New Zealand director Peter Jackson impressed American critics and moviegoers with 1994’s Heavenly Creatures and 1996’s The Frighteners but reached superstardom while directing the Lord of the Rings trilogy. While Jackson was responsible for some of the best use of special effects to ever be filmed on-screen not many people know of his early days as director. A little over a decade before taking on J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved novels, Jackson started his career behind the camera directing three low budget full-length “splatter” films in the late eighties and early nineties. Among those films, the last entry was titled Braindead – also released as Dead Alive in North America – a zombie slapstick comedy. At the time of its release Briandead was a box office bomb but due to the success of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film has gained exposure to a wider audience. Because of its slapstick nature and buckets of blood, Braindead has since become a bona fide cult classic.
Set in New Zealand, Braindead follows Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), a village fool who has dedicated his life to his mother’s (Elizabeth Moody) every wish. During a visit to the local market, Lionel catches the attention of a Spanish clerk named Paquita (Diana Peñalver). The two quickly fall for one another despite going against the wishes of Lionel’s mother. During a date at the local zoo, Lionel’s mother attempts to spy on the lovebirds only to be bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey that infects its prey with a flesh-eating zombie virus. Lionel must now balance his relationship with Paquita while trying to stop the virus from spreading to others. Let’s just say he does a poor job with both.
The film’s claim to fame within the horror genre is being one of the goriest movies of all-time. But Jackson’s approach is far from the brutal human dissections of modern splatter films that are now being deemed as the “torture porn” genre. Braindead’s use of its endless supply of gore is often thoughtful and smart while also serving as a key element in the film’s best comedic moments. Braindead also features a great performance by lead actor Timothy Balme. Balme is excellent as the shy, klutzy, and spastic Lionel as his comedic timing is flawless. While many of his one-liners are brilliant in their own right, what makes his performance stand out is his use of physical acting as a way to draw the film’s biggest laughs. Balme trips, flips, and slides his way into our funny bones making it hard for moviegoers to resist our clueless hero.
Braindead is also full of sidesplitting scenes. One scene, in particular, is set in a graveyard where a group of punks threaten to beat up Lionel only for our hero to find backup from a priest who has mastered the art of kung fu. Other memorable scenes include Lionel taking a newly born zombie baby for a day out at the park. This provides the film with some of its biggest laughs as Balme does his best Buster Keaton impersonation. And with all of the hilarious moments built in, Jackson also remembers to supply audiences with gross-out moments throughout as well as an ending that features a good portion of the film’s budget going to buckets upon buckets of red-dyed corn syrup.
The legacy of Peter Jackson will always stem from the magnificent vision he had for his Lord of the Rings trilogy. That being said, Braindead is an underground gem that any fan of the horror genre or The Evil Dead franchise – which one can assume Jackson was inspired by – has to put on their bucket list. My recommendation is to find the uncut 104-minute edition as the North American Dead Alive cuts out the film’s best scenes and only reaches an 84-minute run length. While many films have tried to merge comedy and horror with mixed results, Braindead is slapstick horror at its finest.