Brain Dead. The mere mention of that title to any knowledgeable horror fan and images of Peter Jacksons classic gore-drenched zombie comedy rush into their thoughts like a unstoppable tidal wave of nostalgia. With the title being so synonymously linked with one of the most celebrated and memorable genre pictures of all time, it is with great risk that another film come along and dare to use the same moniker. Is it possible that a low-budget, independent film can stand toe to toe with a titan of the genre? Or, is this just a case of someone trying to ensure that they get some press and visibility due to having enough testicular fortitude to use an iconic title linked to an equally iconic film? Lets explore, shall we?
Brain Dead is the story of of six people, broken into easily distinguishable pairings of two, who for various reasons find themselves either in or passing through a vast, backwoods area of a nameless state. Judging by the southern accents some of the characters have, I’m willing to guess we are below the Mason-Dixon line, but other than that, I am well and truly lost as to where the hell they could be. In true genre fashion, location rarely matters, but shelter from the oncoming nightfall surely does. We have 2 sorority sisters lost while hiking back to their camp, one of which is a feminist, man-hating lesbian who is attracted to the other. We have 2 criminals, one a hard-boiled murderer and the other guilty by family association, who escape a transport van and go on the run. And then we have a creepy, sexually deviant, cheating Priest and one of his sheep (a young and attractive girl, no less) who he had brought along. Some other characters get thrown in the mix, but our main focus is on these sinister six, who all wind up finding shelter from their misfortunes in a fishing shack buried in a wooded area. It isn’t a groundbreaking set up for a horror film, but it is perfectly serviceable, and we all know that it is what a film does with its beginnings, not the start itself that makes a film worthwhile.
As is the case with so many Indie films, the acting is a hodgepodge of highly enjoyable characters and actors, and some that are just near insufferable. I must commend whomever did the casting however, as it is abundantly apparent that the actors who can carry a scene without being highly irritating are the ones who are on screen the most, while the “meh” actors and actress’s are killed off rather quickly, or given smaller much, less important roles. It shows me that even though they probably had to “work with what they had” they still made the best possible meal with the ingredients available. Joshua Benton, who plays Clarence Singer, our guilty by association criminal who has a heart of gold and diamond-tipped katana like wit, is the cream of the crop here. He is given a tremendous, if not a little transparent, personality and always has a great quippy response to anything and everything, with the exception of when he is getting all lovey dovey with one of the ladies. Andy Forest who is the borderline psychopathic Reverend Farnsworth, makes you hate him from the first minute with his hypocrisy and biblical reasoning for everything, which of course is what his character was designed to do. The rest of the seedy six that we spend most of our time with are by no means slouches, but their roles aren’t exactly the most challenging of personas to hop into, and thus I will collectively comment on them by saying there is no one who I wished just wasn’t there. The only actors who I felt a strong dislike torwards were the police officers (and not just because they were cops) and Ranger Sydney, who just didn’t do it for me (but did get naked, so I guess she served a purpose for some viewers).
Chances are though, if you are down with low-budget indie horror, you have leanred to tolerate a large amount of shitty acting, but you still would like a film to be relatively well shot and paced. If so, then you are mostly in luck, as Kevin Tenney (his claim to fame is directing Night of the Demons, a CLASSIC if you have yet to see it, see it) tries to work as much magic as he can with the restrictions that are present. Clever fading edits show quarters rolling of the ground that dissolve right into the spinning wheels of a car tire, and this transition trick is repeated a few more times in the opening half of the film. The blood and gore, which I will elaborate more on later, is usually shot in broad daylight, a pleasant departure from the normal “shoot in the dark so they can’t see the CGI or terrible make up” mentality. Tenney’s camera is in observer mode, which isnt a bad thing. The lens never feels like it has to get involved with the characters, or actively participate in the fight scenes or the action. It is simply a carefully placed eye by which we see the events unfold, and besides the flash and dash of dissolving scene transitions we see a lot of in the first half of the flick, things are played pretty safely and close to the vest for the last half. Tenney also avoids “hero shots” and other such Hollywood bullshit, thus not insulting the intelligience of his potential audience. The directing here is, to use a cliche, solid.
The saving throw (anyone get that RPG reference?) of many an indie zombie endeavour is usually rampant and creative bloodletting. Due to the independent nature of this film, and many others like it, gore and nudity can be as pervasive and sickening as the filmmakers want it to be, without fear of a studio or executives breathing down their necks and being concerned with public opinion and the MPAA. Brain Dead certainly reveled in this freedom, as most, if not all, of the kills are absolutely jaw-dropping in their brutality and presentation. I am usually pretty strong when it comes to seeing people have horrible things done to them, but even I said “WOW” out loud at two of the special effects scenes in Brain Dead, which I of course won’t ruin for you here. Moving on from the stellar gore and kills, the movie could have been lit slightly better, especially during some of the outside night time shots, and the score/soundtrack was a complete and total wash, except for the inclusion of the Toadies song Possum Kingdom, which I heard playing in one scene. All in all though, continually taking into consideration this is not a studio backed major production, the technical flaws and shortcomings can be easily overlooked, and don’t condemn the movie to a lower ranking than it would get otherwise.
In order to be able to, in confidence, recommend Brain Dead to anyone, I would first need to ask a few qualifying questions. Do you enjoy low budget horror and can you tolerate all that flaws and quirks that come with it? Do you appreciate great looking, over the top gore? Do you like full frontal female nudity or can you at least tolerate it? If so, Brain Dead may be for you. It is a competent and fun zombie flick, full of some actually funny humor and some great gore as well as a surprising climax that I should have seen coming a mile away, but somehow didn’t. Perhaps the greatest sin Brain Dead has committed, and it did so by no fault of its own, was that it was released in 2007. Had this movie seen the light of day in the 70’s,80’s, or even the 90’s, it probably would have been met with open arms by a large cult following and maybe even the horror community as a whole. But in the Internet age, where everyone expects movies to be able to stand up to bigger budgets productions with computer special effects and years of pre and post production, Brain Dead may, much to my chagrin, be lost in the shuffle. Here’s to hoping it enjoys a better fate than that. Oh, and Peter Jacksons Brain Dead (a.k.a. Dead Alive for us Americans) is the better film. Thought I had forgot about my opening, didn’t you?