Dead Alive

a.k.a. Braindead   Year: 1992  Company: Wingnut Films   Runtime: 97′
Director: Peter Jackson   Writers: Stephen Sinclair, Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson
Music: Peter Dasent   Cast: Timothy Balme, Diana Penalver, Elizabeth Moody, Ian Watkin, Brenda Kendall, Stuart Devenie, Jed Brophy, Stephen Papps, Murray Keane, Glenis Levestam, Lewis Rowe
Disc company: Lionsgate   Video: 1080p 1.78:1   Audio: DTS HD-MA 2.0 English
Subtitles: English, English SDH, Spanish   Disc: BD25 (Region A)   Release Date: 10/04/2011
Available for purchase through Amazon.com

Before he found himself tooling around Middle Earth in the most expensive and protracted LARP session in history, writer and director Peter Jackson was cutting his cinematic teeth on genre-bending exploiters the likes of which the world had never seen.  It may be difficult for some to grasp that the man behind The Fellowship of the Ring was also responsible for the demented The Muppets take-off Meet the Feebles and the drive-through alien insanity of Bad Taste, but there are just as many of us who became Jackson fans strictly because of his unhinged past works.  After working with tiny budgets in the latter part of the previous decade Jackson’s company Wingnut Films finally came into some substantial financing in the early ’90s, and the immediate result was the director’s first film to receive any real worldwide exposure – the gloriously outrageous gross-out masterpiece Dead Alive (or Braindead to all of you lucky enough to have the film in its original title).

Written by Jackson, his wife Fran Walsh and their sometimes collaborator Stephen Sinclair, Dead Alive follows the budding relationship of reclusive mother’s boy Lionel and the lovely Pequita – a romance pre-ordained by a stack of tarot cards and Pequita’s creepy grandmother.  Standing in the way of any hope of happiness for the young lovers is Lionel’s mother, an insufferable nag who’s not quite herself these days.  After an unfortunate run-in with a vicious and purportedly cursed Sumatran Rat-Monkey at the city zoo, mum devolves into a putrescent sack of homicidal idiocy that Lionel deals with as best he can.  Veterinary tranquilizers do the job for a while, but unexpected encounters with punks, nurses and the local clergy soon find Lionel stuck with a basement-full of troublesome stiffs, and the arrival of estate-hungry uncle Les and his gaggle of hard partying cohorts only makes things worse.  As the situation spirals further and further out of control Lionel and Pequita are forced into drastic action to save both themselves and their fated romance…

If there’s one thing that leaps out at me every time I sit down to revisit Dead Alive, it’s how obvious it is that Jackson and his co-conspirators love film – Dead Alive is the sort of production that really wears its inspirations on its sleeve.  The film begins on King Kong‘s Skull Island, far west of Sumatra, with an asshole explorer running afoul of superstitious natives in his quest for a rare beast – the bothersome Sumtran Rat-Monkey – which is brought to life, naturally, through stop-motion animation.  Back in Wellington, Lionel hearkens to Anthony Perkin’s portrayal of immortal screen Psycho Norman Bates, albeit with a potential for heroism taking the place of homicidal mania, while Jackson and company hint at secrets in his past with flashes of Deliverance-style hand-out-of-the-water illusions.  Once Lionel’s mum is infected the film treats audiences to a veritable parade of zombie genre homage, referencing everything from the Dead works of Romero to Raimi’s more slapstick take on the material – Jackson and effects man Richard Taylor take particular relish in the “total bodily dismemberment” of the latter.  There are broader references as well, like the famed cemetery-bound kung fu battle between some zombie punks and the inimitable Father MacGruder (“I kick ass for the Lord!”), and one bit for the real nerds among us – a brief glimpse of a poster for Johnny Weismuller in Jungle Moon Men that foreshadows Lionel’s final act of macho heroism, swinging to safety by belt as he and his beloved share a kiss.

More than just paying lip service to their inspirations, Jackson and crew were also clearly enamored with the very act of making film.  Dead Alive often feels a though it were handled by a hyper-active grade-schooler who’d finally been given the opportunity to figure out his latest toy.  The camerawork, care of photographer Murray Milne (Meet the Feebles), is brimming with vitality, with the camera swishing or panning or craning in any number of directions and as often as was possible.  The compositions themselves are just as variably vivid, from the diffused soft-palette exteriors of fantasy Wellington circa 1957 to the eccentric neon-hued, comic-inspired interiors of the more horrific later segments.  Perhaps the greatest example of the enthusiasm of the men behind Dead Alive can be found in the breadth of technical effects exemplified throughout – more than just the eccentric splatter that comes to dominate the film, Jackson toys with conventional and large-scale puppetry, suit-mation, and even a bit of clever miniature work to expand his retro Universe.  Carefully photographed miniatures of a vintage Wellington no longer extant, complete with cable cars decorated in period-appropriate advertisements (and at least one building baring the Wingnut company name), merge perfectly with the modern location photography.  The temptation now seems to be to go overboard in creating a sense of location, with loads of CGI overproduction and perhaps a bit of gimmicky 3D immersion.  Dead Alive‘s old-hat techniques manage the feat without drawing too much attention to themselves, and are all the more satisfying for it.


The house where evil dwells…

All of that is good and well, but with a hyperbolic blurb like “The goriest fright film of all time” flaunted across the top of the box art it’s impossible to discuss Dead Alive without also discussing the excesses that have made it (in)famous.  While I might contest the “fright film” designation (this is comedy born of horror rather than any kind of horror outright) the rest of the statement is hard to argue with.  Dead Alive dishes out its visceral delights in such quantity that adjectives fail it – this may well be the bloodiest show on Earth.  While early gags are geared towards gross-out giggles – mention “pudding” in the context of this film and most anyone who’s seen it will give you a laughing, half-shuddering reaction – Dead Alive quickly transitions towards one-upping itself with its own over-the-topness.  This is, after all, a film famous for a scene in which a priest with a taste for the martial arts unceremoniously rips the limbs from his zombie opponent and beats him with them, and that’s just a start.

Those attempting to find logic or reason in Dead Alive‘s zombie hordes are out of luck as any sense there was to the thing quickly falls victim to the all-important gag.  It’s a welcome change in a subgenre that enjoys strangling itself in rules and regulations – “aim for the brain” doesn’t seem such a helpful piece of advice when the critter creeping your way has a lawn gnome for a head!  While some of the violence is undeniably rooted in genre conventions, as in the case of a neck-bite or two, the vast majority aims for hitherto unseen levels of absurdity.  Jackson’s creativity flourishes here in a ways that it just hasn’t in his more recent work, and its these demonstrations of his imagination unchecked that attracted so much of us to his filmmaking in the first place.  Faces and scalps are ripped whole from screaming skulls while men devoured up to their waists kick bloodied skeleton legs – one victim is so mangled that he comes back from the grave looking more than a little like a brachiosaurus.  In perhaps the classic attack of the film a young woman has her face ripped literally in two by a fiendish infant who then uses her corpse as a sort of full-body puppet!

If the zombie violence itself is extreme then that perpetrated against them is even more so, with heads and whole bodies exploding blood and nameless pulp about Lionel’s respectable Victorian abode.  One poor chap, having been cut in two, is reduced to using his legs for stilts while his whole set of internal organs, which have been granted their own bizarre life, are left to chase people about on their own!  Lionel eventually decides that he’s had enough of all that nonsense and takes matters into his own hands.  With most of the zombies gathered in the foyer, Lionel enters with a lawnmower draped over his neck and shoulders with a bit of rope.  “Party’s over!” he announces, and so begins the single most epic scene of wanton bodily destruction in the history of film.  Here the effects are thrilling in their efficacy, with assorted limbs, faces, and torsos butchered by the rumbling blade of the mower and spewed out in a stream of vivid red glop.  Never missing an opportunity for another gag, the film allows Lionel to reach the other end of the room safe and satisfied, only to look back and realize that he’s only mowed down one row of zombies and that there’s a whole horde of them left behind.  Mowing down the dead is evidently every bit as tedious and time consuming as mowing the lawn, and as Lionel turns to finish the job Peter Dasent’s synthesizer accompaniment swells into something melodious and balletic.  This is grand guignol as it might have been directed by Vincent Minnelli, and in its own way it’s every bit as genius as any of those other revered moments in cinema.

On their own gore and gags do not a terrific film make, and Dead Alive earns audience sympathies by packaging its more eccentric material within an old fashioned love story that’s actually quite touching and sweet.  In this way Dead Alive plays as the sort of pitch-perfect escapism only film can provide, offering up a happy ending that never feels trite or condescending.  We want Lionel and Pequita to be together, not because some goofy cards told us it would happen but because our investment in the characters makes us think it should.  In the end Dead Alive may be the most hopeful horror picture ever made – if these two can fend off the forces of darkness amassing against them then surely there’s a little hope for us all.  Just be sure to keep your lawnmower handy, as you never know when you might need it.


Grrrrrrrrr…

Dead Alive creeps, leaps, and splats onto Blu-ray courtesy of Lionsgate who, to be perfectly fair, have dropped the ball on a couple of key points.  Firstly, the cut of the film included is the slightly abbreviated 97 minute version (allegedly preferred by Jackson, though I could find no primary source for this – help!) that premiered at the 1992 Toronto Film Festival.  I’m not especially bothered by this – it’s the version that I have become most familiar with over the years – but the opportunity to include both the longer 104 minute version and this unrated 97 minute cut, preferably as seamlessly branched viewing options, was sorely missed.  Secondly, Dead Alive‘s high definition home video debut is woefully lacking in supplemental heft.  All that is included is the original American trailer in upconverted HD, and an interminable slate of Lionsgate previews that starts the disc.  A special edition this isn’t, though at least the packaging (a slight update of that for the Trimark DVD from over a decade ago) is honest enough not to lead consumers into thinking otherwise.

With no uncut version  and effectively no supplemental content to distract from it, the presentation of the 97 minute feature is very much front and center, and while I wasn’t expecting much by virtue of the low pricetag I found myself reasonably impressed, if with some reservations.  My apologies in advance for the paltry DVD comparison in this review – I no longer own the Trimark DVD and was forced to scrounge around online for the grand total of two uncompressed .png captures sourced below.  I’ve included two captures from the horrifically encoded Laser Paradise ‘Blood Edition’ for posterity, so that a more precise comparison can be made with regards to the film’s proper framing.

Lionsgate present Dead Alive under its American export title by way of a gritty 1080p transfer at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 – slightly cropped from the intended 1.66:1.  Compared to the DVD editions this new transfer adds, substantially at times, to the left and right of the frame, as well as to the top and bottom in comparison to the 1.85:1-cropped Trimark DVD.  A marginal amount of headroom is lost compared to the 1.66:1 “Blood Edition”, but not to the extent that it proves catastrophic to the framing, and while I’d have preferred a more open presentation the Blu-ray does offer a reasonable middle ground compared to what has been available before.  While the 1080p transfer can appear quite weak at times, overly grainy and softly focused with a subtle color palette and plenty of pox marks, I don’t think there’s much here that can’t be explained away by the source materials themselves.  The soft and grainy qualities of the image appear for the most part to be a product of the original photography, which is often done with wide-angle lenses and heavy diffusion filtering – this is not something that’s ever going to export a terrific amount of clarity and detail.  There are exceptions to the the norm here, with some effects takes appearing quite clear, apparently having been shot through different lenses and possibly on entirely different stock.


Case in point – the grain in this effects close-up is still visible, but much less pronounced. The darker areas of the frame seem especially crisp and clear compared to other samples from the film.

Then there is the frequent damage, which offers viewers a persistent parade of minor speckles and larger blemishes that seem excessive for even this modestly budgeted production, which is less than 20 years old as of this writing.  While there are black bits of dirt and dust to contend with the majority of the damage appears printed right into the materials themselves, showing as white flecks of varying sizes, including the odd white printed hair.  It’s all frame-specific, but the quantity was a bit surprising, and those sensitive to such things should note that Lionsgate have obviously attempted no restoration.  Color and contrast will likely also fall below most’s expectations.  With the exception of the over-the-top conclusion, with its wealth of vibrant reds, colors can appear quite flat, and while I suspect that much of this is intentional on the part of the filmmakers (looking to create a sort of soft fantasy version of 1957 Wellington) the flatness has been compounded by the transfer’s low level of contrast.  Black levels are quite weak for the most part, with plenty of grain (and a bit of noise as well) lurking behind every shadow.  A bit of tweaking could easily have resolved this situation, resulting in an image that looked just that much more healthy and robust.

Technically the disc is only middling, occupying  around 17 Gb of a single layer BD-25 with the AVC-encoded feature sporting an average video bitrate of just 19.6 Mbps.  I was hard pressed to find any fatal encoding flaws, but the image still doesn’t hold up as well in close examination as I’d like.  All said, I’m not really that put off by any of the above – in motion I’d say Dead Alive looks pretty decent, particularly in the final twenty minutes or so.  While I believe Lionsgate could have improved a bit, either by sourcing from the original negative or by tweaking the transfer they had, I’m hard-pressed to think they could have improved upon it drastically. For the $13 it presently demands I’d say this looks good enough, and substantially more accurate to the source materials than some other recently lauded presentations (I’m looking at you Zombie and House By the Cemetery).

HD screenshots were captured as .png at full resolution in MPlayer and compressed to .jpg using the ImageMagick command line tool.  Screenshots from the German Laser Paradise “Blood Edition” DVD were captured in .png format in VLC, upconverted to 1920×1080 (black bars were added to the left and right to fill the frame, and the original 4:3 letterboxing removed – note that the original letterboxing is very imprecise, with warping along the top and bottom of the frame, and that thin amounts of black information were left in some areas to prevent the loss of image information in others) in GIMP and compressed to .jpg format at a quality setting of 95%.  The two Trimark DVD comparison shots were found online in their original uncompressed .png, then upconverted and compressed at the same settings as the “Blood Edition” DVD (excluding the de-letterboxing and addition of black bars).
Blood Edition 4:3 letterboxed PAL DVD | 16:9 1.85:1 Trimark NTSC DVD | Lionsgate Blu-ray

More Blu-ray Screenshots

Gore!

In the absence of any appreciable funding having been thrown at this disc’s production, at least I don’t have an underwhelming 5.1 bump to contend with in the audio department.  What the disc does offer is the film’s original stereo recording, soundly related in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0.  The icky sound effects, which are every bit as delightfully sickening as the visuals, shine, as does Peter Dasent’s (Meet the Feebles) alternately cheesy and inspired synthesizer score.  There’s a bit of depth and even some appreciable stereo separation to be had, and Lionsgate manage to one-up many of their competitors by complimenting the track with three sets of subtitles – English, English SDH, and Spanish.

So there you have it – Dead Alive in its slightly shorter American cut (at least it’s not the bastardized 85 minute R-rated version) on Blu-ray in a somewhat uninspired but relatively source accurate presentation with strong lossless audio and no supplements beyond the theatrical trailer.  Were the asking price more than that of a modest lunch out I might have been more compelled to complain, but as things are I find myself reasonably pleased.  Yeah it could have been better, but the DVDs can’t touch it and I know damned well it could have been much, much worse (Near Dark anyone?).  For fans this is tough not to recommend, weaknesses and all.

in conclusion
Film: Excellent  Video: Very Good –  Audio: Excellent   Supplements: Poor
Harrumphs: No supplemental weight whatever, and a transfer that likely could have been improved upon a bit in more capable, or loving, hands.
Packaging: Standard-size Blu-ray Eco case.

District 9

TriStar Pictures [2009] 112′
country: South Africa / New Zealand
director: Neill Blomkamp
cast: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope,
Vanessa Haywood, Robert Hobbs

Twenty years ago a massive space ship stalled over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa complete with a huge crew of malnourished and downtrodden workers belonging to an unidentified [at least beyond the derogatory distinction of "prawns"] alien race.  Under international pressure, an internment camp known as District 9 is built within the city to house the population of illegal aliens and keep them separated from the wary human population.  The camp, intended to be temporary, quickly becomes a disgusting slum for the impoverished extraterrestrials.  As public opinions against them grow more vitriolic the government is pressured into creating a new camp far from the city limits.  Multi-National United – a huge arms manufacturer with a vested interest in sorting out the piles of un-Earthly technology the creatures brought with them, since rendered useless by dissociation from its owners – is put in charge of relocating the exploding prawn population, now a staggering 1.8 million strong.

Enter Wikus van der Merwe [Copley], an alien affairs officer at MNU who is promoted and tasked with evicting the inhabitants of District 9.  While handing out evictions he enters a shed where a non-threatening alien cylinder sprays a black liquid onto his face.  By the time the day is through Wikus is violently ill, to the point that he ruins his own surprise promotion party.  At the hospital it is discovered that his right arm, injured in District 9, has since transformed itself [a la THE FLY] into a prawn arm – whatever he was sprayed with is obviously having considerable effects on his DNA.  Kicking and screaming, Wikus is whisked away to an underground MNU lab for further examination.

It turns out that MNU has been conducting genetic experiments throughout the two decades since the aliens’ arrival in an attempt to unlock the secret of their bio-mechanical engineering handiwork, and Wikus is their most promising discovery in years.  The substance sprayed into his face seems to be the key – the biological compound used to power the prawn technology.  Wikus is put through a barrage of tests and made to fire each and every one of the confiscated alien weapon types [in one instance he is even forced to kill a captured prawn], but escapes when the scientists at the laboratory announce their intentions to dismember his body so that a human-friendly alien weapons control system can be devised from it.

With MNU and the government flooding the media with misinformation about his case [claiming he was engaging in illegal cross-species sex, for instance] and hired mercenaries in hot pursuit, Wikus takes refuge in the only place he can – District 9.

011_003_0013 090527_022 D9_fp_013_03_r_no_crop

The Peter Jackson produced Neill Blomkamp directed feature expansion of the latter’s inspired short film ALIVE IN JOBURG plays less as straight science fiction [there is very little science to be had at all] than as socio-politically minded actioner with sci-fi trappings.  Whatever you classify it as, it’s a fine picture and one of the few intelligent ones to have seen wide release this summer season.  The apartheid message may seem a bit overstated, with the lost and helpless aliens pitted against an evil corporation, a crazy Nigerian warlord, a ruthless mercenary squad led by a trigger-happy prawn-hating thug and the teaming masses, but the racism still in evidence in many parts of the world should show it to be as important as ever before.

Regardless of its subtextual intentions DISTRICT 9 is still an action picture first and a message picture second, but it should be commended for the fact that it compels its audience to think at all between its impressive special effects centerpieces.  The considerable digital effects work, devised mostly by Vancouver firm Imagine Engine, are quite impressive.  The aliens, slender bipedal insectoid creatures with strangely emotive eyes, are particularly well rendered and achieve a unique believability among their contemporaries – the film could easily have failed had it been otherwise.  No less impressive is the image of the omni-present mothership hovering over Johannesburg, constantly abuzz with squadrons of helicopters.

DISTRICT 9 is filmed in a faux-documentary style akin to CLOVERFIELD, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, and DIARY OF THE DEAD, et al., with cleverly intercut news reports and interview segments providing much of the early exposition.  While the documentary aspect is removed from the equation roughly thirty minutes in, the style is both retained and smartly utilized, lending the picture an immediacy lacking in at least two of the previously mentioned cinéma vérité shockers.  The form returns to true-documentary in the closing reel, showing what little progress has been made on the prawn-rights front while leaving the door wide open for a future DISTRICT 10 [yes, please!].

Much as I enjoyed the picture it still has a few obvious faults, most of them on the narrative front.  The screenplay by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell teeters a bit uneasily between the seriousness of its premise and the frequent campiness of what follows.  Villains are cartoonishly constructed, especially the scowling mercenary thug, and their type have been done to death in the eleven decades of film that have come before – I’d have loved to have seen a threat posed by something other than an evil multinational corporation or racist militant scumbags.  Adding to the camp factor is Wikus’ transformation, which seems outright silly at times [re-enforcing the character's newfound understanding of the alien plight as it may], and just what role the black fluid plays in the alien scheme of things is woefully underexplained.

That said, Blomkamp and Tatchell’s script succeeds in large part and is certainly well above average for either the science fiction or action genres.  The parallel between Wikus and the aliens, both little more than workers who lose all sense of purpose when removed from their superiors, is well drawn, as is his uneasy alliance and eventual friendship to Christopher Johnson [that the aliens are re-christened with earthly names is a clever detail].  Copley fills the role of Wikus wonderfully, and his character flows effortlessly from ignorant worker bee to man-on-the-run to unlikely action hero and beyond.  The extensive supporting cast does fine work as well, though few have enough screen time to really develop their roles.

While imperfect to be sure, there’s nowhere near enough wrong with DISTRICT 9 to sink it and certainly nothing so unforgiveable as to prevent my recommending it.  The drama is [mostly] solid, the message compelling, and the action phenomenal.  I may not have been floored, but it only missed the mark by this much.  See it.