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Peter Jackson's Braindead: From B-Horror To Hobbit

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Peter Jackson's Braindead: From B-Horror To Hobbit film still

As The Hobbit hits cinemas we take a look back at the Kiwi director’s gloriously gratuitous third film, featuring the mother of all zombies.

Treading the wickedly comic path blazed by Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II and Peter Jackson’s own 1987 debut Bad Taste, Braindead is a far from cerebrally challenged splatterfest which takes an axe to old-fashioned values. And if you’re after a tenuous Christmas connection Braindead is resplendent in a festive crimson, being absolutely awash with blood.

Known in the US as Dead Alive (to avoid confusion with the Bill Pullman/Paxton 1990 thriller Brain Dead), Jackson’s 1992 zomedy is shot and set in his native New Zealand.

The story begins in 1957 on the rather familiar sounding Skull Island, home of the Sumatran rat-monkey, the result of a sinister liaison between massive plague-carrying rats and tree monkeys. One of these unpleasant hybrids is captured by a foolhardy zookeeper and shipped to Wellington Zoo despite the best efforts of the natives.

Over in Wellington we’re introduced to the spectacularly awkward Lionel Cosgrove (Timothy Balme), a man 'blessed with an abundance of mother love'. Unfortunately his mother, Vera (Elizabeth Moody) is a bastard in blue-rinse.

At the heart of the story is the star-crossed romance between Lionel and local shop-keeper Paquita (Diana Peñalver). Theirs is a match foreseen by her grandmother’s tarot cards, one that will supposedly last forever but that is dramatically destined to battle 'dark forces' and to suffer 'oppression, failure, debauch, defeat, sorrow and death'.

After Vera is bitten by a rat-monkey while she spies on Lionel and Paquita, her health quickly deteriorates. She begins quite literally to fall apart, and in the most grotesque manner imaginable – soon she’s a mess of peeling skin, pus-squirting wounds and loosening body parts, before ultimately she snuffs it. Yet it’s far from the last we’ll see of Vera; she’ll later lead a zombie ensemble as they make Lionel’s life a living hell.

Lionel is also lumbered with opportunistic sleazebag Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) who’s keen to get his chubby hands on the family fortune and on Paquita. In the corner of good – and memorably 'kicking arse for the Lord' – is Father McGruder (a brilliant, all too fleeting performance from Meet the Feebles’ Stuart Devenie).

Elizabeth Moody makes for a magnificently unpleasant 'mommie dearest', a vile racist snob when alive, even worse when dead. She’s so outrageously smothering that she’s eventually shown consuming her son in a bizarre rebirth. In fact the cast as a whole give spirited performances, carrying off the physical comedy with aplomb.

If old ladies are demonized then babies take a hell of a bashing too with the appearance of a troublesome zombie baby whose outing to the park provides the film’s richest comedy. But Braindead is perhaps most famous for its bastardisation of household objects, most notably a blender and its ferocious finale features a lawnmower, which rivals the chainsaw as the top tool for zombie destruction.

One of the many pleasures of Braindead is the consistent brilliance of its script and the irreverent jollity of Jackson’s direction, even in our protagonists' darkest hour. There’s plenty of superb slapstick and wonderfully twisted lines like, "that’s my mother you’re pissing on". A broadcast of The Archers accompanies Vera first rampage as a zombie and, when Paquita protests that, "Your mother ate my dog", Lionel responds with an innocent’s incredulity as he holds aloft the semi-consumed mutt: "Not all of it".

There are references aplenty too: Skull Island of course is the home of the original movie monster King Kong; the Cosgrove’s domestic set-up references Psycho – with Lionel a Norman Bates you can root for; and there’s a hand rising from the grave which makes Carrie look like Corrie.

Jackson himself cameos as an inept undertaker’s apprentice, but probably the best value in-joke is the inclusion of an organ version of 'Sodomy' from Jackson’s second film Meet the Feebles, which can be heard playing as mourners enter the church for Vera’s funeral.

If you’re in the mood for screen carnage this Christmas (and who isn’t, right?) Braindead could be the fucked-up film for you. The Hobbit will transport you to a magical land far, far away but Braindead’s macabre maison is the setting for the ultimate in horrible, hair-raising hoots.

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