Everyone remembers their favorite zombie comedy, the one about the guy with the stagnant life, a meek and ambitionless adult who needs to take action in a surprisingly sincere romantic comedy to save the woman he loves. Boiled down to simplest form, this is the plot of both Edgar Wright’s brilliant Shaun of the Dead and Peter Jackson’s impeccable splatter fest Dead Alive (AKA Braindead everywhere outside the US). The two films are about very different things. They have completely separate stories and characters, but the way they go about achieving what they set out to do are remarkably similar.
Dead Alive works for the same reason Shaun of the Dead works: Because at its core it’s a romantic comedy. This is the story of a man who is completely controlled by his overbearing mother. She’s a cruel, manipulative and abusive woman and is even proven to be actually evil by the time all is said and done. She dies right at the beginning of the movie, but poor Lionel, our meek hero, can’t admit what’s happening to her. She’s clearly not his mother anymore, she’s eating dogs and starting to rot.
To not only structure Dead Alive as a rom-com but to go as far as to set it in the 1950s was a stroke of genius on the part of Peter Jackson and co-writers Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair. The backdrop is so sugary sweet and idealized, yet what unfolds is one of the goriest films of all time. I’m not even kidding. This among the most gore-heavy productions to ever hit the screen. And each drop of blood is earned because the movie is so heightened and cartoonish that it can get away with pretty much everything—and that’s exactly what it does.
We’ve got impaled priests, bodies bursting from too much embalming fluid, zombie humping, babies bursting out of people’s heads and so much more, all culminating in a mass dismemberment by lawnmower. And it’s all earned because as goofy and silly as the movie is, we care about the characters. Lionel and Paquita are easy to root for. They’re two well-meaning people who don’t want to bring harm to anyone. Sure, Lionel winds up taking care of several zombies he’s got stashed away in the basement, but that’s only because he doesn’t want to harm anyone—even if they’re dead.
Even if Paquita only takes notice of Lionel because tarot cards told her he was the one, their romance feels incredibly genuine. She stands by him even as—from an outsider’s perspective—he becomes incredibly attached to his mother’s corpse. Hell, she even gives him a chance after his mom eats her dog.
In the least subtle ways possible, Dead Alive is inherently about Lionel’s need to overcome his toxic relationship with his mother to fully embrace his relationship with Paquita—something that’s made much easier when he discovers that Mum was a murderer before she was a zombie. The whole climactic sequence is depicted by Mum turning into an actual, giant monster who’s womb opens up and swallows Lionel whole.
As goofy and hilarious Shaun of the Dead is, it never goes that far. First of all, Shaun’s mother is a lovely woman. Compared to Dead Alive, Shaun is incredibly restrained. Edgar Wright doesn’t always have a necessarily dry sense of humor, but he doesn’t go for the outright balls to the wall slapstick that Peter Jackson was known for in his horror days.
Even still, the two movies achieve their goals in remarkably similar ways. They’re both absurd comedies that work because of the amount of care put into the characters and their story. While both are gory representations of their respective settings, they’re full of heart. Both are also surprisingly optimistic.
That heart and that optimism may be the biggest reasons why Dead Alive and Shaun of the Dead are both held in such high regard even now and are ultimately remembered as being arguably the two best zombie comedies of all time. While they were made fourteen years apart, they serve as interesting comparison pieces when stacked against one another. Both, of course, also show that while the modern zombie genre may have been created by US filmmakers, other countries took the ball, ran, and did amazing things with it.