Welcome back to the newest installation in my deliriously macabre Halloween Binge. Last year I used this binge as an opportunity to, in part, catch up on some supposedly essential horror movies I hadn’t seen before. This year I figured I’d do the same thing, to some degree, and this week’s entry is the first film one could reasonably assign to that label. Not that this binge really needs another zombie movie, but screw it. I decided to watch Peter Jackson’s early horror film, Braindead. Also known as Dead Alive in North America.
I have to admit I was pretty skeptical going into Braindead. The idea of Peter Jackson doing a horror comedy made me a little nervous. After all Jackson typically has a pretty clumsy grasp of tone. A horror comedy is nothing if not a balancing of tones, one that’s notoriously tricky to manage. That coupled with the fact that I normally find Peter Jackson’s sense of humour puerile and childish left me pretty nervous. Then the movie started rolling, and I had a new thought. I probably should’ve got around to watching Evil Dead before this film. The zooms and camera angles Peter Jackson uses practically reek of Sam Raimi. Given that they’re also famously comedic and wacky zombie movies, I quickly found myself wondering how much Jackson was riffing on someone else’s idea. I continued to be unsure about Braindead for roughly two hours. Which left me pretty confident I wasn’t going to ultimately enjoy the film. There’s something weirdly off with the pacing of the first hour or so. The ideas are there, but there’s something that kind of intangibly kept me from connecting with it. Stuff happens, and there is comedy, but it still feels largely uninteresting. Or it did at the time. I started altering my opinion in retrospect as the movie went on, which was a weird experience.
I think it’s probably an issue with the protagonists. They’re maybe a shade too goofy (and straight up stupid) from the beginning to be sympathetic. This story and tone feels like it would’ve benefited from a more sardonic protagonist (more on that in a bit). So as much as the proceedings are legitimately entertaining, they’re missing an opportunity for increased audience connection. Which is a shame, because there are some pretty potentially great scenes in the first hour. Karate fighting priests, indecent zombie interactions at a funeral, a macabre family comedy with zombies, and a pretty zany piece of zombie-baby slapstick.
All stuff that’s good on paper, and has its moments, but is lessened by a decidedly unsympathetic protagonist. What further complicates matters is that the characterization makes sense for the themes and situations on display; it’s just that these traits don’t ever come combined with any kind of competence or likability. Until the last twenty minutes or so that is. The main character’s too snivelling and panicked all the time, and it makes him unlikeable. And the female protagonist is too passive (and has a confused idea of what Tarot cards are).
Braindead is basically a hyper-gory zombie Looney Tunes. Which is a concept I can absolutely get behind. But it’s Looney Tunes minus the likeable centre that is Bugs. So you’ve got zany live action cartoon stuff going on all around, and a sad-sack tortured protagonist dragging the fun of it down. At least until the end. See eventually the protagonist actually becomes what we’d want, for twenty or so minutes, and there’s a cacophonous blood splattered finale worthy of the price of admission.
When the movie finally becomes an episode of the Oedipal Undead Looney Tunes Show, it’s positively great. Even if there’s a patented Peter Jackson fart joke (he and George Lucas would really make each other laugh). Jackson is at his best when he commits fully to one tone, and this movie leans into his goofy cartoonish sensibilities head on. When it’s not aired with anything else, it doesn’t seem like an intrusion the way it does in the Hobbit films, instead it just constantly feels like a live action Looney Tunes world, which is actually pretty fun. Especially when combined with the brilliant gore effects all over this movie.
Seeing the main character fight off murderous lungs, slide across the bloody floor, fend off zombies with makeshift weapons, and whatnot, is loads of fun. And the monstrous battered zombies that keep appearing are fantastic, with bent exposed spines and crazy impossible builds. The level of splatter is amazing. There are blenders, electrocution, irons, knives, windows, and more, all used to maim and incapacitate zombies. It’s a delightful flurry of carnage with a lot of legitimately funny comedy. And one too many groin injuries, because this is still a Peter Jackson movie and his sense of comedy hasn’t evolved since he was ten.
Still though, this climax shows off a good use of that Peter Jackson over-the-top tendency. In Lord of the Rings, he channeled his lack of restraint towards the production design and special effects; the Hobbit was sunk when he turned it towards the story. In Braindead his lack of restraint actually suits the film. The relatively restrained approach to gore, up until the climax, makes it all the more better. It actually makes the whole film better. Without it we probably would never have gotten the famous lawnmower mauling.
I ended up liking Braindead. I could see liking it more a second time too, when I’d know to sort of disregard the protagonist a bit. Braindead would have gained a lot from a more engaging main character, Braindead’s Bugs, or Bruce Campbell, say. At least the end keeps him mainly silent and on top of his shit, which is what you want. If he’d continued unchanged through the climax it would’ve seriously damaged an incredibly entertaining twenty minutes of film. Although either way Richard Taylor’s special effects would’ve been worth seeing because they’re seriously fucking amazing. I was left thinking that this is the sort of thing Jackson should start channeling his inner child into again, rather than letting it bubble up at inopportune times.