“Your mother ate my dog!”
I knew I’d seen Peter Jackson‘s seminal gorefest Braindead (I’ve also read it described as “splatstick” horror and find it apt). I was pretty sure I had. It’s tough to think about its insane cult stature with lines a sold out crowd twenty-five years later still scream back at the screen and wonder how I wasn’t certain, though. My horrible memory ends up being an unwitting slight on the film as a result because it should have been impossible to forget a house party that’s literally mowed down into limbs or a giggling baby zombie wreaking havoc. But while I couldn’t conjure those scenes from thin air prior to my latest viewing, seeing them again did bring everything flooding back. I’m confident I won’t forget it this time.
While memorable, however, I can’t truly say the film—retitled Dead Alive for American release due to a 1990 Bill Paxton/Bill Pullman flick called Brain Dead—is good. It serves its niche well and proves prototypical for what the genre would continue doing in its aftermath (despite ripping off Evil Dead II from a decade prior itself), but providing a quality story wasn’t its goal. And that’s okay. Most times I’d prefer this fact because it allows the audience to simply sit back and have fun with the carnage. There’s nothing worse than a hammily comedic horror film that believes it’s a serious work to be studied and dissected. Jackson is having a laugh and his effects team out-do themselves. He draws flawed characters and relishes in their demise.
Expanded by Stephen Sinclair from his original idea (alongside Jackson and wife Fran Walsh), the plot centers on a Sumatran rat-monkey smuggled into New Zealand. Possessing an ancient evil, it of course gets placed within a zoo to wield its superior strength over other monkeys and unsuspecting humans lingering nearby. One scratch or bite will transfer its curse, turning its victim into a zombie-like monster out for flesh with uncontrollable homicidal rage. Luckily for us Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) gets a tad too close to its cage while spying on her pushover son Lionel’s (Timothy Balme) date with attractive grocery store clerk Paquita (Diana Peñalver). It’s always a pleasure when someone so vile on the inside gets to project that same visceral reaction from the outside too.
The idea is that despite Vera devolving into a nightmarish state of carnivorous hunger, disgusting pustules, and a complete rewiring from vindictiveness to vacant sensory overload, she’s still Lionel’s mother. He’s loved her regardless of how she treated him, constantly holding his father’s demise over his head (he saved him from drowning). It’s too hard to let go, his penchant for refusing personal happiness to serve her pushing Paquita away so Mommy is all that’s left. So what if she’s eating people? If others turn he’ll just hide them in the cellar with her. No one would be the wiser—except Paquita’s grandmother (Davina Whitehouse) and her tarot cards predicting death. Oh, and Lionel’s Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) seeking cash once Vera is officially declared dead.
What ensues is a comedy of errors with Balme’s pratfalls supplying the bulk of the laughter. He’s awkward and nervous around Paquita as his position under Mommy’s thumb tightens like a vice grip. But as the body count rises and the aforementioned demon baby is born—the offspring of two zombified members of civilized society who can’t stop their libido despite their mindless state—Lionel’s confidence grows. Spending weeks to keep the chaos happening under his roof in check, it only takes a few minutes for Les to ruin everything in an attempt to find leverage against the boy. What was one becomes four and so on and so forth until there are around thirty savages running about. Dismembering doesn’t work to stop them and neither does evisceration.
Hands crawl, decapitated heads continue blinking, and the internal organs of one poor soul even pulls itself up by the intestines to travel the Cosgrove residence in search of food. Selwyn the baby is a handful Lionel has the bright idea to take to the park for an hilarious scene of physical comedy and child abuse, Uncle Les proves himself a lecherous brute you almost want to like once he begins chopping apart zombies with a cigarette in his mouth, and Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie) delivers what’s possibly the film’s greatest line before engaging in karate warfare opposite demon pursuers: “I kick ass for the Lord!” And for every over-the-top regular “Joe” such as jock-turned-deliveryman Roger (Harry Sinclair) comes a crazed eccentric like Brian Sergent’s Nazi veterinarian.
Jackson delivers a wild ride with amazing visual flourishes and practical effects that still wow today. A woman gets a fist punched through her mouth from the back of her head, another doubles as a lampshade with light radiating underneath her translucent skin. A mass of humanity is sliced into pieces by a lawnmower with kinetic precision that masks any cuts or artifice via flailing action as blood miraculously splatters everywhere but the camera lens filming it. The stop-motion aesthetic for the rat-monkey is charming in its cartoonish construction and the life-sized big-breasted creature of the climax arrives as the stuff of fetish nightmares. Will Lionel and Paquita make it out alive? Probably. But if they decimate everyone else in the process, who really cares? I sure didn’t.
The appeal is seeing how gruesome and absurd the violence gets, its horror elements piggybacked to deliver humor. Lionel’s city is falling apart and only he has the mettle (and power tools) to save it. He must face his fears whether in romantic love or familial respect while uncovering a secret hidden since he was a boy. Maybe the amulet supplied by Paquita’s grandmother is a real Sumatran symbol or perhaps it’s completely made-up—in the context of this farce it provides necessary hope and protection. Soap opera music cues and melodramatic performances lend a fairy tale quality to laugh at more as the subject matter proves nowhere near as austere as Jackson’s latter works in J.R.R. Tolkien‘s world. His expertise at directing elaborate set-ups, however, shines through.
Watched in conjunction with Season One of Buffalo, NY-based horror series Thursday Night Terrors, curated by Peter Vullo. Logo/illustration by Josh Flanigan.