Also known as Dead Alive in the US, 1992’s Braindead is now quite rightly revered as a cult classic. Written and directed by Peter Jackson – the same Oscar-winning Peter Jackson who would go on to direct the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit series of J. R. R. Tolkien adaptations and make a household name for himself – Braindead is a different beast entirely and a world away from the fantastical world of Bilbo Baggins and Middle Earth.
Like Peter Jackson’s previous ventures, 1989 musical black comedy puppet satire Meet the Feebles, and before that, sci-fi horror parody gorefest Bad Taste in 1987, Braindead shows Jackson’s penchant for quick, dark wit and slapstick comedy mixed with lashings of the red stuff. But Braindead took things to another level with everything pushed up to maximum volume for maximum effect, and it certainly worked with love for the New Zealand native’s crazy B-movie horror comedy shown on a regular basis by social media horror fan groups, and pretty much any horror fan you care to talk to, around the world.
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For the unaware and uninitiated, Braindead concerns Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme) and his attempts at finding love while living with his overbearing mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody). Whilst spying on Lionel when he’s on a date with local beauty Paquita (Diana Penalver) at the zoo, Vera gets bitten by a rare and very aggressive Sumatran rat-monkey. Not long after this, Vera becomes a zombie and Lionel tries to hide this the best he can but of course this is no easy task and chaos quickly ensues in the most entertaining and goriest of ways.
While it might be easy to dismiss Braindead as nothing more than a silly, gory grindhouse/exploitation flick (and in many ways it is) upon watching it again (and again) it becomes apparent that it’s actually an expertly and lovingly crafted film which could serve as an ode/homage to the likes of splatter king Herschell Gordon Lewis, along with Jackson’s flair for comedy and slapstick set pieces as well as his use of gore.
The opening scene, with its mysterious island location, brings to mind the cannibal sub-genre of the late 70s/early 80s, and already delivers on the gore within the first few minutes: “He’s got; The Bite!” – as a hand gets chopped off, the victim of our rat-monkey. And that is the first of many moments that blend comedy and gory horror perfectly. Another highlight is Vera’s meeting with colleagues of a local town committee she is involved in. By this point Vera is half-zombie so Lionel tries to deal with this the best he can with hilarious results. Needless to say, I wouldn’t advise eating during this scene. Particularly custard….
But eating isn’t best advised during Braindead at all unless you have a strong stomach, as the gory, wince-inducing moments come on a regular basis but are balanced out with the fun, comical element, so the film never really becomes oppressive in its amount of blood and guts. If you go along for the ride, it’s pure entertainment. A zombie dog, a zombie baby and a Kung-Fu vicar (with one of the greatest pre-fight lines of all time) are all brilliant lead ups to the crazy finale involving Lionel’s crafty, sleazy Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) who is after Vera and Lionel’s family home and Lionel’s inheritance, an ill-advised house party, inevitable zombies, a lawnmower, and buckets of blood. Party’s over. Indeed.
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But during and after all this, Braindead keeps its love story at its core with a big showdown involving Lionel, Vera and Paquita that sums up Peter Jackson’s ambitions and vision for Braindead, and by the end it’s clear that in 1992 he’d made a cult classic for gorehounds everywhere.
Whether or not Peter Jackson’s talent for gore and well-timed execution for horror scenes and dry wit informed his eventual life-changing job directing those Lord of the Rings films remains unclear but it certainly might have helped. As well as the aforementioned Meet the Feebles and Bad Taste, Jackson’s foray into the crime drama/thriller genre with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures, staring Kate Winslet in her film debut, proved he could tackle serious subject matter while still injecting his own dose of dark humour and strange, offbeat scenes and moments into the mix. All these elements show what a talent New Zealand had produced with Peter Jackson and surely would have gone some way into securing that huge role and honour in directing one of the biggest film trilogies of all time.
As far as Braindead goes as a film in its own right, it remains a classic for fans of all kinds of horror. It’s funny, gory, entertaining and has a cheap, B-movie charm that’s all of its own, and therefore deserves to be seen by everyone at some point.