Friday, October 31, 2014

'90s Horror Poll: Day 30 - Braindead (aka Dead Alive)

#1 - 21 Votes

The surprise (to me, anyway) victory of Braindead - re-titled Dead Alive in North America - in this poll must be at least partly attributable to the enduring popularity of zombies. The walking dead were in a bit of a lull during the decade - other than the screenplay for the Night of the Living Dead remake, George A. Romero took a break from zombies, and besides Cemetery Man, the list of other notable zombie movies is pretty short (only Return of the Living Dead 3 and the comedy My Boyfriend's Back come to mind). When Braindead was released in the U.S. in 1993, trends in horror movies were making a distinct turn away from the fantastic in favor of serial killers and sci-fi horror, which helped the film stand out in a crowded genre. And director Peter Jackson's take on the undead is nothing if not fantastic; in a little over an hour and a half, Jackson manages to put his rapidly rotting supporting cast through just about every puerile, gory gag one could think of, and even manages to invent a few new ones. Even if you're not a fan of constant, stomach-turning violence, you can't help admiring his showmanship.

As Stephen King put it in his book Danse Macabre, Jackson goes directly for the gross-out here. His first two features, the practically homemade Bad Taste and the slightly more polished Meet the Feebles, were gleefully tasteless, with content as crude as his filmmaking often was. Braindead was a big step forward for the filmmaker - the direction and performances are more assured from the start, and his screenplay (co-written with his partner Fran Walsh and Stephen Sinclair) is impressively nuanced, which isn't something one can always say about a movie where a lady's ear lands in a bowl of custard. When nebbishy mama's boy Lionel's (Timothy Balme) mum Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is infected by the bite of a Sumatran rat monkey, he continues caring for her after she's taken to eating dogs and tearing peoples' heads off, which threatens to put a stop to his budding romance with shop girl Paquita (Diana Peñalver). It's a story that would work as a romantic comedy with an Oedipal conflict even before you add in the dog eating and decapitations.

It's a big step forward, too, in terms of the effects Jackson, who cooked the makeup appliances for Bad Taste in his parents' oven, was able to work with a team of makeup artists, including Bob McCarron, who'd worked on The Road Warrior and Razorback. The effects are the star here, as Jackson and his team let their imaginations run wild; Braindead's zombies' individual parts keep on ticking even after they've been removed from the rest of the body, which allows for flying limbs, bisected heads with eyes that continue to see, and a large intestine that becomes a sort of character of its own towards the end. The showstopper is the climactic scene where Lionel mows down dozens of zombies with his lawnmower; the scene used 300 gallons of fake blood, and the movie in general reportedly used more fake blood than any other, though I'm not sure if there's any way to be sure (does every horror movie crew keep a count?). The movie would be unwatchable if it weren't for the peculiarly cheerful, cartoonish approach Jackson takes - the gore here isn't too far, in spirit, from my six-year-old's bloody drawings of zombies and monsters biting off peoples' heads, and the movie's grisly sight gags and physical comedy owe as much to Chuck Jones as they do to Sam Raimi. Braindead's best and funniest scene, Lionel's trip to the park with a zombie baby, wouldn't seem out of place in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus, and I love that the scene was thought up on the fly when Jackson and his crew wrapped early and had an extra day left in the shooting schedule.

Of course, the scene where a priest discovers zombies outside his church and reveals himself to be a kung fu master is another favorite, and for good reason - we're given no advance context for the priest's martial arts abilities, which only makes it funnier, and the line "I kick ass for the Lord" is just perfect. But the scene also points towards the influence Braindead, like the Evil Dead movies, had on lesser imitators. We've been inundated in recent years with countless low-rent zombie movies - Zombie Strippers, Ninjas vs. Zombies, Zombeavers - where the filmmakers combined blood and guts with some sort of obvious juxtaposition between zombies and strippers, ninjas, beavers or whatever they thought of after fifteen seconds of effort. There are enough of these movies that, presumably, stoners browsing Netflix are enough to keep them in the black. Shaun of the Dead was one of the few movies to take the right lesson from Braindead, creating a grounded story with relatable characters, then seeing how introducing zombies into the movie shakes up the relationships and personal conflicts the movie has already established. While there have been plenty of solid horror movies in recent years, the glut of half-assed horror-comedies makes one wish that Jackson - who followed up Braindead with the drama Heavenly Creatures, still his best movie, starting him on the path towards Oscars and billion-dollar grosses - might be inclined to make a movie that nods to his roots, as Sam Raimi did with Drag Me to Hell, now that he's finally done with Middle Earth (one can hope). Either way, Dead Alive is as fun as it was two decades ago, and the perfect way to end the '90s Horror Poll - thanks again to everyone who submitted a list, and especially to my contributors, Alex Jackson and Christopher Fujino. Happy Halloween!

U.S. Release Date: February 12, 1993 (Also released that day: Groundhog Day, Untamed Heart, The Temp, Love Field, Strictly Ballroom)

What critics said at the time:

"Because all of this looks blatantly unreal, and because the timing of the shock effects is so haphazard, 'Dead Alive' isn't especially scary or repulsive. Nor is it very funny. Long before it's over, the half-hour-plus bloodbath that is the climax of the film has become an interminable bore." - Stephen Holden, New York Times

"Jackson, obviously aware of the cliché-ridden dangers of 'horror comedies,' chucks convention and good taste out the window and goes for the gusto (or is that 'gutso'?) with uncanny results. The film moves from gag to gore to gag again like a rocket from the crypt and never lets up - just when you think you've seen the worst, Jackson tops himself and there you are squirming in your seat again (and loving every minute of it). Sick. Perverse. Brilliant." - Marc Savlov, Austin Chronicle

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