Originally titled Braindead (as it's known outside of North America) and re-titled Dead Alive for U.S. distribution to avoid confusion with another movie already making the rounds under the earlier name, Peter Jackson's 1992 splatter masterpiece has rightfully gone on to be considered one of the goriest movies ever made. It's a film so in your face and so completely above and beyond the horror movie norm that it's stands head and shoulders above the rest as one of the most impressive gross outs ever filmed - and yet it's got such a playful sense of humor to it that you can't help but laugh where you'd otherwise likely be horribly put off by it.
When the film begins in 1957, a member of a scientific excursion is bitten by a rat monkey - horrible things happen to him. Cut to a small town in New Zealand where we meet Lionel (Timothy Balme), a meek and mild momma's boy who lives with his aging socialite mother (Elizabeth Moody) in their stately home. When Lionel becomes the subject of the affections of a cute shopkeeper named Paquita (Diana Penalver), mom gets jealous to the point where she basically follows them on their date to the zoo. Of course what's on display at this zoo? A rat monkey, and who should get bitten by one? Lionel's mother of course! Dutiful son that he is, Lionel takes his mother home but she's more concerned about the impending visit from members of the local Women's League than she is about her own health. Before you know it, they've got a table full of guests who gasp in horror as bits of mom fall off into the custard.
Things get worse from there - as Lionel and Paquita try to figure out where their relationship stands, Lionel's mother dies, or so it seems. She's dead, yes, but she's still moving around and is in fact hell bent on spreading whatever infectious disease it is that killed her around town. He locks her in the basement for safe keeping but not before she bites a nurse (Brenda Kendall). Before you know it, there are zombies coming from all over the place, there's a kung fu master priest (Stuart Devenie) trying to help out as best he can, there's a zombie baby wreaking havoc in the local park and Lionel's own uncle Les (Ian Watkin) isn't just trying to extort him but he's trying to put the moves on Paquita as well!
If you've never seen the movie before you might spend the first half of it wondering what all the fuss is about but once Jackson gets us into the home stretch you'll figure it out and quickly. This is one wet, gooey, gory bloody movie, one filled to the brim with oozing puss and chunky splatter. Underneath all the gore and zombie sex and killer babies and leering relatives, however, there's actually a fairly sweet love story. Granted, you have to shovel seven tons of blood and guts to get to it, but it's definitely there. None of this would matter if the performances didn't work as well as they do, but Diana Penalver and especially Timothy Balme are great in the two lead rolls. Penalver is adorable, you can see why Lionel is attracted to her, while Balme's Lionel is perfectly geeky. He's awkward and a momma's boy but he's also a nice guy and as all of this insanity swirls around the pair, we wind up wanting them to be together in the end, hoping for that happy ending.
Jackson's directorial skills are also strong here. Long before he'd go on to bring Middle Earth to the silver screen and before he'd reinvent King Kong he made this odd film in a small New Zealand town populated by interesting supporting characters but primarily picturesque and quaint. Of course, all of this gets turned on its head but it's fun to see Jackson's style in its early stages here before he'd go on to big budget blockbuster movies.
Worth noting is that the version contained on this Blu-ray release from Lionsgate is the ninety-seven minute unrated version. Most of what's missing from this, when compared to the one hundred and four minute Braindead cut is character bits but there is one key gore scene missing in which Paquita and her friend rip apart a zombie towards the end of the movie and some other bloody bits and pieces are trimmed. With that said, director Peter Jackson has gone on record stating that his preferred version of the film is this ninety-seven minute cut of the movie. It stands to reason that at some point oversea we'll probably get the longer version on Blu-ray, but until then, the movie still kicks ass even in this shorter version.
Lionsgate presents Dead Alive in an AVC encoded 1.78.1 widescreen in a 1080p high definition transfer. Compared to the previous Trimark DVD release, this is a pretty good upgrade. The movie still looks like the low budget picture that it is and it's grainier than some people might want it to be but there's definitely improved detail here and the color reproduction looks very good indeed, showing stronger and more natural tones than the DVD ever could and providing better black levels as well. Close ups show a lot of texture in faces and skin, lots of craggy lines to look at and pores and stubble, and of course, later puss and blisters too. The make-up effects look pretty good in high definition, though some are more obviously effects than others. The cemetery fight scene looks a bit washed out but only slightly so but probably most importantly, the reds look very good here, they're nicely defined without bleeding into the other colors the way reds and sometimes do when they're oversaturated. There probably could have been some more cleanup work done here without taking away from the movie's grubby charm but overall, yes, this is much better looking than the DVD was. There aren't any heavy edge enhancement problems to note, nor is there much evidence of noise reduction and compression artifacts aren't much of a problem either. Sometimes the image looks a bit noisier than maybe it should, but Dead Alive has never been a clean looking film to begin with and none of this seems to be the byproduct of any excessive digital tinkering.
The only audio option on this disc is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 Stereo mix, with optional subtitles provided in English and Spanish. There isn't a ton of left to right channel separation but there's a bit here and there and for the most part the movie sounds fine. Noticeably clearer than it was on standard definition the dialogue is well balanced against the score and the effects sound pretty decent. Compared to more modern productions made with a bigger budget, this isn't going to stand up obviously but if you've seen the movie before you'll appreciate the upgrade in clarity and depth that this lossless mix offers.
The only extras on this disc, aside from a static menu and chapter selection, is the film's original trailer and a collection of promo spots for other Lionsgate Blu-ray releases. Some behind the scenes footage, a commentary, a feature or even the footage not seen in this cut but included in the longer Brain Dead cut would have been very welcome here, but none of that happened.
Peter Jackson may have gone on to much bigger things in his career but there are still a lot of fans who hold his early films in very high regard. For non-stop lunatic gore done with a cheeky sense of humor and some ridiculously creative execution, Dead Alive is tough to beat. It would have been nice to get more extras on this release than just simply the trailer and the fact that it's the ninety-seven minute cut might irritate a certain segment of this release's target audience, but the upgrade in image and sound quality is notable and this disc still comes recommended even if it isn't the definitive release some had hoped for.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.