Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: BRAINDEAD / DEAD ALIVE

at 1:00 PM
 Aw hell yeah, let's do this thing. But first a bit of pedantry. I am really torn on which to use here: the original New Zealand title, BRAINDEAD, or the (Google-confirmed) twice as popular US branding, DEAD ALIVE. The creator's intentions are certainly more artistically defensible than copyright prohibitions, but do those intentions matter if they never reach the audience? Ultimately the movie is called what you see it as, and we, correctly choosing to be Americans, saw it as DEAD ALIVE. That being the case, I like the BRAINDEAD poster better, so fuck it. Plus, later on I'll have a really amazing point that hinges on the movie being called BRAINDEAD. Warning: links in this post may be NSFW due to hilarious practical gore effects.

BRAINDEAD (1992)
AKA: Dead Alive. Didn't you read all that?
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Written by: Peter Jackson

BRAINDEAD in one sentence:
Yourself: I'm not sure I should insult the elegance of the title.

Golem: Meet the mother of all zombies.

Here's a story about me and BRAINDEAD:
Yourself: It is a weird galactic irony that the great white hope of '90s horror would serve to elevate a new genre to the mainstream - and that that genre would be fantasy books. LORD OF THE RINGS is fine and all, but I want to live in the world where we're getting nine-figure budgets behind Peter Jackson's YOUR MOTHER ATE MY DOG.

Golem: I heard about this movie for years and still wasn't expecting it to be as good as it was.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Golem: Yourself remarked to me that the movie is so simple that there's not much to write about. And he's got a point. It's just a silly movie that has fun with what it does. It's hard to bitch because it's just a neat showpiece in every scene, even during Lionel's goofy sappy date at the zoo.

Yourself: At the same time the story is surprisingly seamless, considering it borrows from outbreak, monster movie, and siege genres. The tension derives respectively from the struggle to contain the zombie "family", the unknowable [d]evolution of the creatures, and the battle to outlast a seemingly endless horde. The subtle structural shifts keep the pace blazing - as soon as we're comfortable with what the zombies are, they're threatening to break free, as soon as that's under control they're morphing into something more vicious, and before anyone knows how to kill them we're already drowning in creatures.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Cartoon realism or something. The color and consistency strives for anatomical detail but the action is invested with such wild energy that it feels governed by the laws of Looney Toons rather than physics. Arms and legs go flying, chopped up corpses neatly pile up, entire bodies pop like balloons, and a mostly-decapitated lady's head pops open and shut like a Pez-dispenser. Even more so than the pre-title sequence, I think the scene at the zoo sets the tone for the violence, where Lionel's mum stomps the shit out of the oozing rat-monkey's head til its eyes pop out. The freewheeling logic in what can happen to just a natural body retains a sense of grounding but keeps us guessing far more than standard "kills".

Golem: BRAINDEAD is largely defined by its gore, but it's got tons of great little touches, too. Bodily noises will gross you out, and close-ups always come a little off-kilter. In particular, check out that scene where good old Uncle Les takes a piss; the camera rests just above his dick, facing upward over his gut towards his face. It's an audiovisual treat.

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: Our boy Lionel is what makes the movie so damn fun. He's willing to paste his mother's face together, clean up her squirting pus, and watch her eat her own ear, but the second a pretty girl chats him up, he's stumbling backwards over himself, literally retreating out of a building and across the street just to keep his distance. In fact Lionel's entire first scene, as he clumsily makes a wreck of the grocery, is played so apologetically that it remains one of the funniest in the entire movie. His "whoops" expression is fantastic.

Which makes his transformation all the more satisfying. We first see Lionel really come into his own when he goes on his date with Paquita, starting to unravel his psychosis and emote. Then mum comes back on scene and he's back to the stuttering fool. He makes compromise after compromise in attempt to protect his innocent home life, and when he finally goes over the edge, it isn't pent-up rage that spills out but pent-up joy. Lionel is having a fucking ball mowing down zombies and that's why we're having a ball too. 



Golem: Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) gets the chance to flesh out her transformation from human to zombie. It's a unique role in the movie, since almost everyone else undergoes an immediate and violent transformation. She's pushy and overbearing, and she handles a zombie curse the way I might handle a cold.

After a nasty rat monkey bite, she wakes up under the weather. But, she insists on hosting guests to ensure her spot in the Wellington Ladies' Welfare League. At first, it's slight. Just some flesh ripping off of her face while she applies makeup. From there, we get to watch as she goes from fatigued to downright incoherent, all while she hosts a polite couple for lunch. With each passing line of dialogue, she struggles more and more to form sentences or even stammer any kind of response whatsoever.

The best part comes near the close of her transformation, when her ear falls right off into her custard. Because of her sluggish state, she slowly scoops it up and brings it to her mouth, just to maximize the amount of time we have to cringe.

During the climactic bloodbath, Rita also takes her time transforming, but she has only a small part amidst the chaos of that scene.

A really cool shot or scene:
Yourself: A simple visual gag defines Lionel's strain between dutiful son and cautious suitor. As he painstakingly extracts a dog's tail from his braindead mother's throat, the camera stares transfixed from Paquita's point-of-view. It is extremely nasty and forces the viewer to dwell with her on the dead dog :( When the horrified Paquita screams the classic "Your mother ate my dog!", Lionel tries to look on the bright side as we cut to a wide shot of the blood-smeared room: "Not ALL of it."

Golem: Baby antics are the worst, right? You watch this tiny human get into trouble, and (unless it's that one episode of X-Files) it's predictable, boring humor. Tension rises as the child encounters hazards, and you're supposed to laugh when he/she evades them without a care in the world.

When Lionel adopts a baby zombie, he doesn't lock it up in his basement dungeon. Like any good father, he takes it out on a stroll to the park. But then, he doesn't dare risk spreading the zombie curse, so he keeps it in a stroller behind barbed wire. Already, it's a silly concept; he takes it out for a walk, only to keep it locked up.

And of course he keeps it locked up. That's the key to the scene: the tension is reversed. I wasn't worried the baby would come to harm - I was worried that it would cause harm. Things start off typically enough; the stroller careens down a hill and flings the baby out into a swing set. When it catches sight of normal children, though, it's out for blood. The switch is so swift that I found myself swept up, unsure if the little guy would trigger a zombie outbreak.

The scene releases its tension in keeping with the rest of a comically graphic movie. Lionel traps it in a bag and whacks it against a swing set as hard as he can, all while judgmental mothers watch. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief when the child reaches safety, I breathed a sigh of relief when the child was brutally pummeled.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: I have a hypothesis that the film recreates Hitchcock's PSYCHO as a means to reflect on exploitation and cultural norms of 1960 vs. 1992. Remember what I said about the title being important? PSYCHO? BRAINDEAD? EH? sorry Eh? Where PSYCHO was a twisty shocker that blew your mind by putting you in the corner of a fucked-up dweeb cleaning up after his demanding and psychopathic mother, BRAINDEAD is a fairly less twisty shocker that blew your mind by putting you in the corner of a fucked-up dweeb cleaning up after his demanding and braindead mother. The indicators go well beyond the script: look at Timothy Balme as Lionel compared to Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates. If that's accidental I'm Dave Crisco. And check out the way Lionel's house is shot compared to the Bates' house. In fact, the first thing that got me on this trail was Golem questioning why BRAINDEAD would be set in 1957.



Before I jam my foot so far down my throat that you can call me Dave Crisco, I should mention I've never actually seen PSYCHO. I'm working from the not-a-cultural-invalid's knowledge of its significance. As I understand, the famous PSYCHO stabbing and its fallout were considered brazen at the time for glorifying murder and sensationalizing nihilistic violence. Peter Jackson, operating in a world wherein Hitchcock's unbridled violence has become the norm, cranked that to a million, drowning the movie in blood and guts with the same desensitizing glee. The difference in cultural significance makes it difficult to parallel the two historically - PSYCHO was as high-profile as a Hollywood film can be, while BRAINDEAD was a local New Zealand thing that got a limited distribution under a different title. If anything, the fact that the movie had no cultural impact speaks to its reflection on 1992, i.e. "look at how far we've come and how little we care!"

I realize that in this feature I've been repeatedly hitting this cinema-on-cinema angle - I guess it's that old chestnut where you project your subconscious into what you're thinking about. Although the conclusion that analyzing movies had made me think the movies (that I'm analyzing) are also analyzing movies is the kinda thing they used to put you away for.

Golem: Vera owns her son, body and mind. It's not enough that he handles every chore around the mansion, but it's his duty to take pride when his mother earns a coveted spot in the local Ladies' Welfare League. Lionel himself is a bit of a zombie, a husk without his own identity. When he finds something he wants for himself - namely, the love he finds for Paquita - Vera does all she can to take it away. Her transformation into a zombie not only puts a humorous spin on her impositions, it also gives Paquita room to utter something with a little depth: "That thing is not your mother." Vera doesn't nurture or support her son. Instead, she eats away at him.

The spread of the curse mimics Vera's stature in society and Lionel's following subservience.

Note to future self on watching BRAINDEAD:
Yourself: It's been a few years, but I was surprised just how not exhausting this film is on second viewing. It's got so many great tricks up its sleeve and it's hilarious too. And next time I'll have seen PSYCHO, so I can do a proper job of comparing them!

Golem: What you have here is a zombie movie with a rosy ending. The gore is cartoonish, the good guys evade zombification, and all signs of the outbreak are reduced to ashes. A feel-good zombie movie?

Come back next week to find out what Greg and Greg think of, well, I guess we better watch PSYCHO since neither one of us has seen it.

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