The Best Horror Movie of 1992: Dead Alive, a.k.a. Braindead

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The Best Horror Movie of 1992: Dead Alive, a.k.a. Braindead

This post is part of Paste’s Century of Terror project, a countdown of the 100 best horror films of the last 100 years, culminating on Halloween. You can see the full list in the master document, which will collect each year’s individual film entry as it is posted.

The Year

From top to bottom, 1992 certainly represents a much more interesting and varied horror film lineup than 1991, but the odd thing about this particular frame is that it feels like one of the least obvious picks in this entire project. There’s no single film here that stands obviously head and shoulders above the competition—you could make a good argument for half a dozen of them, in fact, for vastly different reasons. The gorehounds in the audience, for instance, would presumably lean toward the comic ultraviolence of Peter Jackson’s Dead Alive, which was our eventual selection. But you could just as easily advocate for the classic comedy and irresistible charisma of Army of Darkness, or the social satire and supernatural slasher/romance elements of Candyman. Or perhaps you’re taken with the big budget, gothic grandeur of the divisive Bram Stoker’s Dracula, or the faux documentary approach of Man Bites Dog. Or, you know … whatever the hell Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is. Point is, there’s no lack of viable options, and I’d be willing to listen to arguments for any of those films.

Candyman is certainly an interesting case, the rare film in the genre that both tackles serious socioeconomic and racial themes, and can be described as “romantic.” As we wrote in our list of the 50 best slasher movies of all time:

On the surface, the film is an exploration of an urban legend about the ghost of a lynched slave with a hook for a hand, but on a deeper level Candyman functions as both a sumptuous gothic romance (aided by its Philip Glass score) à la Crimson Peak and a biting condemnation of government negligence and urban decay in Chicago’s poorest slums. Sometimes Candyman is noir; sometimes it’s sexy; sometimes it’s just plain gross. Tony Todd, as the titular character, has a certain mesmerizing quality that waltzes daintily on the line between farcical and terrifying, while Virginia Madsen as the protagonist actually allowed herself to be hypnotized by her director on set to properly convey the sense of falling under the Candyman’s spell. In terms of uniqueness alone, Candyman earns its own strange, little corner in the slasher canon.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula, on the other hand, is a bit of a confounding film—visually sumptuous, but overwrought in its dramatic aspirations, and hamstrung by a few actors (sorry, Keanu) who are badly out of their depth with the material. It’s an oddity for the level of care and polish that was put into many of its elements—horror rarely receives these kind of lavish, would-be prestige pictures—but it rarely comes together, aside from Gary Oldman’s winning presence as the title character. If everyone else around him had been on the same level, perhaps the film would have had the gravitas to carry it through, but watching it today, it feels both impressive and full of holes.

And as for Alien 3 … well, we’re still not ready to forgive them for what they did to Newt. It may be 1992, but as far as we’re concerned, it’s still too soon.

1992 Honorable Mentions: Candyman, Army of Darkness, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Man Bites Dog, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Alien 3, Dust Devil, Ghostwatch, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Innocent Blood, Single White Female

The Film: Dead Alive, a.k.a. Braindead
Director: Peter Jackson

If a term like “splatstick” can’t be applied to the likes of Dead Alive, then one wonders if there’s any film on Earth that could qualify for the title. Peter Jackson’s magnum gore opus, released a mere 9 years before he would achieve the impossible by faithfully translating The Fellowship of the Ring to the big screen, essentially represents the high water mark of on-screen bloodletting used as a punchline. We may literally never see a film quite like this one again, with its complete reliance upon practical gore effects, zany transformations and unprecedented amounts of fake blood. It’s the apex of an entire style of horror films, niche though it may be.

The simple way of describing Dead Alive would be to say that it’s a zombie movie, but it’s also so much more. Its reanimated dead come about as a result of the bite of a “Sumatran rat-monkey,” and that name should clue one in to the fact that this is not a film that overly concerns itself with establishing mythology and rulesets for its universe. Anything can happen in Jackson’s gory corner of New Zealand, and anything frequently does, as in predecessors like Bad Taste.

The sheer originality of the on-screen violence in Dead Alive is enough to make one’s jaw drop, even today. Zombies with lightbulbs shoved into their heads, illuminating them from the inside out. A man’s entire rib cage being pulled out of his chest People ingesting their own severed body parts. A kung fu priest who shows up out of absolutely nowhere to kick zombie heads off their bodies and proclaim “I kick ass for the Lord!” It’s an overwhelming buffet of squishy effects that are intended to dazzle the senses and elicit guffaws, rather than any kind of genuine fear or unease. The events on screen are calculated to come off as ludicrous as possible, softening the edge of the violence and gore by adding a sheen of comic book fantasy. It’s the most you’ll ever laugh while watching a corpse be liquified.

Case in point: The infamous lawnmower massacre conclusion, in which protagonist Lionel advances upon an entire room full of zombies holding a spinning lawnmower blade, proceeding to pulp the lot of them into geysers of blood and rotten effluvia. Could one theoretically be offended by such a sequence, depicting a dozen human forms being reduced to puddles of wet meat on the floor of a Victorian mansion? Sure, but it would be impossible to make any kind of case for taking the content of Dead Alive seriously, and thus difficult to seriously critique it as somehow being morally deficient. This film exists entirely outside that sort of discussion, shielded by its own absurdity.

The film is ultimately so tawdry, so gross and so demented in its sense of humor that it becomes almost impossible to believe that this same man would be giving us the astoundingly well realized and still beautifully executed Lord of the Rings trilogy only a decade later. Maybe, if we horror fans are really lucky, Peter Jackson will return to this arena someday, to offer up one last gorehound classic in the vein of Dead Alive.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.

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