Born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1961, Peter Jackson is today known throughout the world as one of cinema’s foremost filmmakers; a triple threat in the fields of directing, producing and screenwriting. After a string of modestly budgeted early films, Jackson would, of course, begin to helm some of the priciest productions ever made, with his Lord of the Rings trilogy being budgeted at some $270 million, and King Kong at $200+ million. But in today’s Shocktober column, I would like to shine a light on two of Jackson’s earliest projects, the combined budgets of which probably totalled the one-week caterer’s bill for the Two Towers shoot. Both of these early films from Peter Jackson are considered gross-out horror classics today amongst the films’ growing cult legions. And both, of course, might make for perfect at-home viewing this Shocktober season:
Sometime before he spent hundreds of millions of dollars on his Tolkien trilogy, Peter Jackson, it seems, spent four years’ worth of weekends shooting (and scrounging up the $25,000 needed for) his first sci-fi/horror film. The result, 1987’s Bad Taste, is truly well named. In this one, a gaggle of bloated aliens takes the form of lumbering humans, lands in New Zealand, butchers an entire town and proceeds to turn the former inhabitants into fast-food samples. Good thing a quartet of New Zealand’s finest from AIDS (the Astro Investigation and Defence Service) is on the case, ready to kick ET ass and spill some alien guts! (One of the four is Peter Jackson himself, who I couldn’t at all recognize; he seems to have been a lot thinner – and beardless – back then.) What ensues is completely over-the-top violence, much of it cartoonish and thus a bit less difficult to stomach. This is the kind of movie in which if a character has his head split open and some of his brain falls out, he merely picks up the goopy scrap, plops it back into his noggin, ties up the head flap with a belt and carries on, albeit a tad more addled than before. Truth to tell, I didn’t at all mind the incredible amount of gunplay, the chainsawing of aliens in half, the dismemberments and beheadings, but the sight of those aliens scarfing down a big bowl of aqua-colored puke was a bit much; a good scene to recall if you ever want to (in the words of Robert Barone) “jump-start a vomit.” Another problem I had with Bad Taste was that it took me a little while to acclimate to the superthick Kiwi accents; I could’ve used English subtitles! Still, despite all, this is a fairly mind-blowing 90 minutes that will probably leave you, by the end credits, slack jawed, goofily grinning and perhaps a bit queasy…
Many cinematic sons have had problems with their mother – just ask poor Norman Bates! – but perhaps none more so than Lionel Cosgrove, in Peter Jackson’s third film, Dead Alive. His mum, you see, after receiving a nasty bite from the accursed Sumatran rat-monkey at the Wellington Zoo in 1957, died (well, for a brief time, anyway), and soon came back to life as an extremely aggressive zombie gutmuncher. Before long, this contagion is fairly widespread, and Lionel and his girlfriend Paquita (who must surely rank as one of the spunkiest Latinas in horror-film history) are left to deal with a veritable army of the undead. Anyway, there is not a single moment in this film that doesn’t either amuse, startle, or completely gross one out with hilarious, cartoonlike, completely over-the-top violence. The justly infamous climax, during which Lionel, armed with a handy power mower, tears through the zombie horde amongst gallons of spurting blood and heaps of flying body parts, must surely represent the outside limit of twisted horror comedy. It is just remarkable how much inventive carnage Dead Alive dishes out: from the antics of a zombie baby, to a fight between a kung fu priest and some undead punks, from a bout of zombie lovemaking, to the sight of a pureed zombie head in a blender, and on and relentlessly on. Jackson directs with great energy and panache, and generously supplies some pleasing and quite convincing period detail; the $3 million spent to bring this production to fruition is all very much up on the screen! His film ultimately suggests a sick amalgam of John Waters tastelessness and George A. Romero horror fare, but the zombies on display here, despite the comedic tone, are much faster moving and nastier than the Romero variety. Dead Alive works equally well as horror and comedy and, in its own sick and twisted way, is quite an accomplishment; dare I say it … a minor masterpiece.
So there you have it … two early films from one of today’s foremost filmmakers that just might make for one supremely inspired horror double feature one dark and stormy October night. Bring along some anti-nausea pills and have a good time!