Mixing comedy and horror is a tricky thing. On the one hand, a lot of films manage it seamlessly. On the other, most of those films weren’t actually trying to be funny. But in many cases, we need comedy and horror to go together. A horror film that’s just endlessly bleak suffering and terror and desperation isn’t, well…fun. It becomes simply an exercise in seeing how much you can put the audience through before they turn off the film and go do something more satisfying. So even the most uncomfortable horror films, if they’re made by people who know what they’re doing, have some moments of comic relief, even if the jokes are of the darkest variety. But actually setting out to make a film that’s both genuinely scary and funny, at the same time? Now that, that’s the real hard part.
Dead Alive (or Braindead if you prefer) opens on “Skull Island”, as a zoologist and his guides are fleeing a cringingly racist depiction of a “native tribe” with their cargo, a strange animal specimen. Everything looks clear until our zoologist is butchered by his guides when they notice that he’s been bit by the strange creature. Cut to a New Zealand suburb sometime in the 1950s, as sad sack nebbish and Momma’s Boy Lionel (played by Timothy Balme, who looks here like the love-child of David Tennant and Jeffrey Combs) arrives just in time to fulfill the prophecy shopgirl Paquita’s grandmother has given her about her one true love. The only thing that stands in their way is the tyrannical meddling of Lionel’s mother, suffering from the most pronounced case of a reverse Oedipal complex in film history. Lionel and Paquita sneak off to the zoo for a date, only for the day to be ruined when Lionel’s mother is bitten by, and then kills, the zoo’s latest arrival; the Rat Monkey of Sumatra. Lionel takes his mother home, as she has an important date to keep with the head of the local women’s council, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that something is terribly wrong, and the bits and pieces that keep falling off “Mum” are the least of it. Soon the local nurse is dead (but still kicking) and Mum is being buried after getting struck by a trolley after breaking out of the house. Lionel’s efforts to cover up his mother’s increasingly bloodthirsty activities only lead to the local vicar and gang-leader joining the zombie family chained in the basement, as well as the zombie offspring of the nurse and the vicar. Things only get worse when Lionel’s uncle shows up and blackmails the boy into giving him control of the estate. He celebrates by holding a party for all the local reprobrates, which ends in the predictable zombie and gore orgy. The day is only saved when Lionel confronts his grotesquely mutated mother as the house burns down around them, asserting his manhood and independence in a particularly messy rebirthing, and exiting into the sunset with Paquita.
Like most of Jackson’s early films, it’s safe to say that Dead Alive takes a particularly “earthy” approach with its sense of humor. There’s not a lot of wit here, it’s mostly gross-outs and over the top slapstick. Where the humor does actually excel is in the cartoonish escalation of the mayhem. Everything ratchets up constantly, as Lionel’s desperate efforts to keep everything under control ultimately only end up making things worse. By the end we’ve moved from pratfalls and pus to zombies being liquified by a lawnmower and our heroes sliding around in the remains, being menaced by animated (and disturbingly cute) intestines. More and more non-sequiters take over the story; a kung-fu priest, a zombie baby, cute intestines, as any semblance of reality and normality goes out the window. By the end, when the rotting, twenty-foot tall corpse of Mum shoves Lionel back into her womb, it’s actually one of the more restrained events. The horror relies mostly on the gross-outs and the gore as well, though, which means in the end the film is more “funny” than “scary.” It’s zombie mayhem played for a laugh, not much else.
Unlike Jackson’s earlier films, Dead Alive has more going on than just a sequence of gross outs. Bad Taste is basically just an exercise in, well, see the title, and Meet the Feebles is a one-note joke that goes on for far too long for too little pay-off. But Dead Alive actually manages to have some slight depth lurking just below the surface. We tend to think of the 50s as an era of stifling conformity and dullness, and it’s hard to imagine that opinion is much different in New Zealand (Jackson’s other film set in the period, Heavenly Creatures, is all about how the hopes of escaping from the dullness of 50s New Zealand leads to tragedy after all). And in this period, we have Lionel’s Mum, Vera Cosgrove, an ambitious social climber concerned with nothing except what the neighbors will think of her yard and her own social position. She’s stifled her son and his sexuality, not just to keep him a servant, but because of her vain desire for prestige. Her brother is a blackmailing lech, but even his actions are all about preying on the needs of others to appear respectable (and his criminality, given just how much like his sister he is, makes the eventual realization of just how far Vera was willing to go to maintain appearances eminently more logical). When everything goes to hell, Lionel’s first impulse is not to man up and kill every damn zombie he sees, but hide all the evidence and maintain appearances. It’s only when he ultimately rejects his mother, mans up and becomes a sexually mature and independent man, that he’s able to bring the zombie plaque under control. It’s also interesting that, when one becomes zombified, in addition to becoming a remorseless killing machine, a bit of the inner self becomes revealed. Void, the gang leader, is reduced to a childlike state. The repressed nurse and vicar become filled with lust. And Vera becomes a grotesque, giant mutant who wants to kill her’s son’s girlfriend and suck him back into the womb. What’s behind the surface is nasty, and Lionel has to deal with it and ignore the pretension if he’s going to be happy with Paquita.