“Your mother ate my dog!”
Firstly, let me say something that might incur the wrath of the web. I hate the Lord of the Rings movies. They should be part of the Movie Lottery draw but, thankfully, are exempt following a marathon a few months ago, inflicted upon me by my boyfriend (which, consequently, led to the subsequent Twilight marathon, mostly out of revenge). Suffice to say, I find them visually impressive but narratively boring, nondescript, devoid of character development, and mind-numbingly repetitive. Quite frankly, once you’ve seen one epic, CGI battle, you’ve seen them all.
I say all this because Peter Jackson’s come a long, long way in the last twenty years, and I’m not a fan. His glossy, spare-no-expenses, family-friendly fantasies may win awards and five-star reviews from popular movie magazines, but his visionary style has moved in a direction I am not interested in following. Whereas today his name is, like James Cameron’s, associated with new technology (The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey‘s high frame rate, for example), back in 1993 he was more interested in old-fashioned special effects. Braindead, Jackson’s third feature film, takes its inspiration from the deranged horror output of the late 1970s and 1980s and, had it been made then, would have undoubtedly taken pride of place among the thirty-nine films now collectively known as the “video nasties.”
The premise is simple, with an introductory sequence showing the capture of a Sumatran rat monkey and its subsequent arrival in a zoo in Wellington, New Zealand. Within five minutes, a man – the explorer who found the beast and accidentally got bitten by it – has been dismembered, but it’s only the smallest of hints as to the bloody carnage that will ensue. This scene, however, neatly demonstrates screenwriter Stephen Sinclair’s tongue-in-cheek approach – Braindead is disgusting, graphic, and utterly repugnant, but the gore and bad taste is delivered with a healthy dose of irony and, as a result, it’s both hilarious and grotesque.
Once in Wellington, it’s only a matter of time before the hideous rat monkey has bitten affable Lionel’s beloved mother. She’s a ghastly woman, controlling and possessive, while he’s amiable, a bit simple, and so downtrodden by his domineering matriarch that even when part of her face falls off, he’s only too willing to super-glue it back on and act as though everything’s normal. He seems to take everything in his stride, whether its pulling the furry corpse of an Alsation out of mummy’s mouth or attempting to maintain a sense of normalcy during one of the most revolting, vomit-inducing dinner parties ever imagined. But, if you think that watching a man happily chow down on his custard-and-zombie-pus dessert while said zombie eats her own ear is as revolting as it gets, you’re wrong. Sinclair and Jackson are just getting started.
Braindead is a must-see for fans of good, old fashioned gore. Its special effects are a superbly realised combination of prosthetics and stop motion – visceral, over the top and unrelenting, evocative of both Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead (and, indeed, it shares a lot in tone with that cult classic) and John Carpenter’s The Thing. As the film progresses, it gets increasingly carried away, and it’s a delirious delight. It pays homage to all the classic tropes of exploitation cinema and 1950s drive-in movies, from its greaser gang of thugs to the karate-chopping ninja priest, culminating in a sock-hop house party that rapidly degenerates into a zombie-ridden bloodbath. Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something happens – the result of an undead, rotting love affair is born, for example – that forces you to readjust all your previous beliefs about cinematic taste.
As Lionel, Timothy Balme is excellent – his comic timing and flair for visual comedy and slapstick should not be ignored. He’s constantly likeable, in a Norman Bates kind of way; he may be amiable and gormless, but by the end, inevitably it will be he who wields the lawnmower. He is surrounded by a cast who perform their roles just as gamely as he; while most merrily endure a wide variety of ridiculously indulgent mutilation and disembowlment, his mother (Elizabeth Moody) in particular undergoes the most hideous of bodily transformations. The film’s weakest link is love interest Paquita (Diana Peñalver), although she is perhaps hindered more by the character (naïve and nondescript) than by her acting abilities. They are, however, all clearly having a great time – and how could you not, in a movie like this?
After the success of Lord of the Rings, Braindead has enjoyed renewed interest and is the perfect example of a cult classic – not really acknowledged on initial release, now it’s praised by critics and fans alike. I’m sure there are articles that offer serious analyses of its themes (the obvious being the uncomfortable relationship between mother and son, which is seen through to its disgusting, mythic conclusion), and I’m equally sure that at least some present a strong and interesting argument. Yet I’m reluctant to read too deeply into it; for me this was pure enjoyment. It’s repulsive and hilarious, acknowledges its inspirations but doesn’t veer into parody. This is not a spoof, but a joyous, late addition to a genre that prides itself in pushing the boundaries of taste; in this respect, Braindead is a triumph and, as it turns out, I like at least one Peter Jackson film.