Way before the wizards, the orcs, and definitely before Treebeard. Before Andy Serkis motion-captured his way into our hearts, and before all those heavenly creatures and lovely bones, but surprisingly not before Skull Island, there was Peter Jackson’s Braindead; a delirious blood-splattered dance across an entrails strewn house of psycho-biddy madness. If that entire first sentence is a mouthful, then good, because Braindead is a bloody ribeye of biblical proportions, providing enough to chew till your jaw becomes another body part littering the set of one of cinemas most inspired gore-fests in horror history.
It’s already been 25 years to the day since Braindead – titled Dead Alive for US audiences – first hit UK theatres, stealing the show at the Amsterdam Fantastic Film Fest and the final Avoriaz Fantastic Film Fest in France, despite being a commercial failure, taking in a meagre $242,000 to its $3,000,000 budget. Still, Peter Jackson’s third film, following the bile-soaked nightmare of Meet the Feebles and his debut, Bad Taste, encompasses a profound and sickening love for not just the fantastical, but for film in general; one that has left a lasting impression on horror hounds everywhere.
Looking back at Braindead’s arrival is a fond excursion through my early childhood, which by 1993, had already been filled with a trip to Freddy’s boiler room and the Overlook hotel. Yet still, the talk of a film so outlandishly gory kept pricking at my ears. My sister would tell me, in a hushed manner as not to arouse the suspicions of prying ears, of a film she watched at her friend’s house, one that featured so much blood that people were slipping in it. I told myself that there couldn’t possibly be a film with more blood than what poured out of the elevators in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Oh, how wrong I was! While I never was able to get to the infamous, blood drenched scene my sister spoke of as a kid – having the VHS we were able to get our hands on quickly ejected by my parents – I did eventually experience it in my teens, and let’s just say that it immediately became one of those life altering viewings.
Though unbelievable in its practical effects, which were used in copious amounts by Richard Taylor, who would later follow Jackson on his perilous journey to adapting the Middle Earth trilogy, Braindead is at heart, a very believable love story. Following Lionel (Timothy Balme), an anxiety driven young man that lives under the domineering wing of his mother Vera (Elizabeth Moody), who despite having only two film credits prior, plays up the grande dame guignol like a Bette out of hell, meets and falls for Paquita (Diana Penalver), the local shop girl. While spying on Lionel and Paquita on a date at the zoo, Vera is bitten by the Sumatran Rat Monkey; a hairless oddity that’s the result of tree monkey’s being raped by plaque rats on Skull Island (an ode to a film Jackson would later remake over a decade later). Feeling the effects of the bite, Vera succumbs to death, only to rise as an undead plaque zombie. In shock and in need of some serious maternal guidance, Lionel begins storing the downfall from this undead blight in his basement. But before long, things get way out of hand, and a rocking dance party soon turns into a literal blood bath. Literally!
Can I put any more emphasis on literal? Buckets and buckets of blood cover every inch of Lionel’s foyer, if you will, which Braindead uses as the centre stage. Aside from a jaunt in the park with an oversized spawn of the undead, and an afterhours visit to a graveyard to dig mum up, just about everything happens within our mother and son’s home. Peter Jackson creates a stage production out of this, drawing our attention and keeping it focused with the on-goings of this giant house, which looms over the small town like a growling watchdog. Using his trademark wide-angle lens, Jackson treats this quant sarcophagus like one of his characters, getting right up under it with close-ups to create an uneasy feeling, as if this house harbours some looming evil. And it does, though for a while it roots itself in a much more maternal evil than a basic one.
Screaming from high in her room, Vera beckons Lionel to fall hand and foot on her, shining silverware, dusting bannisters and mowing lawns that have been over-serviced. She doesn’t so much want these plots to go uncared for, but for her to not go abandoned; abandoned by the one thing that gives her power: her son. The further she sees Lionel pulling away from her and becoming his own, the more she festers with a sadistic like necessity for attention; one that further perpetuates this evil within. It’s a malevolent side that we are only allowed glimpses of through Lionel and a reoccurring vision he has involving water and the faint sounds of someone drowning. That someone, we discover, is his father and mistress, submerged in a bathtub by Vera, because if she can’t have her husband, then nobody can!
Jackson and cinematographer Murray Milne, who ironically worked solely as the DOP for Fellowship of the Rings underwater shots, work to create a fairytale world out of New Zealand, turning the urban capital of Wellington into a quant town filled with prominent homes, green parks and winding, trolley filled roads that evoke a sense of wonder. It’s a world that, despite our hero wearing a sweater vest, evokes ideas of knights and damsels, of foreboding doom and ruination, as evident in Paquita’s grandmother’s tarot cards. A world filled with heroics and evil that touches every shot. Scenes aglow radiantly with a natural allure – an aesthetic that Jackson would effectively use in Heavenly Creatures – that slowly vanishes after Vera passes, as Lionel’s world is quickly plunged into darkness, despair, and grief.
Oh, and zombies.
This is where Braindead rises from its grave as a splatstick (splatter and slapstick), churning out equal parts lunacy and dismemberments. An undead nurse is impregnated by an undead priest who kicks ass for the lord. Ribs are ripped from torsos like a backyard BBQ from hell. A woman is punched through the mouth, only for her face to later catch fire from faulty wiring. Lionel slip-runs on a floor of blood like the most strung-out Looney Toons, only to return with a lawn mower; all before going medieval on a dance floor full of undead guests. Skin is ripped from legs, torsos disemboweled, and spines are torn from bodies, turning our centre stage into a chamber of the macabre, all with a cheeky wink and nod to the likes of Hershel Gordon Lewis and Jigoku.
And as if she hasn’t created enough frustration in her son’s life, Vera rises from the basement as a towering, malformed spawn of hell that lumbers after Lionel and Paquita, who take to the roof in one of the greatest showdowns since Kong climbed the Empire States Building. It’s here where son confronts mum in a maternal match from hell, which finds Lionel being ingested by Vera’s protruding stomach, only to rip through it in a glorious geyser of gore. It’s a sight to behold, and one that can really only be seen to be truly believed, which 25 years later, may be the highest compliments one can give to a film that features an undead infant being beaten against a swing set.
Happy 25th Anniversary, Braindead!