Thursday, December 13, 2007

Movies: Lovely Bones it ain't.

In some alternate universe, a better place perhaps, there are federal laws about when shops can start playing Christmas music and if you can find just one person – a single human being – who thinks you're swell, then all your food is free and all you can eat forever. In this wonderful place, the Internet is made of whiskey (somehow) and you can access it for free anywhere. There, in this perfect place, the better a food tastes, the thinner it makes you. Children are born cute instead of purple and wrinkly and they grow normally for the first year and a half – then they sudden become college-age and vanish except on holidays. There are no political parties and all of our leadership positions are filled via a jury-duty like system. In this blessed universe, sleep is not only always completely restful, but it acts as a rigorous form of physical exercise. And there's such a thing a beer ice cream and it's good somehow instead of utterly gross as one imagines such a thing would really be.

When they have the Academy Awards in this place, they don't give out a prize for Best Supporting Actor (an award for supporting, please, they're just lucky to have work and that should be reward enough). Instead, they give out the much-coveted Most Gooey Feature Award. And every year, the award goes to Peter Jackson's 1992 splatter-fest Dead Alive (née Braindead).

(The Best Actress Award is replaced by the controversial Best Reference to an Episode of Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp, Award – but that's a different blog entry.)

Taking the slapstick gore antics of his '87 alien invasion flick Bad Taste to giddily surreal heights, Jackson delivers what must be the one of the slimiest flicks ever made. According to that source of all knowledge – the Great IMDB – more than 300 liters of fake blood was spilled all over the climactic final scene. The site reports that Jackson's crew was pumping the stuff all over the actors at a rate of nearly 5 gallons per second. Lordy.

Despite how bloody and deliriously unhinged the flick becomes, the film starts out rather modestly.

The first surprise of Jackson's flick is that it is a period piece. It is set in New Zealand during the 1950s. Period cars, trolley trains, and so forth all add the setting. Why set it half a century back in time? I have no idea. It does allow Jackson to send up the sort of wooden acting one equates with melodramas of the period – which also helps him cover for the fact that his actors aren't that great. But that's a lot of effort to go through for a few era-dependent gags. I can't explain it. It is what it is.

The story, what there is of it, starts on Skull Island. Yep, that Skull Island apparently: in a curious bit of career foreshadowing, Jackson's first visit to the home of King Kong can be found in the opening scene of Dead Alive. There we watch as a New Zealand zoo official eludes a tribe of not so PC-natives in an effort to deliver his captured Sumatran Rat Monkey to a zoo in kiwi-land. The less-than-great white hunter doesn't quite make it, but the rat monkey, and effectively nasty bit of stop action animation, does. (To bring things full circle, a crate labeled "Sumatran Rat Monkey" appears on boat in Jackson's Kong remake.)

Our hero, Lionel, a goofy dweebish sort who suffers under the oppressive tyranny of his particularly unpleasant mother, starts the film by developing an awkward romance with a local shopgirl. His mother, in an effort to nip her boys amorous adventures in the bud, follows him and his lady love to the zoo. There, she's bitten by the rat monkey. This is bad news as the rat monkey has some sort of zombie-making sepsis going on. The beast's bite slowly turns Lionel's mom into an undead creature that craves the taste of human flesh (and, occasionally, porridge). A dutiful son, Lionel tries to keep his mother and her people chomping tendencies under wraps. This puts a terrible cramp on his romancin' and, ultimately, fails to prevent the spread of undead-ism.

Things go from bad to worse, reaching the aforementioned blood-soaked climax wherein Lionel and his babe are caught in a house full of zombies and must battle it out with the shuffling horde using things like lawn mowers (a source of a good portion of the 300 some liters of fake blood used). Jackson's zombies aren't slouches in the undead department. They take absurd amounts of abuse and just keep coming. At one point, Lionel is menaced by the animated innards of a zombie that, despite falling out of their body casing, still pursue our hero. In this flick, the only way to stop a zombie is to thoroughly pulp it – which our hero does with much gusto in a final fight scene that last a good half hour or so.

Many reviews of Dead Alive mention is as a "disturbing film." This, I think, gives the wrong impression. This film might upset your stomach, but that's about as far as it aspires to go. Sure this flick pushed boundaries, but they are simply boundaries of taste rather than ethical or aesthetic boundaries. It's a gross-out comedy that uses zombies and blood instead of potty jokes (well, as well as potty jokes, let's say). It has more in common with flicks like Army of Darkness - though it is considerably more gory than that film – than it does with endurance test flicks that leave you feeling hollowed out. The real question here isn't whether or not you'll be shaken and disturbed by the flick as whether or not you'll find it nauseating and pointless. Dead Alive is a very specific kind of joke and, if that humor isn't your speed, then the whole thing will just seem like a clumpy meaty mess that goes nowhere fast. I enjoyed the flick, but even I started to glaze over near the end there when the gore-gags were coming so fast and furious that the cumulative effect was more numbing and boring than distressing or exhilarating. Still, the movie isn't overly long. Jackson knows he's pushed the limits of his audience's humor and wraps things up neatly and quickly before it all gets stupid of tedious.

So, how do you know if Jackson's pic is right for you? There's one scene in the flick in which a young woman's head splits open and out of her ruined cranium crawls a zombie baby. It had tunneled up through her and emerged at her face. Having read that description, pick the option that most describes your reaction:

A) "Yeah, I could see that being done in a funny sort of way."

B) "I just threw up in my mouth a little."

If you answered "A," then queue this sick little puppy. You're in for a treat.


Anonymous said...

Peter Jackson, of the hobbit fame ? Crazy.

Anyway, seems like a the equivalent of zombie Godwin's law, but this sounds vaguely like 'Shaun of the Dead,' no ?

CRwM said...

The one and the same. It's tempting to divide Jackson's career up into his gross-out juvenalia and his more mature, calmer work - though you can often see shades of his earlier work in his later blockbusters.

You can see some of his old gross-out splatter tricks in the bug slime pit scene in Kong.

The Reaper in The Frighteners is a dress rehearsal for the Dark Riders of LotR.

Both Kong and Rings have these elaborate everything-and-the-kitchen-sink action sequences where multiple characters are having their individual fights on top of one another. Jackson's Dead Alive and The Frighteners both fetaure similarly dense action sequences.

Still, when you're watching some dude make zombie smoothies with his lawn mower while PAs gush 5 gallons of fake blood per second on to the screen, it i easy to forget it's the same director.