I grew up watching ’90s horror movies. The first horror movie I ever watched was It (1990). I was probably six years old, and looking back I can’t help but wonder why the hell my parents thought this was a good choice for a family movie night. I remember being obsessed with Tim Curry’s Pennywise and since that night I’ve been drawn to anything horror themed: films, books, videogames, podcasts, you name it. The ’90s is considered a bad decade for horror – until Screamed revitalized the genre in 1996 – but horror films at the time were fully self-aware, over the top, goofy, campy, and 100% pure entertainment.
Today I would like to discuss Peter Jackson’s Braindead (A.K.A. Dead Alive), one of the best “so bad it’s good” films.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
The story follows Lionel Cosgrove, a young man who lives with his mother Vera, as he tries to start a relationship with a girl named Paquita. During their first date at the zoo, Lionel’s mother, who was spying on the couple, gets bitten by a Sumatran rat-monkey- or Simian Raticus, to be scientifically correct – and gets infected with a disease that quickly causes her body to decompose and crave flesh. When Vera’s body finally shuts down, she immediately comes back to life as a zombie and tries to kill everyone who comes in her way.
Our protagonist loves his mother more than anything else in the world, so rather than killing her off, he decides to buy tranquilizers from the local – Nazi – veterinarian and keep her zombie mom and her zombie victims heavily sedated and locked inside the house. Vera eventually escapes the house and gets hit by a cable car, so Lionel has no other option than to organize a funeral. But he needs to keep her mother sedated during all the arrangements and recover her body once everything is over. Later, uncle Les pays Lionel a visit. He is not particularly happy that his nephew inherited all the money plus the house and, after discovering the sedated zombies he believes to be regular corpses, he blackmails Lionel into giving away the house to buy his silence. Lionel agrees, and uncle Les rapidly throws a house-warming party that culminates in one of the most bloody massacres in cinema history.
If you were to watch this movie without knowing anything about it, you would not be able to pinpoint when it was made. The story takes place in 1957, and the film relies heavily on the ’50s aesthetic. But the cinematography doesn’t feel like something made in the early ’90s. In fact, the movie doesn’t fully feel like it belongs to any particular period due to the different elements it borrows from other works. The filmmakers were clearly inspired by Evil Dead, Re-Animator, and Psycho. However, the film managed to preserve its own identity, distancing itself from American productions.
The practical effects are beautiful and truly fun to watch. Certainly, the intention was not a realistic take on gore and the film offers some inconsistent makeup effects, but that’s part of the charm. In this movie, we get to see some of the worst and the best special makeup and practical effects of all time, and cool puppetry, too. Peter Jackson has gone on to say his favorite scene of the film is when Lionel’s walk in the park with the zombie baby, which he shot with the remaining $45,000 of a budget of $3 million. I feel the scene creates pacing issues in the film, but he stands by his choices so I’ll give him that. In my opinion, the best part of the film is the final 30 minutes. According to IMDb, 300 litter of fake blood was used for the ending, I think I need to add nothing else.
The relationship between mother and son is fully developed. The filmmakers establish the psychology of both characters very well despite the fact that we don’t see much of the two interacting with each other before she turns into a zombie. We get a sense of who they are and why they rely on each other to avoid confronting their inner demons, in Vera’s case, her loneliness, and in Lionel’s case, his repressed childhood trauma that is revealed in the climax.
I believe this film often doesn’t get the love and attention it deserves. It is the perfect movie to watch when you just want to relax, simple and fun. Released in 1992, the film has reached cult classic status over the years. So, why do we continue to say the ’90s was a bad decade for horror?