As Christmas time approaches and Phoebe Cates is reminded again of her dead dad stuck in a chimney, a new blockbuster opens in cinemas nationwide. But while Martin Freeman swaps a shirt and tie for prosthetic feet and ears, I would like to look back at one of my favourite comedy horrors, donned by the very same Peter Jackson of the new Hobbit adaptation (and that other dusty box-set on your shelf). This is 1992’s Braindead (or Dead Alive, as it’s known in the US, strangely enough).
The opening scene sees a New Zealand zoo official and his guide transporting an unknown cargo off a tropical island. It’s obviously a very special cargo, as they run from the spear wielding locals. “You no pick up the cage, you no get the big dollars!” A minute later, as the zoo official’s limbs are hacked off by a machete, you know this is going to be a special film.
The cargo turns out to be a Sumatran rat-monkey, an early Weta Workshop creation, whose stop-motion features are a little different to the ‘You shall not pass!’ Balrog of LOTR’s fame. Turns out you don’t want to be bitten by one of these little buggers, unless of course you have a fetish for zombies.
Cue the main storyline, as the protagonist – the mild mannered Lionel – is introduced to the audience. Lionel is a thirty-something man who lives with his domineering mother, Vera. Upon a chance meeting with shop assistant, Paquita, Lionel quickly falls in love with her. While on a date at the local zoo, Lionel’s suspicious mother follows them. We are reintroduced at this point to the monkey-rat, which takes a big chomp out of Vera’s arm…
Vera is in a bad way, it seems. Her descent into death (and eventually resurrection) is marked by some gruesome and utterly hilarious scenes: there’s Vera’s “annual meeting” with the Wellington Ladies Welfare League, or as Vera slurs to Lionel, “The W.L.W.L.”, a scene that involves exploding pus and custard (yep!). Or how about the scene in which she eats Paquita’s dog. “Your mother ate my dog!” Paquita exclaims, to which Lionel replies while holding its tail, “Not all of it.”
Through a series of excessively gory events, the zombie of Vera manages to spread an epidemic, which culminates in Lionel having to restrain several zombies and keep them hidden in his basement (including the zombie baby, Selwyn – yes, that’s zombie baby).
The real crux of the film takes place after Lionel’s uncle – Les (a seedy, Elvis quiff type) – attempts to take Lionel’s mother’s estate. Upon discovering the “bodies” in the basement, he threatens to notify the authorities. When Lionel tranquillises and buries the bodies, he is shocked to hear his uncle enter the house with a troop of people. It seems he’s throwing a giant house warming party.
House full of people. Check. Zombies in the cellar. Check. So… on with the zombies escaping and slaughtering 98 percent of the house’s inhabitants. Famous for being one of the goriest things ever put to screen, this film is not for the faint hearted. While the level of violence is obviously an assortment of prostheses and bucket (after bucket) of fake blood, there’s still plenty to cringe at (and gag to). As one friend put it while watching the last 15 or so minutes of the film, ‘This is relentless!’ You will both laugh and wince at the ludicrous ways people meet their demise, and feel by the end of the film that you should earn some kind of medal.
So as you sit down with your pop corn, and Howard Shore’s music sweeps over a beautiful New Zealand landscape (and presumably Ian Holmes’ voice is heard over the top), remember the humble roots of Peter Jackson’s early career. And the zombie priest and nurse having sex with each other. Merry Christmas.