Teresa.

It highlights more headless torsos and detached limbs and suppurating wounds and wriggling innards than you'll probably ever want to see again for the rest of your life unless you're a surgeon--or a coroner. The director, Peter Jackson, seems to have ingested the grossest sequences from every schlock cheapie of the past two decades--from "It's Alive" to "Child's Play" to "Lawnmower Man"--and then spewed them across the screen in thick, scudding swaths of crimson, green and yellow.

There's no point decrying this film for being yucky. That's like criticizing professional wrestling for being unsubtle. "Dead Alive" (at the Nuart) isn't easy on the stomach but, if you can get past the glop, it's a wallopingly good time. Jackson, a New Zealander, makes a sick joke out of the audience's squeamishness by carrying things so far you have to make a choice to giggle, throw up or walk out. He has a great instinct for what will drive us into squeals of giddy disbelief. If there's a blender in a scene, you can be sure someone will be Mixmastered; if a head is severed it will soon be blubbering its lips.

Jackson sets his slapstick gorefest in a quiet New Zealand town in the 1950s, where the milquetoast Lionel (Timothy Balme) lives with his overbearing horror of a mother (Elizabeth Moody). When a Spanish girl (Diana Penalver) whose migrant family runs a corner shop becomes infatuated with him, he incurs the wrath of Mum, who tails them to the zoo where she is bitten by the dread Sumatran rat-monkey. The monkey gets whomped but almost immediately Mum starts acting big-time weird: At a luncheon for a charity organization her ear demurely plops into her pudding. (Great taste, less filling.) She turns into a humongous, lipsticked zombie and Lionel, ever the dutiful son, can't quite put her to rest. Pretty soon a vast community of zombies has taken up a gurgly residence in his basement, while his girlfriend tries to figure out why Lionel seems to be acting so, well, distracted lately.

Jackson, with his co-screenwriters Stephen Sinclair and Frances Walsh, works in a lot of fairly sophisticated subversive satire about everything from the church (a kung fu minister who chops his zombied flock) to momism (Lionel's Mum attempts to get her son to re-enter her womb--literally. He shrieks back at her, "All my life you told me nothing but lies!").

There are probably political jabs in this film that only New Zealanders will pick up on but most of the ultra- eeeuuh stuff is all-too-accessible. Jackson keeps everything on such a high-low plane of nuttiness that just about everything in this film seems inevitably, ghoulishly right. The pre-zombie characters are already overscaled so grotesquely that, when they turn into a bloody bundle of boils, the transformations are like a higher form of evolution. These folks are never more alive than when they're dead. "Dead Alive" (Times-rated Mature for just about everything) is a groaner of cult-classic dimension. After you see it, you want to race out of the theater and recommend it to your sickest friends right away.

'Dead Alive'

Timothy Balme: Lionel

Diana Penalver: Paquita

Elizabeth Moody: Mum

Ian Watkin: Uncle Les

A Trimark Pictures presentation. Director Peter Jackson. Producer Jim Booth. Screenplay by Peter Jackson, Stephen Sinclair and Frances Walsh. Cinematographer Murray Milne. Editor Jamie Selkirk. Costumes Chris Elliott. Creature and gore effects Richard Taylor. Music Peter Dasent. Production design Kevin Leonard-Jones. Art director Ed Mulholland. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.

Times-rated Mature (violence, gore).

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