Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Blu-ray Review: DEAD ALIVE (1992)

LABEL: Lionsgate
RELEASE DATE: October 4th 2011
DURATION:97 mins
RATING: Unrated
VIDEO: MPEG-4 AVC 1080p Anamorphic Widescreen (1.66:1)
AUDIO: English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Stereo
DIRECTOR: Peter Jackson
CAST: Timothy Balme, Diane Penalver, Elizabeth Moody
TAGLINE: Some things won't stay down... even after they die.

Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE which is known as BRAINDEAD pretty much everywhere else in the world outside the U.S. is the puke-inducing follow-up to his incredibly strange comedies BAD TASTE and MEET THE FEEBLES. It is regarded as one of the goriest fright films of all-time and I'll certainly not dispute that fact, this is a gore-tastic masterpiece, the stuff cult classics are made of.

The film's pre-credit sequence opens on Skull Island (a place Jackson would revisit with KING KONG) as an intrepid explorer collecting live specimens for a zoo makes a hasty retreat with cage in hand from depths of the island towards the coast, fierce island natives nipping at his heels. The origins of the native's dismay? That the poor man's Indiana Jones is absconding with a vile simian creature known as the Sumatran Rat-Monkey, a creature that according to legend was spawned when plague rats escaping a sinking slave ship arrived on the island and raped the island's tree-monkey population - what's not to love? Stewart makes his way to an awaiting Jeep but during the commotion he is bitten and scratched by the rat-monkey. The guides on this expedition notice the bite mark on his hand and immediately pin him to the ground hacking off his right hand with a machete. Then they notice a bite mark on his left arm - WHACK! His upper torso nearly limbless is a pitiful sight to behold but the worse is yet to come when a scratch is sighted on his forehead - yup, that's it for him - CHOP! Cue his dying scream and roll opening credits. Alright, we've got a splatter-classic on our hand here folks.

Suddenly we find ourselves in picturesque Wellington, New Zealand in the year 1957. Wellington is the epitome of a quiet, conservative 50's community in every respect. Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme, PLANET MAN) is a sadly aloof young man domineered by his mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody, HEAVENLY CREATURES). It's painful how completely he's lorded over by the maternal nightmare, but her control over the weak-willed lad is threatened when Lionel falls head over heels for a pretty shopkeeper named Paquita (Diana Penalver, BENEATH STILL WATERS) and don't think for a moment that his meddlesome mum will abide it quietly. She immediately sets out to sabotage the spark of romance before it can ignite into flames of passion and stalks the two love birds to the Zoo where she hides in the bushes along a cage containing what else? The Sumatran Rat-Monkey which was shipped to Wellington following the pre-credit events. While she skulks in the shadows that rat-monkey takes a chunk of flesh from her arm and the blue-haired hag maddened at the indignity of being bitten by the foul vermin squashes it with the heel of her pumps, it's a gruesome display as blood and brains ooze forth from it's eye-sockets. Ever the dedicated son Lionel rushes to her aid when she screams out in pain, taking her home treating and bandaging her nasty wound.

The next day the wound only worsens becoming a pulsing mass of gooey grossness, she's develops mouth sores and liesons and is just not looking good in any respect. Despite her worsening state she refuses medical attention and when the president of the Ladies Welfare League Mrs. Matheson arrives with her husband in tow for tea and biscuits she rises to the occasion albeit with her flesh literally falling from her face, held in place with strong adhesive. During the luncheon Vera starts to turn a bit more ghoulish before her guests very eyes leading to some awesome gross-out visuals. While custard is being served the ripe pustule on her arm ruptures squirting a thick ropey spray of puss into Mr. Matheson's dessert which he unwittingly consumes exclaiming "Mmm... rich and creamy, just the way I like it." Definitely some bad taste awesomeness that's hurl inducing. Vera's own ear rots right off her face falling into her bowl of custard which she eats with some difficulty just before falling unconscious face first into her dessert, fun stuff. In the annals of gross-out cinema this entire scene is pretty damn high on the list.

With Vera's zombie-fication nearly complete she scarfs down Paquita's pet pooch Fernando resulting in Lionel shoving his fist down her throat and pulling out the nastiest hairball you've ever seen. The progressively carnivorous act forces the ever-caring Lionel to keep her locked in the basement and sedated with a strong animal tranquilizer which he acquires illegally from a vet whom surely is an escaped Nazi scientist. There he keeps and cares for her unbeknownst to Paquita but despite his best efforts mum escapes and is soon consuming the quaint folk of Wellington turning them into flesh-crazed zombies, too. Lionel dutifully gathers the wayward zombies and stashes them in the basement along with mum away from the prying eyes of neighbors, tethering them to the dinner table and spoon feeding them. When his sleazy Uncle Les arrives on scene smelling filthy estate lucre it gets harder to keep the secret under wraps. As things continue to spin wildly out of control Lionel, Paquita and Les find themselves holed up at his house immersed in a grisly zombie siege that will either make you puke from laughter or laugh until you spew chunks from your nostrils.

At it's heart Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE is the timeless tale of boy meets girl, boy's mom meets rat-monkey, boy mows down hordes of zombies with a re-purposed lawnmower, you know, that old chestnut. The storytelling is here and gets perhaps a bit too melodramatic at times but it's buried under a ton of awesome gore effects that don't disappoint, and like many of the classic splatter flicks of the 80's the effects hold up quite remarkably for the most part. There's reanimated intestines, dozen of distinctive zombies, hundreds of sight gags, gallons upon gallons of glorious blood, a claymation rat-monkey, rib cages ripped from torsos, the skin pulled off a face like a dirty tube sock and old Vera shoving her son back into her womb only for him to finally tear himself free of her maternal shackles in a very Freudian manner as he emerges a through a hot pile of motherly effluence. The effects are of the blood-drenched old school practical variety and are too numerous to recount and too awesome to properly describe, it's just pure carnage and when Lionel takes on an insurmountable mob of zombies with a re purposed lawnmower it just don't get any better.

Aside from the phenomenal gore we get strong performances from leads Timothy Balme and Diane Penalver there are distinctly memorable performances in abundance; the kung-fu priest Father McGruder (Stuart Devente), pervy Uncle Les (Ian Watkins) and the low-life greaser Void (Jed Brophy).

In 1992 if you had told me that the mad genius behind the demented lunacy of MEET THE FEEBLES, BAD TASTE and DEAD ALIVE would go onto helm THE LORD OF THE RINGS and KING KONG I probably would have thought you silly in the head. That said, there's a lot of Jackson's talent onscreen here and not just of the knee-deep-in-gore variety.

BLU-RAY:DEAD ALIVE makes its high definition debut just in time for Halloween in what's being touted by Lionsgate as the 20th Anniversary Edition. The film is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1) with a MPEG-4AVC encode that looks to have been sourced from the same master as the previous TriMark DVD from some years ago. The film definitely benefits from the higher resolution resulting in finer detail, deeper black levels and more pronounced color saturation but it is also a bit dirty, mighty grainy and white speckling is present throughout. The close-ups reveal more texture in the faces and the make-up effects, plus we see more gore than ever before, no doubt, but this isn't going to be the spleen-busting upgrade that you may have been hoping for.

The lone audio option is an English language DTS-HD 2.0 stereo track that that's kinda flat and doesn't offer much in the way of channel separation. Also included are option English SDH and Spanish subtitles. While it definitely isn't gonna give your fancy surround sound home theatre a workout it's adequate and comes through clearer and with a spot more depth than the previous DVD edition.

The lone special features are the Original Theatrical Trailer (1:49) and a selection of Lionsgate trailer. Just like the TriMark DVD this is unrated but not the 104 min. original cut of the film but Peter Jackson's preferred version at 97 mins.. While I appreciate having this splatter classic in the glory of 1080p I cannot help but feel it could have been more glorious. A newly minted HD transfer, some minor restoration and a newly created DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround sound mix could have done this wonders. As for the paltry bonus content a newly commissioned featurette, a Peter Jackson commentary, some interviews, a branching version of the original cut or just the addition of the excised seven minutes of film would truly be fitting of this gore-tastic classics's 20th anniversary.

- Original Theatrical Trailer (1:49)

VERDICT: When it comes to gore-comedies few are as pickled in the briny stew of blood, guts and splatstick as DEAD ALIVE. The film's a tried and true rite of passage for horror fans that's easily on par with Saim Raimi's EVIL DEAD 2. I have some minor quibbles with the presentation and supplements that could have been improved upon but honestly it's superior to the DVD in every way. What I have to ask myself is that if I hadn't received this screener would I have bought it knowing what I do now? The answer is unequivocally yes, why? It's fucking Peter Jackson's DEAD ALIVE on Blu-ray, the most gut-drenched black comedy ever filmed and that's not just hyperbole.