New Zealand, 1954. The Sumatran Rat Monkey has just been acquired by a zoo; too bad it’s infected with a nasty disease that makes people rabid. Largely affected by this is kindly Lionel (Timothy Balme), whose mum Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is bitten and becomes (for lack of a better word) a zombie. She bites other people, and before long Lionel has a basement full of creatures. Meanwhile, comely Paquita (Diana Peñalver) wants to be his love interest. Together they and Lionel’s sleazy uncle Les (Ian Watkin) (who throws a party, eventually leaving Lionel with a houseful of zombies) take a stand to survive.
Dead Alive (along with being directed by a young Peter Jackson), is well-known for being extremely gory and disgusting. We’re talking a squashed rat monkey head, dismembered limbs, a ribcage pulled out of its moorings, a face ripped off, and altogether too much pus. There’s also the most famous scene, when Lionel dispatches zombie partygoers with an upturned lawnmower. My notes read, “Gore lets up before it gets too overwhelming,” but after reading a page of scribblings mostly devoted to keeping track of the grotesqueries, I doubt my own words. Dog lovers be warned: one scene makes light of Vera eating Paquita‘s dog—most of it, anyway.
There is actually quite a bit of humor in the film. While turning into a monster, Vera is absolutely unflappable, even while eating her own ear. My favorite moment is when Lionel has Vera and three other unfortunates seated around the dinner table. One woman, whose head is held on by a scrap of tissue, is trying to eat, but everything keeps sliding back out. Then there’s the punk who can’t grasp eating with a spoon—it gets shoved into the lining of his throat. Always the devoted son, Lionel deals with the whole matter imperturbably; his first attempt to deal with the zombies is a suit of armor and a jumbo bottle of tranquilizer.
The film does manage to be thought-provoking at times. I can’t help but appreciate the sheer creativity behind some of the violence, for example the woman who gets stuck on a light fixture and glows like a jack-o-lantern. And aside from the goop and blood, there does seem to be a subtle undertone about the dangers of racism: the person who‘s responsible for the whole Rat Monkey mess is a white guy who stole the thing from Sumatran natives. Vera flips out about Lionel being with Paquita moments before the rat monkey bites her. Then again, the stereotypical depiction of the Sumatrans and of Paquita’s family, who are supposed to be Latinx, is pretty offensive.
I felt bad for my brother Jeremy, who had sat down on the couch to eat his lunch during my last viewing of the film—not something I recommend. But do give it a glance while you’re not eating if you’re in the mood for something violent yet lighthearted.