Girl Meets Context: Dead Alive is one of the most notorious splatter movies of all time, and is often cited as New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s (the Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong) first signature masterpiece. The movie is set in 1950s Wellington and concerns a zombie virus that begins after a rare Sumatran rat monkey bites the elderly mother of our hero, Lionel. As his mother deteriorates and begins to spread the infection to others, Lionel desperately tries to hide all evidence of the horror from the white-picket-fence world outside. His desperate attempts to control the growing horde of zombies interferes with his romance of a local immigrant girl, Paquita. But when Lionel’s opportunistic Uncle Les shows up looking for his share of the family estate, the zombie outbreak escalates into a massive, phantasmagoric splatter spectacle. Kristine and I sat down to process the film’s nauseating gore effects, disturbing racial politics and general aesthetic. Be forewarned, our discussion will include massive SPOILERS, so go watch the movie and come back!
Sean: When we discussed Re-Animator, you said that horror comedies were one of your most dreaded subgenres because they “seemed to be high on dumb FX and low on story and character-building.” That description is basically Dead Alive in a nutshell, right?
Sean: Was this movie your worst nightmare? Did you loathe it?
Kristine: No. I mean, I found parts of it to be very enjoyable. But other parts, like the nebbish becoming the action hero, I couldn’t take it. It was too transparently a wish fulfillment of the kinds of schlubby horror nerds that would love this movie (and who made this movie, no offense, Peter Jackson).
Kristine: And also, not to be a bitch but… I am not really into puppets. No puppets for me.
Sean: Are puppets a total boy nerd thing?
Kristine: I am going to say yes. It was like that horrible John Cusak character in Being John Malkovich with his vile marionettes. Or the Dias de Los Muertos parades in Tucson, where all these white hipsters make fantasy characters to ride on their shoulders. No me gusta.
Sean: So you hated all the puppets, even the baby?
Kristine: Okay, the baby I did actually love. All of it’s crazy giggling and running around was super fun.
Sean: You and I are of the original Muppets generation. Didn’t you love the Muppets growing up?
Kristine: THAT’S not the kind of puppets I’m rejecting. I’m talking about huge papier-mâché titties and vaginas.
Sean: I just want to know if Baby Kwissie liked the Muppets, though.
Kristine: Sure, I liked the Mupps.
Sean: Speaking of massive gaping puppet vaginas, this is the most Oedipal movie ever…. Right?
Kristine: Oh god! I can’t even with the pendulous puppet breasts of the monster-mother at the end.
Sean: It was a Freudian vagina monologue come to life.
Kristine: Listen, can we talk about Peter Jackson?
Kristine: What the fuck with his career path? I don’t understand the trajectory of his career at all. I need you to know the ONLY two movies of his I have seen are this and Heavenly Creatures (which I adore). That is all. They could not be more different! And didn’t he make Heavenly Creatures right after Dead Alive?
Sean: Well, Heavenly Creatures did have those creepy stop-motion sequences right? But you’re right that they’re tonally completely different. I’m pretty sure that Dead Alive is the movie that really put him on the map, because other filmmakers were agog at the technical skills it showcased. And then Heavenly Creatures (which did come right afterwards) showed that he was versatile. So that one-two punch is what made him am underground superstar and led to him getting hired for the Lord of the Rings movies…
Kristine: Right, right. Well, I just don’t know where to begin with this movie! The priest in the graveyard? The ear falling in the custard? Where do we start?
Sean: The kung fu priest is exactly what the schlubby horror nerds of the world love this movie for.
Kristine: I agree with that 100%. “I kick ass for the lord!” This movie has a very “boy” sensibility to it. Which is interesting because I know Jackson and his domestic partner, Fran Walsh, collaborate on all his movies. But still, there isn’t a trace of female sensibility to this thing.
Sean: Can I say something about my history with this movie?
Kristine: Please do.
Sean: When it first came out on VHS back in the day and I rented it I HATED it. I even turned it off halfway through and didn’t see the whole thing until years later. Even on the second viewing, I could barely tolerate it.
Sean: I hated all the gonzo close-ups of fat, sniveling, sweating men making gross faces and bearing their rat-teeth. And I thought the New Zealand accents were gross and made me want to take a shower. I don’t know why. I just hated the whole sensibility of the movie!
Kristine: I found the fatty who came to lunch and shoved custard into his facehole and awful Uncle Les with his toupée to be just as gross as any of the gore, which I realize is totally intentional but still. It was very effective.
Sean: Oh god right?
Kristine: Was Jackson “heavy” when he made this?
Sean: Pretty sure, but not his hugest.
Kristine: Hmmmm… Are all the men of size depicted as grotesque goblins because of Jackson’s intense self-loathing for his own pudgy softness?
Sean: It could be.
Kristine: So, according to Jackson all the men in New Zealand are either momma’s boys, doltish jocks, fat custard-eaters, or rockabilly rapists. Right?
Sean: I guess… Anyway it took me years and years to finally come around on this movie, but I am quite fond of it now.
Kristine: So what made you come ’round? The giggling baby?
Sean: I’m not sure. I think I might have been a more insufferable horror purist when I was younger. I think I hated any kind of slapstick in a horror movie because I took the genre “seriously.” I was NOT the kind of horror fan who liked cheaply made horror movies. I didn’t believe in “so bad it’s good” until my late 20s. I had all these high standards. But what’s weird is that all of the movies I was OBSESSED with as a kid actually had a comedic tone: The Return of the Living Dead, Tremors, Re-Animator, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, etc. And some of the more “serious” horror movies I loved as a kid (like Hardware and Hellraiser) have not held up well. But the slapstick vibe to Dead Alive offended my sensibilities and I thought it was “dumb.” I get a great kick out of the movie now, and I definitely think it deserves it’s place in the pantheon of horror classics, but the truth is that I will never LOVE it.
Kristine: Huh. I’m surprised in some ways to hear you say that because the Mum character was the kind of total hagsploitation diva shit I know you love.
Sean: I didn’t discover my diva-loving self until later in life. I was a reactionary little faggot as a teen/young adult.
Kristine: Well I liked all the scenes with Mum, with her face all falling off and it is totally like something out of Brazil.
Sean: Mum is awesomeness. Like I said, I really like the movie now, and Mum is the best part (I still kind of hate the “hero”). I like this movie, even though Peter Jackson has some serious race issues…
Kristine: I was GOING TO SAY!!! Paquita and her soothsayer ethnic grandparents? WTF?
Sean: What about the natives of Skull Island!? All running around going “ooga-booga”?! (Fyi, Skull Island is also the name of the island King Kong is from).
Kristine: God I forgot about the whole beginning!
Sean: It’s so weird, because I think Peter Jackson seems to lovable and awesome, but I actually thing there’s a pathological racism running through all his movies. I think he is obsessed with “the darkie” as an idea and has no qualms about romanticizing/fetishizing blackness. Has Spike Lee given him the what-for yet?
Kristine: Yeah, the race stuff in this movie is really icky. Paquita and her family are these saucy, hot-blooded ethnics with their primitive superstitions. The island natives are abject savages. I think the best parts of Dead Alive revolve around Lionel’s attempts to domesticate and contain the zombies. He tries to keep them framed in a proper social context, and it leads to all the best moments of perversion and grotesquerie. When he has all the zombies tied up around the dining table and he is trying to feed them. Or when Mum holds the luncheon and is drooling and her face is falling off into the custard, or when Lionel takes the baby to the park.
Sean: Right. I love all that stuff, too. The nurse zombie with the flip-flopping head? Who fucks the priest as a zombie and chews his face off? I mean, Jackson has a comic book/cartoon sensibility right? Like Looney Tunes on acid.
Kristine: It is VERY nerdy but fun. I agree that he’s a cartoonish director. The ninja priest? What about when Lionel pulls Paquita’s dog out of Mum’s mouth? I was DYING.
Sean: Hahahaha! What do you think of Paquita? I kind of love her.
Kristine: Paqs was okay. I don’t think I liked her as much as you. I didn’t care for her whole soulmate quest.
Sean: I just kind of liked how she was this hot-and-bothered voluptuous curly-headed lady. She was like, down to fuck. I dug that.
Kristine: “She’s a little bit of all right,” says gross Uncle Les.
Sean: I didn’t like her swoony romantic stuff either.
Kristine: What was up with the rockabillies?
Sean: Hahaha! That was so 1990s. I guess even in New Zealand the 1990s was about neo-rockabilly. Oh! that reminds me: what did you think about this being a period piece? I never noticed until this viewing, but it is set in the 1950s, which made me curious about why Jackson did that.
Kristine: I think it was set in the 1950s just because Jackson wanted to have rockabillies!
Kristine: I don’t know, to make Paquita’s marriage quest less bizarre?
Kristine: Okay, tell me, then.
Sean: It has to be about the social satire part of the equation, right? I mean, maybe you’re onto something with the Paquita stuff, actually. Because setting this all in the 1950s focuses the movie’s energy on the culture of conformity. The 1950s is a time when there was a VERY codified set of mainstream values, when “normal” was defined so explicitly and narrowly. Gender roles were more ingrained and unquestioned, the idea of suburbia is created, etc.
Kristine: I mean, this is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink movie. And I think would extend to any sense of this movie as a set of social critiques. I mean, the zombie genre is one of the most explicitly “metaphorical” right? Like we talked about when we discussed Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are metaphors for conformity, consumerism, etc. So the tradition of the zombie movie, especially post-Romero, is to be “about” society. But Jackson just attacks EVERYTHING – religion, family, motherhood, parenting, romantic love, sexuality, medicine… All aspects of culture are just mercilessly lampooned and desecrated.
Sean: That actually might be the best framework through which to think about this movie, just as an act of desecration.
Kristine: Oh totally. And I mean, isn’t that what splatter movies seem to be “about” anyway? Just to spray blood and gore and pus and shit and piss and placental goo all over everything? No wonder this genre always struck me as the province of boys frozen at the oral-anal stage of development!
Sean: Ha! I guess splatter movies are the horror movie equivalent of poop and vomit jokes. So, this movie wouldn’t exist without The Evil Dead AND Re-Animator, right? I feel like your horror movie history has served you well to watch this film with some context of what came before it and where it fits into a specific substrain of horror movies.
Kristine: Sure, but when you lump those three movies together I think you realize how Re-Animator, by comparison, is so much more sophisticated and full of ideas. Dead Alive and The Evil Dead feel much more primal and raw. But I was powerfully reminded of The Evil Dead during the big mass killing scene at the end here.
Sean: Totally, and zombie Mum in this reminded me of all the she-demons in The Evil Dead.
Kristine: You’re so right! Sean, can we address Lionel’s weapons of choice?
Sean: The lawnmower? What of it?
Kristine: The lawnmower for him, the blender for her?
Sean: OMG! I never realized how gendered that is!
Kristine: Right????? Paquita’s weapon was so dumb, the blender didn’t even kill anyone!
Sean: Well, she killed that severed head in the blender, but the baby was too quick for her.
Kristine: I love that baby! Fine, but still you see my point. Lionel lays waste to practically ALL of the zombie horde with his masculine (and quite blue-collar) weapon, and all Paquita does is all daintily puree one tiny little severed head.
Sean: Hahaha! Well, and that lawnmower could also be read not as a symbol of blue-collar work but of suburban prosperity and superficiality. How the lawnmower is a tool used to manicure a lawn, to smooth out all the wrinkles on the façade of the dream of suburban bliss and prosperity. I feel like this movie really is sending up all the tropes of 1950s domesticity, of which “Dad outside with his lawnmower” is one.
Kristine: So, I have to admit that during the big massacre I got a little bored.
Sean: Seriously? I think, upon coming around to this movie, that giant massacre is my favorite thing to watch.
Kristine: Yeah, I got bored, unless THE BABY was on the screen.
Sean: I have to say of all the sacred cows that this movie slaughters, the baby might be my favorite. I love how it takes the archetype of the baby as this adorable, sacred and beatific being and just totally subverts it and makes it horrible and evil.
Kristine: What about Lionel taking the baby to the park and all the women just tsk-tsk-ing at him violently assaulting it?
Sean: I loved that. I love him pounding the fuck out of that baby. I adore how in some shots it was a midget in a costume and in others it was a puppet. It cracks me up! Haven’t you ever wanted to beat up a baby?
Kristine: Um… But don’t you think it was another nod to gender roles, like in the 1950s dudes weren’t strolling babies to the park? He was the only male there, and he was also the one not “nurturing” his baby, but abusing it. It’s a sick joke, especially considering how the zombie baby revolts us and grossly disrupts our idealization of “the baby.”
Sean: Yes totally! I think part of the joke also is how he’s there beating the shit out of his baby and all the disapproving women are too passive and “ladylike” to get in his face about it. It totally uses those traditional gender norms against them, and by being demure the women tacitly approve of and allow this horrible child abuse to go on. And on. And on! Think about the übermoms of today all seeing that! They’d be like, doing kung fu yoga on him…
Kristine: Oh my god, the powermoms would rip his balls off and immediately stick their nipples in the baby’s mouth while conference calling in to work on their iPads.
Sean: “Um, sir! Sir, excuse me!” I just want to randomly assert that I love when Uncle Les becomes that big snake monster.
Kristine: Uncle MoLESter was the sickest beast. What did you think of the mythology of the rat monkey? I love the lurid story about how these rats came and RAPED these innocent tree monkeys… When the rat monkey kills the other monkey I was dying.
Sean: The monkey stuff. I mean this is where the race stuff is so gross…
Kristine: Well, I know.
Sean: Because it’s SUMATRAN so it’s like this vile DARK PERSON disease that comes and corrupts white suburbia.
Kristine: I knooooooooooooooooooooow!
Sean: It is so xenophobic!
Kristine: Did you love it when Mum killed the rat monkey?
Sean: I love Mum in all her glory. The only saving grace is that I think Jackson delights in seeing all that lily-whiteness get desecrated, as we said earlier. Though this movie is problematic in some significant ways, I think it winds up being transgressive in that way, in investing so heavily in the spectacle of all these cultural norms being violated and spewed upon. I think the most overt example of that is the zombie sex/face-chewing/pregnancy stuff. Even though is it so HETERONORMATIVE.
Kristine: I agree with that. In terms of offensiveness, is the gigantic Mum-behemoth-monster the most offensive thing that has ever existed? I mean talk about the monstrous feminine! This is like when we discussed The Host, how horror movies are obsessed with the idea of the monstrous mother. But my god, this movie like quadruple-downs on that, with the whole return-to-the-womb sequence at the end where Mum sucks Lionel INTO HER VAGINA and then explosively BIRTHS HIM BACK OUT and he is all covered in placental gore…
Sean: I mean, it is so ludicrously, deliriously offensive that it is amazing, right?
Kristine: For sure, but my vagina just wants to register it’s objection to that scene. In fact, on behalf of all vaginas, I want to say, “Quit it.”
Sean: Okay, can I say something? Mum made me really sad when she’s trying to pull it together for her important society lunch but she sounds like a stroke victim and her body is falling apart. It actually made me want to cry, because it was like, suddenly the movie was this very real nightmare about getting older and your body losing control. I didn’t expect to find any pathos in this movie, but there it was!
Kristine: That’s definitely what it seemed like, I agree. You are trying to pretend you are still all there, but you are a shell of your former self. It was fucked up.
Sean: It made me sad! Once she went full-zombie I could relax and enjoy the movie again.
Kristine: Even the custard thing… You know how the couple at the luncheon kept pretending they didn’t see Mum’s body parts falling into the custard? That’s totally like pretending you aren’t noticing an oldie pissing their pants or with food all over their faces.
Sean: YES! Exactly! The pus on her arm squirting into the custard?
Kristine: Do you think Peter Jackson is scared of decaying and aging bodies?
Sean: I mean, yes! So, Mum is the true villain of the movie, right? Because she wants to fuck her son. Is a mother being jealous of her son’s girlfriends a real thing? Because that seems so perverted it can’t be true.
Kristine: I mean… Yeah, I think in some family dynamics.
Sean: It was very Mrs. and Norman Bates. Have you ever had a boyfriend’s mother hate you because she wanted Sonny to herself?
Kristine: Not that I was aware of. When Lionel is mowing the lawn and Mum is yelling at him out the window but you don’t see her? That was so Psycho.
Sean: I mean, Mum is this cheated-upon woman who murdered her philandering husband and her mistress and yet we’re totally meant to see her as a monster and identify with passive, ugly Lionel in his adult diapers. I HATE Lionel!
Sean: Truth talk!
Kristine: Truth talk!
Kristine: So, let’s talk religion. Mum’s funeral and her “resurrection.” Don’t you think Jackson’s just cashing in on all that “Jesus Was a Zombie” business?
Sean: Totally. There’s also the tension of the codified white church and then the darkie shamanism of Paquita’s clan. Jackson totally mythologizes the ethnic superstition and skewers the white traditional church. Plus, Paquita’s Gram-Gram was the old gypsy witch from Drag Me to Hell!
Kristine: She was!
Sean: Jackson literally turns the fetishization of brown people into a pop symbol with that ridiculous talisman!
Kristine: I thought the protective medallion was dumb.
Sean: Jackson is all, “Dark people know what’s up with the dark magicks!”
Kristine: I bet he loved The Skeleton Key.
Kristine: Heavenly Creatures is scary. But this movie is not scary.
Sean: Oh of course not! I don’t think that’s the intention, do you? I think in place of scares is… nausea!
Kristine: Agreed. I liked the progressive deterioration of the zombies… That made me nauseous.
Sean: Mum’s body spurting formaldehyde? The nurse’s head flopping off?
Kristine: Ha ha!
Sean: Is this the goriest movie you have ever seen?
Kristine: In sheer volume, yes. You know, there are zero really likable characters in this movie. I think Jackson is a misanthrope.
Sean: Do you know Jackson’s movie right before this one was a Muppets parody called Meet the Feebles about buttfucking puppet monsters all spreading venereal diseases to each other?
Kristine: No, I did not know that. He is SUCH a nerd boy.
Sean: He is the BIGGEST nerd. Would you watch it?
Kristine: Of my own accord? No. Can you believe I haven’t seen his other films? Other than Heavenly Creatures, they have zero appeal to me.
Sean: Yes, I can believe it.
Kristine: Why aren’t you surprised?
Sean: I CANNOT imagine you watching Lord of the Rings.
Kristine: It cannot be imagined! I love it!
Sean: In fact, the 12-hour extended trilogy of Lord of the Rings is your idea of hell, right?
Kristine: Oh god yes.
Kristine: No hobbits.
Sean: Kristine hates hobbits.
Kristine: I don’t hate. It’s just… it’s dumb! Sean, it is DUMB. Those are childish things, hobbits and such. I am a grown W-O-M-A-N.
Sean: Kristine, I was the biggest fantasy nerd growing up, all playing Dungeons and Dragons. I read all the Xanth books!
Kristine: LOLOLOLOLOOOL. Okay, there is ONE mythical creature I had an immense fondness for as a child. I have to tell you or run the risk of my family outing me.
Sean: Ok…. UNICORN.
Kristine: Nope. My mythical creature of choice was…the gnome. I use to build homes and structures for them in hollow trees, using sticks and moss. This is true.
Sean: WHAT!? WHAT?!!! WHAT THE FUCK?
Kristine: I did.
Sean: Gnomes are the LAMEST FANTASY CREATURES OF ALL TIME!
Kristine: I wanted them to have well-designed abodes.
Sean: I AM DYING.
Kristine: Whatever. I loved them.
Sean: I AM VOMITING.
Kristine: Choke on it.
Sean: I want you to tell me that you are a pervert. Say, “I am a gnome pervert.”
Kristine: What? No.
Sean: Unicorns train little girls to want dick.
Kristine: Boooooring. Art History 101.
Sean: HAHAHAHAHAHA. Show me a lesbian that liked unicorns as a little girl and I’ll show you… the door! I want you to tell me if fantasy is more juvenile than science fiction.
Kristine: I don’t want to answer.
Sean: Because why?
Kristine: Oh my god!
Sean: This is like, important information! Are you afraid to making the boy-nerd Internet mafia mad?
Kristine: You know what all of this is making me think of? The insane popularity of Game of Thrones, a show I also enjoy and a very “adult” show.
Sean: I forgot you like that show!
Kristine: Actually, it’s just okay to me. I liked the first season, but then watched one episode of the second season and was immediately bored and over it.
Sean: You would watch Game of Thrones, but you would never watch Battlestar Galactica, am I right?
Kristine: Is there hot incesty sex in Battlestar Galactica? Because I am really not down with either fantasy or science fiction.
Sean: Um…. there is sex.
Kristine: Who has sex with whom?
Sean: All kinds of sexies have sex with all kinds of sexies. I think it’s time for space horror month.
Kristine: NO. UGH NO! What do you rate this flick? I rate it: Batshit insanity.
Sean: Mine is: This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why).
Kristine: That’s a good one.
Sean: So no more Peter Jackson for Kristine. You are all, “No thanks. I’ve had enough of that, thank you.”
Kristine: We’ll see. I am not opposed to HIM, but whenever he has a movie out, it never sounds remotely appealing to me. Hey, did Lionel from this movie go on to have a career?
Sean: He is like, a tv star in New Zealand. He is the lead singer from Crowded House, by the way.
Sean: He is! I mean, not literally. But they’re twins.
Kristine: Literally twins?
Sean: You are being so dumb!
Kristine: I am being amazing.
Sean: Sure you are, my little gnome nibbler.
Kristine: I hate you.
The Girl’s Rating: Batshit insanity.
The Freak’s Rating: This movie is dumb but I had fun watching it (and I don’t know why).