Lionel's last stand against the zombie hordes Your Mother Ate My Dog!

We examine the making of director Peter Jackson’s early hit – the gloriously gory Zombie spectacular Braindead

A Shivers feature by Simon Scott
selected from Shivers #70

In 1992 New Zealand director Peter Jackson (whose epic Lord of the Rings trilogy starts filming this month) released Braindead, a film that followed in the foot- steps of his earlier film Bad Taste (1987), a grotesque effects-packed but somewhat plotless alien film, and his unique adult puppet picture Meet the Feebles (1989).

Peter Jackson on the set of BraindeadBraindead tells the story of 25-year old Lionel Cosgrove, whose life is devoted to looking after his overbearing, widowed mother. When she is bitten by a rabid Sumatran rat-monkey and subsequently turns into a zombie, Lionel is equally devoted to the business of incarcerating his Mother’s undead corpse in the cellar.

The film opens with an Indiana Jones-style pre-title sequence on ‘Skull Island’ where we learn of the rat-monkey’s capture and see the unfortunate demise of the New Zealand zoo official responsible. Clichés abound, but this serves as an ideal set-up for the rest of the film. A great deal of what follows is equally clichéd, albeit in a typical Nineties, post-modern ironic way.

After the credits we land back in New Zealand and shortly afterwards we meet Lionel and his respectable but monstrous mother, who enjoyably spends most of her first scene running around the large old house (one of Jackson’s trademarks) waving a carving knife.

We are also introduced to the 1950s, a decade that features almost as a character in itself. The film is set in 1957 (the same year Roger Corman released The Undead), and the representation of the era is frighteningly detailed, from the trams to the cash registers, ‘Sunlight’ soap and The Archers. This setting is vital to the plot. The film addresses a conflict between repression and irresponsible freedom, so this era, when a moral veneer covered a riot of subcultural decadence, makes for the perfect backdrop.

Timothy Balme’s portrayal of Lionel is also perfectly pitched. Braindead is most often likened to the Evil Dead films in that they both feature characters that turn from victim to hero while surrounded by bloody, zombie carnage. However, whereas Ash’s transformation in Evil Dead 2 is a comic book exaggeration, Lionel’s is much gentler. Thankfully Balme’s performance never slips into the ‘easy hero’ mode, even when literally mowing down the undead, but instead maintains a grip on the insecurities that plague him from the film’s outset. This makes for a more interesting and believable character and a much stronger conclusion when he faces both his history and his mother...

There is enough viscera and vile humour to please Bad Taste fans, and a narrative and direction that is mature – or at very least adolescent. It is self aware in a way that the Evil Dead films never were, and is a much more deeply textured ride to boot. The film clearly paves the way to the acclaimed Heavenly Creatures and makes the prospect of Jackson’s forthcoming Lord of the Rings a very interesting one indeed.

Read the full feature in
Shivers #70

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