Lionsgate has been going through a number of old studios collections and putting out an eclectic mix of Miramax and other acquired titles. There’s little connective tissue between Peter Jackson’s eye-opening Zombie-comedy Dead Alive and Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful, other that both directors won academy awards. But both are great films in their own ways, and both are great to have on Blu-ray. Our reviews of Dead Alive and Life is Beautiful follow after the jump.
Peter Jackson’s 1992 film Dead Alive was the film that first got him noticed stateside by cultists, as his horror comedy followed well in the footsteps of Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead 2. He had previously directed Bad Taste, which also had a following, but seemed to pick up more interest in England than America – or that is to say Dead Alive played more American theaters. Diana Peñalver stars as Paquita Maria Sanchez, a young girl who is looking for love and gets advice from her fortune-telling grandmother. Her gran predicts the man of her dreams is coming, but that he’s got a grave future ahead of him. Then she meets Lionel (Timothy Balme), a henpecked young man who is constantly taking care of his mother (Elizabeth Moody).
Then there’s also the Sumerian rat monkey. The film starts with a zoologist getting the cursed monkey to New Zealand, where it goes to the zoo – but what no one knows is that its bite turns you into a zombie. And when Lionel and Paquita go to the zoo on a date, Lionel’s mom follows and gets bitten by the monkey. It slowly kills her and turns her into a zombie, which leads to the death of others. Lionel tries to hide her in the basement after the funeral, but uncle Les (Ian Watkin) shows up looking to get something out of her passing. Such leads to a party at the house, and a zombie smorgasbord.
One of the great details of Jackson’s film is that it’s a period piece set in the 1950’s. It sets the film apart from other gore-filled efforts – though to be fair, most horror benefits from having little direct access to technology. But even more than that, it sets a tone of sweetness to the romance, which also works well against the horrors. Jackson was also firing on all cylinders, and knew how to build his moments and set pieces. He also conceived one of the great jokes of the genre as a zombie priest and zombie nurse fall in love and have a zombie baby, which Lionel tries to take care of. All this leads to a house full of people either victimized by zombies, or trying to get at Lionel and Paquita, with some very inventive uses of undead and their ilk. From a sentient set of internal organs, to half-bodies, Jackson knew his genre and had fun playing with the universe. He also understood the power of a good lawn-mower. It’s a fun film, and still plays brilliantly nearly twenty years later.
Lionsgate Blu-ray is of the theatrical cut. There’s an “uncut” version (usually listed under the film’s original title Braindead) that runs seven minutes longer, but it isn’t Jackson’s preferred cut. It would have been nice to have the option on this disc, but still. The film was shot on 35mm, but the transfer here makes it look like a great transfer of a 16mm film. It’s a bit grainy, and though clean, it looks like Lionsgate is using an older master. As the film was done on the relative cheap, it’s possible this is as good as it looks, but it’s not overwhelming. If you don’t mind holding on to the old DVD instead, this may not be worth the upgrade. The sound is also 2.0 DTS-HD Stereo. It sounds clean, but it’s not a blow you out of the room sort of mix. The only supplement is the film’s theatrical trailer.
Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful is unfortunately soiled by the Miramax treatment. Championed by the studio as it was coming to understand how to game the Oscar system, it launched Benigni as a mastermind and great filmmaker, and the studio just as quickly abandoned him when he made Pinocchio. Since then he’s directed only once, and hasn’t spent as much time acting either. One wonders if it’s because he didn’t feel he could top his previous success.
What’s also fascinating about the film – though never dealt with in the supplements – is how the film seems to be a response to the idea of Jerry Lewis’s The Day the Clown Cried. Lewis famously directed a film that was about a clown leading children to the gas chamber, and it never worked – in fact the film was shelved and won’t see the light of day until Jerry Lewis passes on (Harry Shearer has seen it and says that it is as bad as you would hope/fear). Benigni stars as Guido, a man about Italy with a Chaplin-esque wiggle to his walk. He comes to a town and meets Dora (Nicoletta Braschi), who he immediately falls in love with. She’s to be married to another man, and Guido rescues her from that life. Alas, he’s Jewish, and they’re in Italy during World War II. After several years they have a child Giosue (Giorgio Cantarini), and though Guido tries to make light of the Nazis, they are suffering.
And then the worst thing that can happen happens, they are rounded up to go to concentration camps. Guido hides the child, which initially saves him from the gas chamber, but he has to keep creating elaborate lies to mask the reality of the situation, suggesting they’re at a camp where if he does well they’ll win a real tank.
The central complaint against this film has long been that it’s hokey and that it rests upon a conceit that some can’t swallow. Hiding the holocaust, hiding the horrors of war. And yet I don’t feel that the film makes light of the horrors of the war, but instead exists as a fable about what parents do to protect their children from reality. Often being a parent means lying – be it about Santa Claus, or what happens when someone has died and in that I think the film still works beautifully. But also Benigni is a great professional comedian and if you enjoy his slapstick, he builds great jokes in the first half. The film may be emotionally manipulative, but that manipulation serves a purpose. And therein lay the difference.
Lionsgate’s release of the Miramax film presents the film in widescreen (1.85:1) and in a 5.1 Italian DTS-HD master, along with 5.1 Dolby Digital mixes for the Italian and English dub. The picture quality is a huge step up from the previous DVD release, which was non-anamorphic. As for supplements, there’s a making of (23 min.) that seems commissioned to sell the film to Oscar voters, with comments from Walter Mathau and Michael Keaton (of all people), along with the film’s theatrical trailer and ten TV spots.