Long before movies like Tetsuo and Eraserhead made me become serious about film (as a hobby), Braindead was my number one favorite film. Back when Peter Jackson was still able to make amusing and edgy entertainment instead of churning out overly long and wimpy epics, this one already hinted at the type of films I would come to love years down the line. And even though Braindead has aged considerably, underneath those wrinkles hides that same pleasantly insane horror flick I fell in love with all these years ago.
When I was 13 I was crazy about horror movies. I tried to watch as many as possible (mostly series like Hellraiser, Child's Play, Candyman, ...) and whenever we went to the rental store I would stand in front of the horror section to ogle at all these amazing cover. But there was one that I was particularly drawn too. A woman's head with a skeleton peeping from her mouth. Later that year my parents made a capital mistake when they told me I could pick out a film for our family to watch. Five minutes later we were driving back home, me hugging the Braindead VHS in the back seat of the car.
Needless to say, my parents didn't like it very much (quite an understatement), but while I sat there I realized I was watching something special. I didn't really know whether to laugh or whether to be grossed out, but by the end of the film I felt comfortable doing both. Braindead truly kicked off my horror fetish, though I would find out soon enough that there weren't many films playing in the same league.
Braindead was Peter Jackson's second attempt at making a horror flick. The first one (Bad Taste) was a semi-amateurish affair (still great fun though), Braindead was his chance to do it all over again, only bigger and bolder. Jackson clearly grabbed that chance with both hands, as it feels like a film from a freshman director who tried to put in everything he knows, afraid he may not be able to make another film after that.
The setup is simple enough. The first hour is mostly there to give appetizers of what is to come and to get all the characters in place. That place is the house where Lionel and his mom have been living together for years. Due to some strange events Lionel's mom ends up in the basement living the zombie life, while Lionel's far-away cousin comes to visit hoping to scoop away the house from under Lionel's nose. When Lionel's cousin throws a big house party, the zombies manage to escape from the cellar and the rest is history.
While Braindead wasn't exactly cheap to make, it isn't quite Hollywood material either. There is some nifty camera work and some great shots, but the editing and lighting are pretty rough around the edges. Some of the effects can be a bit rubbery by modern standards too, but the gore is where Braindead still shines today. Watching it again I was amazed how bloody good and bold the majority of the effect shots look, even by modern standards.
The soundtrack is pretty cheesy and by far Braindead's least attractive asset. While not exactly horrible or grating, is pretty dull horror fare that doesn't help the film forward in any way. Just some background noise that blends in with all the splurts, slushes and growls. It's also the one area where Jackson never really succeeded. Then again, you probably won't be watching this one for the soundtrack anyway, and for this type of film it isn't even that big of a loss.
The acting is a different story. It's clear from the start that most actors didn't have much prior acting experience and no acting awards were going to be won here, but considering the kind of film Braindead is the cast does a pretty amazing job nonetheless. Sure enough there's plenty of overacting and expressive gestures to get anything across, but in a way it adds to the juicy comedy that Jackson aims for. The acting is never too amateurish to annoy or aggravate, instead the rather plastic way of acting (not unlike Hong Kong comedies) greatly enhances the comedy factor of the film.
The first hour is a great mix of absurd comedy, funny oneliners and gory intermezzos. Jackson teases continuously, with the graveyard and dinner scene sticking out as the most memorable. But it's all just playtime before the big finale. Once the zombies are loose in the house the real fun starts. Every 10 seconds Jackson comes up with a new crazy idea, some extreme gore or an insane combination of both. The pacing is excruciating, even though the entire finale itself lasts almost half an hour.
Jackson keeps one-upping himself the entire time and chances are that if you blink once during the entire ordeal you missed a great bit. Consecutive viewings reveal some extra sight gags and nasty effects you'll probably have missed the first time around, which is quite a feat for a film with the depth of a deflated football. It all leads up to the big lawnmower scene, THE film reference of my youth and still one of the most gory and crafty horror scenes I've ever seen.
I stopped caring about Jackson's films years ago, but even his faltering oeuvre can't take away from the joy that is Braindead. It's one of the most fun-filled films I've ever seen, one of the few contenders of the current Japanese splatter wave and one of my all-time favorite horror flicks. I can only hope Jackson returns to the genre one more time to show off what modern technology could do for horror comedies. Absolutely recommended for fans of gore and comedy.