New Zealand, 1992
Review by Rumsey Taylor
Posted on 18 October 2006
Source Trimark Home Video DVD
Features: 31 Days of Horror
The Oedipus complex inherits a particular caveat in horror: the son, so in love with his own mother, will go to unheard of extremes in an effort to preserve her corporeal form. Norman Bates exemplifies this claim: as quietly sinister and reprehensible as he is, Norman’s proficiency in taxidermy is something to commend even though it serves to obscure his crimes. The revelation of his mother is perhaps Psycho’s paramount fright, but note that — as decrepit as she’s become — she’s still in one piece. The fact that she’s a corpse notwithstanding, this detail is crucial because it is tasteful.
Braindead’s Lionel is another in horror’s continually replenished supply of Oedipal men: he is probably in his twenties, unmarried and principally disinterested in women (or men, for that matter), and he lives with his mother. She is a domineering bitch, her incessant requests delivered in alarming urgency. She objects to his haste in preparing her meals or how he fumbles around any other woman, of whom she customarily does not approve. As natural as it is for the viewer to disparage this relationship, it is stable, and both of its members seem complacent within it. Once Mum gets bitten by a Sumatran Rat-Monkey and transforms into a leprous zombie, you would think Lionel would be free of his maternal vice. But no, their relationship just gets extraordinarily more complicated.
Mum begins to deteriorate just as the doorbell rings, admitting a group of unannounced friends for brunch. Rushing to apply her makeup, she wields an eyeliner pencil a little too quickly and slices part of her cheek off. Lionel is quick to adhere it with rubber cement, as he’s still got to prepare brunch. His efforts are largely futile, however, as Mum’s condition is contagious. Soon Lionel is tending to the lot she has infested, feeding them and sedating them to the best of his ability and in his own house. For no apparent reason other than because he’s too polite to mistreat his guests, Lionel constructs a sort of apartheid between the alive and the undead, maintaining his mother’s discretion even when she has visitors. Inevitably, his good intentions aren’t enough to suppress the lot’s insatiable thirst for blood.
Braindead is the magnum opus of Peter Jackson’s early career, retaining the stop-motion and bloodletting of Bad Taste and the puppetry and slapstick sexual exploits of Meet the Feebles. The film’s craftsmanship is ingenious, but the enterprise is not in service to thrill or frighten (as, I say very generally, Jackson’s films that follow are) in as much as it is to separate more callow viewers from their lunch. At the aforementioned brunch, for instance, Mum’s ear slides off her face and into her bowl of soup. She proceeds to eat it in one gulp. Henceforth, nearly every remaining scenario in the film is at the expense of good taste—it is Braindead’s unpretentious incentive, to disgust with relentless excess. And to this end it’s an extraordinarily effective enterprise, positively innovative in offering different modes of death and dismemberment, a vision of audacious and hilarious nihilism.
The film’s exceptional final third is motivated by a blatant plot contrivance that, firstly, endows one of the local townsmen with Lionel’s mansion, and second a party to celebrate said inheritance. This happens in about five minutes. The guests arrive, a modest band of zombies is unleashed upon them — body parts are chewed or ripped off and tossed about the screen like exploding kernels of popcorn — and soon enough, the zombie horde has multiplied exponentially.
Having lost his precious mother, his house, and potentially his girlfriend, Lionel feels responsible for this catastrophe, and in an unforeseen and radical shift in character imposes upon himself the responsibility to correct it, and in the quickest way possible. It is at precisely this moment that what taste and sophistication Braindead has hitherto used to tell its story — granted, “taste” and “sophistication” are relative here — are compromised in service to one of the most outrageously bloodening sequences in horror: Lionel enters the mansion through the foyer, an upright push mower harnessed in makeshift to his chest, and plows the house’s population down to its last throbbing bit of flesh.
This, however, does not do away with Mum, whose daily dose of tranquilizer (to sate her lust for human blood) was inadvertently replaced with some sort of stimulant. Having eradicated every other zombie at the party, Lionel watches with urgent fear as she erupts from the ground enormous, some twenty feet tall, slowly unhinging the lower half of her abdomen. In a finale both epic and disgusting, the metaphor is extended as Mum pulls her indefatigable son back into her womb.