Braindead (Dead Alive) (1992) – 31 Days of Horror: Oct 13

by Jovial Jay

Peter Jackson wasn’t always about elves and hobbits. He started by scaring people with the undead!

Braindead looks like loads of fun based on the trailer.

Before Viewing

An overbearing mother of the lead character dies (apparently by falling down the stairs). The narrator tells us that there is some evil in this house. It appears to be a zombie of some kind, as the mother and other bodies become reanimated and storm the house and neighborhood.

It is reminiscent, in cinematography and tone, to Evil Dead II (1987), based on this trailer. Since Peter Jackson is behind this, I expect some (dark) humor to be interlaced with with the action and horror.

Presented below is the Trailer for the film.

Spoiler Warning - Halloween

After Viewing

Braindead (also known as Dead Alive) is a darkly comedic, blood-fest that is a blast to watch. The film takes place in 1957. It opens with a New Zealand Zoo official taking a Rat Monkey out of Sumatra. He is stopped by some angry natives trying to prevent him from leaving with the creature. In the process of escaping, the Rat Monkey scratches him. His guides notice the scratches, become frightened and kill him, but not before the Rat Monkey gets on the ship for New Zealand.

In Wellington, Paquita (Diana Peñalver), a shopkeepers daughter, becomes enamored with Lionel (Timothy Balme), a nerdy boy with an extremely overbearing mother (Elizabeth Moody). Lionel and Paquita visit the zoo, but Mum, who is following him, gets too close to the Rat Monkey cage and is bit. Lionel takes her home and tries to tend to her wound, but it just gets worse. Parts of her body begin falling off at dinner, so Lionel calls Nurse McTavish (Brenda Kendall) to help her. Mum apparently passes away, but quickly comes back to life as a zombie, attacking the nurse and turning her as well.

Lionel keeps the two zombies locked in the basement, tranquilized, but Mum escapes and is hit by a trolley. After the funeral, Lionel attempts to dig her back up but is stopped by four bikers that terrorize him. Mum breaks through her grave and turns the four lads into zombies as well. Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie) comes to see what the noise is about, and proceeds to use Kung Fu on the hoodlums, before being bitten and killed himself.

Lionel takes the priest and the one remaining hoodlum, Void (Jed Brophy), and locks them in the basement with the other zombies until he can determine what to do. At this point, Lionel’s Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) has discovered the bodies and tries to blackmail Lionel unless he gives over his estate. Les holds a large party in his new house.

Walking by, Paquita notices the party and checks in on Lionel, who has been avoiding her. Lionel tells her about the zombie problem, and they decide to poison all the zombies in the basement. Unfortunately the bottle labeled “Poison” was really an animal stimulant, and the zombies rise up stronger than before and attack the party goers.

The partiers die in ever more gruesome ways, as Paquita, Les and Lionel attempt to fight off the undead. Lionel gets his lawnmower, and holding it like a shield in front of him, dismembers and liquifies the zombie hordes, in an orgy of blood and guts! Only one last zombie remains, but Mum is now four-times larger than she was, and comes after everyone, destroying the house in the process. Paquita and Lionel make it to the roof and escape off the side, just as the roof collapses and Mum is engulfed in flames. Lionel and Paquita walk past the arriving fire trucks and off into the night, arm in arm.

They’re not dead exactly, they’re just… sort of rotting.” – Lionel

So much more happens than what I’ve described above, but to get bogged down in the details is unnecessary. Any place where something gory can happen – it does! Peter Jackson really goes to town with this film. What starts as some simple gross gags, turns into literally fountains of blood spraying around the set.

Jackson seems very much influenced by Sam Raimi and his Evil Dead trilogy, as well as Raimi’s other work Crimewave. The cinematography and editing are all very quick paced, and work with the performances to keep a rapid, humorous tone to the film. Balme’s performance is also over the top to fit in with the radical camera moves and gross special effects. Simon Pegg has said that Braindead influenced him while coming up with the ideas for Shaun of the Dead, which makes complete sense, having seen both films.

The gags (both the retching definition, as well as the act) get more and more absurd as the film goes on. It’s simple at the start, as Mum starts to fall apart and ooze into the custards. That’s just a little gross, and possibly unsettling. But by the time Father McGruder starts his Kung Fu fighting with the hooligans (“Stand back boy! This calls for divine intervention!” and “I kick ass for the Lord!”) things turn into more of a slapstick, with references to the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as the Father kicks the limbs off of a zombie, one at a time. Then Lionel chases a zombie baby (the union of Father McGruder and Nurse McTavish) through a park, beating the mutated child, to the horror of onlooking mothers. “Hyperactive,” is his deadpan response to them.

By the time the final battle comes, with dozens of zombies pouring down on Lionel, Jackson has opened up the floodgates of comedy and gore. As an example, Lionel is unable to start his lawnmower, so he picks up a dismembered arm to reach the starter. From there, hoses of bodily fluids fly all over the actor as he mows down the undead!

Additionally the special effects in this movie are really well done. Not just the creatures and blood-effects, but there’s some traditional forced-perspective miniatures that really are impressive. One is in a scene where Lionel is walking home on the sidewalk. The shot shows some vintage 50’s cars and a trolley going by. The other is when the giant MUM-zombie chases Lionel and Paquita up the stairs, near the end of the film. There’s also some stop motion, puppetry and miniatures all used to sell the illusion of zombies wreaking havoc in Wellington.

I had shied away from this film for a long time based on the cover art. It seemed like a gore-fest, and didn’t interest me. But having gotten to know more about Peter Jackson over the last decade, I can’t believe it took me so long to see Braindead. It’s an excellent film, that offers up many uncomfortable images, but also many laughs. The absurdity of the volume of gore goes so far over the top, there’s nothing that feels scary or threatening by the end of the film. Fans of Jackson or Raimi will get a large kick out of the film!

Assorted Musings

  • Braindead is the original name that Peter Jackson gave this film. Dead Alive is the name that accompanied it when it came to North America.
  • Peter Jackson’s third film. From here it was upward and onward, as his next two films, Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners were both higher budget and quality (as well as being well received), before he would make his Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies.
  • Several longtime contributors of Peter Jackson worked on this film (and would go on to work on his Tolkien pictures) including editor Jamie Selkirk, writer & producer Fran Walsh, and effects wizard Richard Taylor.
  • The location at the start of the film is listed as Skull Island, which is home to a more familiar “monkey,” named King Kong – which Jackson would turn into a film in 2005.

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