Braindead (AKA Dead-Alive) was Peter Jackson’s third cinematic venture, and it’s also the last film in Peter Jackson’s career (so far) that features his distinct style of overly exaggerated ‘splatstick’ gore-comedy. Braindead was the second collaboration between Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshop, and as a result, the film is a horror spectacle: a tasteless, gross-out, horror comedy full of blood, guts and bodily fluids. Upon its original release, Braindead was overlooked by film-goers, and thus, it bombed at the box office. However, after the success of Peter Jackson’s later works, primarily The Lord Of The Rings, Braindead became a cult classic which garnered acclaim amongst critics and gorehounds alike. Horror comedy films to this day cite Braindead as a major influence, most notably Shaun Of The Dead.
The story of Braindead is quite interesting, as it combines zombie-horror with a touching, romantic subplot between the two main characters. Set in the 1950’s, the story of Braindead follows a young man named Lionel, who lives with is overbearing mother: Vera. As the story evolves, Lionel has to balance his romantic relationship with the young Paquita whilst keeping his dead mother from running around turning people into zombies. Braindead is quite an emotional story at heart as the relationship between Lionel and Paquita is a keen focus of the film’s plot. The way the main characters are presented – both by the believable writing, and by the fantastic performances by Timothy Balme and Diana Penalver – makes the onscreen romance very empathetic, believable, and emotionally powerful. Not only do Lionel and Paquita make an absolutely adorable couple, but the relationship between is fraught with persistent struggles that they have to overcome if they want to be together; as keeping multiple zombies from escaping is a very exhausting job (just ask Francesco Dellamorte).
The rest of the characters, however, are simple archetypes that only exist to become hurdles in Lionel and Paquita’s romance storyline: such as the overbearing mother, the perverted uncle, the jock boyfriend, the superstitious old Spanish woman, the leather-clad punk, etc. Despite this, each supporting character, no matter how small, has their own identifiable personality, and their own particular character quirk that makes them feel different than the usual ‘zombie fodder’. Even the zombie characters themselves are more memorable than most because, unlike other zombie movies where the zombies are just a faceless threat, Braindead gives its particular zombies personality and character. In Braindead, the undead are capable of anger, love and mischief, as well as the occasional whining and whinging, thus taking away a lot of the potential threat and fear from the film’s atmosphere. In my opinion, I feel that entire cast is one made up out of very talented people who give very enjoyable performances both as the humans and the zombies. Even the production team manage to show off their talents, as the film sports quality production values. Despite being relatively low-budget, the film delivers fantastically atmospheric lighting, purposely primitive cinematography and a beautiful 1950’s aesthetic throughout the entirety of the 100 minute running time. My only criticism of the production would be the obviously cheap film-stock that was used for filming, as it looks rather rough and it isn’t very light-sensitive.
The main focus of Braindead, however, is the ever-present comedy sequences. Braindead is a ridiculously stupid film at heart, evident by the presence of slapstick comedy, awkward humor, a zombie baby and a kung-fu priest. I feel that the film uses every chance it can to pull off a silly joke. Even seemingly normal sequences contain punchlines both subtle and obvious: such as the ‘sodomy’ song from Meet The Feebles being played during the funeral scenes, or the Nazi vet who supplies Lionel with tranquilizers to keep the zombies sedated. From start to finish, Braindead keeps up a fast pace that flows from punchline to punchline almost seamlessly. It’s a film where it doesn’t matter if a joke isn’t that funny, because there’s a different one coming up in the next scene. However, a lot of the comedy of Braindead is immature, gross-out humor that comes off as more vile than lightheartedly funny. Scenes that use zombie mutilation as a punchline works because of the ridiculousness of the situation, however, the more realistically gross segments are quite disturbingly disgusting, especially the ‘custard scene’ – a scene with a reputation for turning weak stomached viewers off of custard forever. However, I feel that, overall, there’s a fine balance between the disgusting humor and the lighthearted slapstick humor: the film doesn’t focus on the gross out humor for long, and every gross-out joke is usually followed up by well delivered physical joke.
However, the shining achievement of Braindead has to be the amazing make-up, fantastic puppetry and impressively brutal gore effects courtesy of Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshop. Weta Workshop has enjoyed a fantastic career in special effects thanks to the early works of Peter Jackson, and, in my opinion, Braindead is the film that showcases their amazing talents. From beginning to end, Braindead is rife with scenes of maiming, mutilation and decapitation, and each scene is made enjoyably silly by the ridiculously exaggerated effects. Braindead is one of those films where the violence is so over-the-top it can’t be taken seriously. Indeed, a viewer would need to have a strong stomach in order to be able to handle the gruesome spectacles of blood and gore, but the film doesn’t make any attempt to be realistic or disturbing with it’s gratuitously violent imagery. Most of the film’s more violent scenes are either punchlines to hilarious setups, or scenes so absurdly comedic that they transcend any attempt at realism. Over the years, Braindead has gained the reputation of being the ‘goriest film ever made’, and I believe that accolade is well deserved. To this date, I’ve never seen another film so violent, yet so comedically funny at the same time.
Personally, Braindead is one of my favourite films. It’s lovable, funny, yet it’s so visceral that it stands out amongst any other film that was released in the 1990’s. In my opinion, Braindead is one of Peter Jackson’s better films, better than Bad Taste, Meet The Feebles, The Frighteners. Even The Lovely Bones and District 9 pale in comparison to Braindead. The film is rather crude, disgusting and downright tasteless, but, to be perfectly honest, that’s what I enjoy about Braindead. It’s a one of a kind horror landmark that every horror fan has to witness. All in all, Braindead is a gorehound’s wet dream, and one of the most important films of Peter Jackson’s career. It’s a shame that he’s given up on making horror films nowadays, because Braindead shows that Peter Jackson is a film-maker who understood the fine balance between horror and comedy.