Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive) (1992)

Story goes, these great big rats come scuttling off the slave ships and raped all the little tree monkeys. The natives use them in black magic rituals. Don't ask me how, probably suck the blood of virgins, eh, eh?

Peter Jackson. You know him as the director of the Lord of the Rings movies (plus the upcoming prequel), as well as the 2005 remake of King Kong with Jack Black, all of which won him (or probably will win him) a ridiculous amount of Oscars.
This week, however, we look at something from very early in his career, back when he was in his New Zealand homeland making movies about zombies, fast-food franchising aliens and perverted puppets.

...we'll just be focusing on the zombies.

Namely his 1992 feature Braindead (retitled Dead Alive in the States after a Bill Pullman movie with the title Braindead came out two years earlier). Many have called this the grossest movie ever made, and for good reason--300 liters of movie blood were used to film its climax, or about seventy-nine gallons if you prefer, at one particular point squirting out at five gallons per second, earning it the title of bloodiest zombie movie in motion picture history. It is so grotesque that video rental stores in Sweden and possibly other countries sold it with complementary barf bags. For the squeamish, I will describe this movie as best to within the standards I maintain for this blog as possible, so just try to keep your dinner in the right place and this will go smoothly.

Our story begins in a potential tourist destination named Skull Island (a location which fans of his King Kong remake might recognize) just west of Sumatra in the year 1957. An explorer and his guide are carrying a rare breed of monkey in a cage whilst being chased by angry natives with spears who would very much like it back. They manage to make it to their jeep and get away, but not before the explorer gets his hand bitten by the monkey in question. One of his men mentions in horror that he has "the bite" and they pull over so they can chop off his hand before a supposed infection spreads through his systems. When bite marks start showing up all over his body, they start amputating some more and they've only just gotten to his head when the movie gives us its title card to stop this going on too long.

Next we meet our two protagonists: Paquita (Diana PeƱalver), a romantically-minded Latin American immigrant girl who helps runs her family's convenience store and has a grandmother who is obsessed with the occult, and Lionel (Timothy Balme), a mild-mannered, somewhat clumsy mama's boy who lost his father at a very young age and lives in what I swear is the house from Psycho with his bossy matriarch Vera (Elizabeth Moody). Right away the movie tells us that Paquita and Lionel will end up together thanks to a sign denoted by Paquita's grandmother spelled out for the young girl when Lionel drops by the store and spills some stuff on the counter.

Lionel inadvertently talks himself into going out to the zoo with her, and the two of them have a lovely time until we get to the monkey cages. You see, the monkey we saw the explorer and his men run off with in the start of the film is the rare stop-motion animated Sumatran rat monkey (Simian raticus), a raging beast which the residents of Skull Island used for black magic rituals and sacrifices and other things that people dressed like the African kids from Santa's workshop are believed to do. Regrettably, nobody told Vera, who right off the bat does not approve of the new woman in her son's life and had been following them all over the zoo when she slips backwards onto the rat monkey's cage and gets bitten. After literally and quite graphically squashing the little devil's brains out with the high heel of her shoe in front of disgusted onlookers, she orders Lionel to take her home post haste.

The Sumatran rat monkey has been known to inhabit mountainous jungles as well as Coraline's sickest nightmares.

The next morning, representatives from the Wellington Ladies' Welfare League come by to visit, and despite the fact that her bite wound has started oozing pus and the skin on her face has started to peel off, Vera is insistent to get out of bed and impress them. The four of them sit down to a meal which immediately turns south when she starts decomposing in the after-dinner custard. After they leave none the wiser, Paquita stops by with her dog Fernando, who wanders around upstairs until Vera devours him. Shortly after Paquita calls a nurse, Vera finally dies in her son's arms...and then attacks and kills the nurse. Then they both attack Lionel, who finally locks the two of them in the basement. While Lionel sees Paquita's grandmother about the "dark forces" which surrounds him and receives a moon-star charm necklace for his protection, Vera makes a garish spectacle of herself by breaking out of the basement, getting hit by a trolley and smashing through Paquita's store window.

After an attempt to calm his mother's corpse down with some sedatives he bought from a shady veterinarian brings a very awkward close to the funeral scene, Lionel tries to dig up his mother's grave for another precautionary injection when some thugs arrive to beat the crap out of him and urinate on her grave site. Just then, Vera bursts out of the ground and mutilates the lot of them. The priest at Vera's funeral who suddenly turns out to be very proficient in kung fu ("I kick arse for the Lord!") comes to Lionel's aid, but sadly his action scene doesn't last very long as he too is bitten and then impaled onto a tombstone.

By the way, during the funeral we meet Lionel's uncle Les (Ian Watson) who immediately sets himself up as a slimeball by dressing in a gaudy flannel shirt and hairpiece, lasciviously chatting up Paquita and grinning devilishly when someone mentions an inheritance Vera left for her son.

So nice having everyone over for dinner.

Lionel winds up as unwilling caretaker for his new zombie family, which brands him as a weirdo all over town and has put a major strain on his and Paquita's new relationship. At one point the zombie priest and zombie nurse fall in love and bring a bouncing baby zombie into the world, which Lionel takes to the park in a darkly funny scene which has him beating the undead child senseless in broad daylight to calm its homicidal urges. As if he didn't have enough to deal with, Uncle Les has uncovered his little secret while he was gone and greedily uses it to blackmail Lionel out of Vera's house and inheritance.

That evening, Les throws a housewarming party with several dozens of his drunken friends to celebrate his new ill-gotten gains. Paquita just happens to walk by with her talkative soccer-playing boyfriend when she ditches him to see what's going on, and after kicking a horny Les in his tender area she retreats to the basement and discovers Lionel's zombie problem. Rather than running out of the house and moving to another hemisphere, she takes pity on poor overburdened Lionel (death, as her grandmother said, quite literally surrounding him) and even helps him properly bury his undead house guests. I'd say she's a keeper.

"It's not the fact that you obviously have people who have been turned into zombies tied to chairs in your basement.
It's the fact that you LIED about it."

No sooner do they make it back upstairs when Les reappears, locks Lionel back in the basement for the crime of standing up for his girl and carries Paquita off to be raped. Luckily Les doesn't get very far with his new-found sex toy because after it is revealed that the sedative Lionel had been using turned out to be an animal stimulant which only makes them more ravenous, the zombies break out of the basement and in an epic climax to end all epic climaxes turn the party into an all-you-can-eat buffet. Paquita and several survivors hole up in the kitchen as Les tries to run away and is chased back inside. Lionel ends up in the attic, where his moon-star charm thingie starts moving on its own and points to a old trunk where he finds some old photographs. Oh yeah, and a skeletonized corpse.

Give this movie credit, it comes up with a lot of imaginative, over-the-top ways for the characters to fight off this zombie incursion, each with very gory effects. A zombie is impaled on a light fixture and her head lights up like a jack-o'-lantern. Uncle Les chops up the walking dead with cooking knives like a chef at a Japanese steakhouse. Paquita purees the ghouls piece by piece with a blender, and then starts fending them off with another zombie's legs. And let's not forget the film's most iconic moment where Lionel slices up zombies left and right with a rotary blade lawnmower, blood spraying and limbs flying all over the place in cartoon fashion.

At the end, everybody in the house has stopped moving except for Lionel, Paquita and Vera, who has now grown into this giant bulbous monster. She chases them up to the roof, where Lionel confronts the she-demon (now by appearance as well as personality) and reveals that it was she who killed his father and a blond mistress he was having an affair with at the time before she ingests him into her belly. She is just about to take out Paquita as well when in some strange Freudian analogy he bursts back out again and rescues his lady friend as Vera falls through the roof into his now flaming house and the fire brigade arrive. Lionel and Paquita share a kiss and walk off together in that oh-so-lovely happily ever after fashion.


Remember back in my Texas Chain Saw Massacre review when I said you didn't need excessive blood and guts to generate shock value? I didn't necessarily say that there shouldn't be exceptions to this rule. The gory make-up effects fit well into what is essentially two parts horror movie and one part comedy, reinforced by its over-the-top cast of characters and kinetic cinematography with shaky camera shots and extreme closeups. Lionel's plight makes for an interesting deviation from the standard zombie plot as well, trying to keep his zombies under wraps in his basement while every other zombie movie character normally wants to keep them out.

Plus I kinda had redneck axe murderers and suspense movie serial killers more in mind when I said all that stuff.

I can recommended Braindead (or Dead Alive, wherever you are) to zombie film buffs who have a strong constitution. As far as movies about the undead go, this one is a milestone--record-smashing special effects, an original plot for its genre, and particularly the zombie massacre in a finale that would make Bruce Campbell proud. If you have a spare 85 to 104 minutes, depending on which country you live in, you love a good splatterfest and you can look at things like partially digested dogs without feeling sick, dig up a copy of this movie and make a night of it.

The rest of you might want to watch something more easy on your stomach. I recommend Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.

A boy's best friend is his mother.

No comments: