HCF REWIND NO. 259: BRAINDEAD AKA DEAD ALIVE [New Zealand 1992]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND REGION A BLU-RAY [97 min version only]
RUNNING TIME: 104 min/97 min/85 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
On Skull Island, some explorers are carrying a rare animal in a cage – a Sumatran Rat-Monkey. Some natives appear to demand it back, but the explorers flee to their jeep where Stewart gets bitten by the Rat-Monkey and has to be dismembered. The captured animal is shipped to Wellington Zoo in New Zealand. There, Lionel Cosgrove lives with his domineering mother, Vera. To Vera’s dismay, Lionel falls in love with a shopkeeper’s daughter, Paquita, whose mother has foretold his arrival with tarot cards. While snooping on the two during a visit to the zoo, Vera is bitten by the Rat-Monkey, turning her zombie-like and ravenous, and soon she won’t be the only one…
Brain Dead is the bloodiest live-action film ever made, something that has actually been measured in the amount of screen blood used during the production [300 litres!], and yet, in a period where they were still very scissor-happy, the BBFC not only passed it uncut in the UK but considered giving it a ‘15’! They saw it for what it was, a comedy with gore replacing custard pies, but considering the incredible amount of gruesome carnage on display it’s still pretty surprising. The film is the ultimate bloody party movie, a film which constantly sets up expectations, then goes beyond them to a point where there isn’t any further to go. You go “Urgh” and “Yuck”, but after a while you just either laugh or sit there dumbfounded, wondering what on earth Peter Jackson and his amazingly talented as well as overworked special effects crew are going to come up with next. Yes, you read that right, Peter Jackson. Years before he went to Middle-Earth, he made a name for himself with three gory comedies: the no-budget bloody alien invasion comedy Bad Taste, the supremely tasteless take-off of Muppets take-off Meet The Feebles, and the zombie-orientated Brain Dead. All are hugely inventive, stretch their budgets to their limits, very funny, and have a light tone which Jackson can’t seem able to recapture. I can’ t be the only one who wishes he’d take a break from those bloated Hobbit movies and do something like Brain Dead again.
The film was shot over 11 weeks in and around Wellington, except for the opening scene , which was filmed at Putangirua Pinnacles, the same location he would later use for the Paths of the Dead in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Even though Jackson shot every second in the script he wrote with collaborators Fran Walsh and Steven Sinclair, Braindead was finished under budget with NZ$45,000 remaining. Jackson used it to spend two days shooting the park scene with Lionel and the baby Selwyn. There seems to be much confusion about the different versions of Braindead, which was unsurprisingly cut in many countries despite our BBFC seeing sense. The US ‘R’ rated version, which was called Dead Alive to avoid confusion with the film Brain Dead, was shortened from 104 min to 85 min, cutting out nearly all the gore, not just things like reducing the climactic lawnmower massacre to a few seconds but even cutting comparatively inoffensive stuff like Vera’s wound oozing pus. Jackson also took the opportunity to tighten the film and cut out some non-gory footage here and there, such as Uncle Les hitting on Paquita in church. This meant that when the ‘Unrated Version’ came out, it was missing seven min and still lacked some gore and comedy [such as zombie legs walking around with no body]. Jackson says he prefers this version, and I wish he’d use similar ruthlessness in cutting down his Hobbit movies. Sadly this is the only cut currently available on Blu-ray [Region A].
The movie opens on Skull Island, the place of course where King Kong resides and a place Jackson would later revisit. The mixing of blood and chuckles immediately gets underway with an explorer bitten by the Rat-Monkey [says the zookeeper later: “Story goes, these great big rats come scuttling off the slave ships and raped all the little tree monkeys”] and first having to have part of his arm removed, than part of his leg [yes, it’s quite Monty Python], until he has to have his face smashed in and fake blood spells the title of the film on-screen. The movie immediately nails its tone, and warns you what you’re about to see [well, kind of] immediately, then takes a little time to introduce its set-up amidst a rather convincing 1957 New Zealand [or maybe Wellington just hadn’t changed that much]. There’s a loner, mummy’s boy hero, a cute Spanish heroine with a tarot card-reading mother who predicts not just her knight in shining armour but much trouble, and a very controlling mother who just won’t let go of her son. The romance is rather sweet despite the overall flippant tone of the film, but soon Mother is bitten by the Rat-Monkey, blood and pus comes out from various places, a bit of her face peels off and is stuck back on by glue, she develops a taste for living flesh [sample exchange in the film: “Your mother ate my dog”. “Not all of it”], and one of her ears falls off into a place of custard in a scene which makes some people feel sick more than any other scene in Braindead because, I suppose, it’s more relatable than most of the other goings-ons.
Vera soon supposedly dies, but her son keeps her alive even when she begins to cause a plague of zombies. The film brings in sub-plots about an uncle [a splendidly sleazy performance by Ian Watkin] after the inheritance and Lionel having flashbacks to a woman drowning, but, even though the screenplay does have its wit, it all comes down to a non-stop series of gags. The climax is a mind-boggling display of carnage that easily outdoes similar scenes in the likes of Dawn Of The Dead, but the best set pieces are earlier, like a fight involving a zombie nurse [this zombie nurse will later have sex with a zombie priest] who’s partially severed head keeps falling back and forth while The Archers plays on the radio, a priest announcing:”I kick arse for the Lord” and doing some kung fu moves on some zombies, and Lionel trying to control Selwyn, a zombie baby, in a pram in a park, a really funny and well choreographed piece of bad taste slapstick. As the film nears its end, there are almost too many gags [I can’t decide which I prefer – the garden gnome placed on a headless zombie’s neck or the living entrails who spill out of a body and then look at themselves in the mirror] for one film, and you can imagine the scriptwriters sitting down thinking up crazy stuff and then including everything. This film has thirty times the amount of gore as, say, The Evil Dead or Re-animator, but it doesn’t really try to be scary like the former nor does it have the narrative drive of the latter, and the more outrageous gore you see on-screen, the less horrifying it becomes. It’s all just a big joke, and, even if perhaps it does wear a little thin towards the end, we’re all having so much fun it doesn’t matter too much.
Braindead takes Psycho’s fear of controlling motherhood to extreme limits, and the final appearance of Vera is one of the grossest-looking puppets ever created. In fact, while Jackson’s direction, inspired in places by Sam Raimi, is both firm and inventive [POV shot of a severed head skidding across the floor!] in places, the real heroes of Braindead are prosthetic genius Bob McCarron and his special effects team in what is in many ways one of the last big showcases for practical effects before computers began to take over. Time after time, they startle the viewer with their ingenuity and sheer volume, and most remain pretty convincing too. The stop-motion Rat-Monkey extremely jerky, but it doesn’t matter too much in a film like this. Elsewhere Braindead never entirely loses its human side. We care about the central romance, and want it to win out, but Jackson also populates his film with an array of unusual and amusing minor characters, right down to people who may only have a couple of lines, like the obviously very old-fashioned guy who states at dinner: ” What we need is another war”. There’s a sinister German uncle, the lecherous other uncle, the rather Father Ted-like priest, the rival for Paquita’s affections who just goes on and on about his football exploits, and so forth. As ridiculous as much of it is, some time has been spent on making the world of this film seem quite detailed and therefore, for the duration, almost believable while you watch it.
The performers, while hardly great actors and actresses, all launch into their roles with gusto. Peter Desant’s score plays part of his main theme during the titles with tram bells, has a pleasant Latin-tinged love theme sung rather poorly over the end credits, and even gets away with comically underscoring some of the humorous sequences. If you love your blood and guts, and if you haven’t seen Braindead, then I urge you to see it right now, as, no matter how much carnage you’ve seen on-screen elsewhere, you probably won’t have seen anything like it. It’s the ultimate ‘splatstick’ comedy, but also a great example of low-budget ingenuity with a playful side of Jackson that has been all-but drowned out now amongst huge budgets, huge lengths, and CGI. When you’re a kid, you tend to talk about films not in terms of plot but where “this” happened and “that” happened, easily thinking of one or two cool highlights. With Braindead, you could stand there for 15 min and still not get through mentioning all the amazing, crazy stuff in this bonkers movie.