A Movie A Day: BRAIN DEAD (1990) My brains are individuals. They’re special; they’re unique.
Published at: Oct. 7, 2009, 8:26 p.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with the newest October special horror run of A Movie A Day!
[For the entirety of October I will be showcasing one horror film each day. Every film is pulled from my DVD shelf, recorded on the home DVR or streamed via Instant Netflix and will be one I haven’t seen. Unlike my usual A Movie A Day or A Movie A Week columns there won’t necessarily be connectors between each film, but you’ll more than likely see patterns emerge day to day.]
I had another very busy day in Ireland, but I’m hitting this write-up a bit more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed than I did last night’s BRAIN DAMAGE. I wasn’t being funny about me falling asleep at the keyboard last night. That was literally happening. I was so exhausted.
I’m almost afraid to go back and read what I posted as I’m sure there’s a good chance I didn’t make a lot of sense. In a weird way that would be a fitting tribute to Frank Henenlotter’s bizarre movie.
Speaking of that, a reader emailed to inform me that Brain Damage is on Amazon’s VOD service for a $1.99. I’m not very big on watching movies on my computer, but in case that’s your thing and you were curious to check the movie out or revisit it now you have the link.
Following the “brain theme” we move to 1990’s BRAIN DEAD starring Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort and featuring the great George Kennedy. CARNISAUR’s Adam Simon made his directorial debut with this film working off a script he wrote based on a story by Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont.
BRAIN DEAD makes BRAIN DAMAGE look like BRAIN DONORS. Clever, right? I mean that as crazy and off the wall as Brain Damage was, Brain Dead really takes mind-fucking to the next level. The film rejoices in twisting your perception as a viewer.
Bill Pullman plays a bit of a weirdo scientist who studies how the human brain works, convinced that the spark of soul or personality resides in the brain even long after death. His research is slow and costly so when his buddy (Bill Paxton), who seems to be a sort of junior exec at the giant company that funds Pullman’s research, comes to him with a slightly unethical shady offer to actually work on a live human brain, despite the dangers involved, Pullman has to make the decision of pursuing his life’s work or possibly ending it altogether if he refuses.
The great Bud Cort of HAROLD & MAUDE and BREWSTER MCCLOUD plays the specimen here. The dude’s in a mental hospital after being tried for the murder of his family, which he claims was done by a crazy man in a white suit, even though all evidence points at him. Cort plays Jack Halsey as a sweet, but jumpy and paranoid man, convinced the corporation is after him.
And he might not be wrong. Cort used to work for them and kept one vital piece of information to himself. The company wants it (hence Pullman being able to probe a living brain) and if they can’t retrieve it they would rather Cort die in the process than give that piece of information to some other company later.
At this point the movie was going along at a fairly reasonable pace and structure. It’s not bad, but trapped in that early ‘90s bland-as-shit photography style that is closer to TV of the time than the gritty cinematic look of the ‘80s. I was just kinda hanging in there with the movie around this time in the movie.
My patience was rewarded when shortly after the operation on Cort, which is done with the boardmembers of the company watching on I might add, Pullman gets hit by a car, hurting his head.
After that he starts seeing things, like the man dressed in a blood-splattered white outfit following him around. Something’s wrong with his mind. He mishears things, sees hallucinations, etc… But is he fucked up from the accident or was Cort right and all this seemingly crazy shit is really real.
That’s the big question and while the movie definitely has its own logic I like that you can draw your own conclusions about what is the true reality. Is he going crazy? Or was ever sane to begin with? What’s a dream and what’s his awakened reality?
A lot of detail goes into keeping a million plates spinning at once for the second half of the movie. Characters who appear in one reality show up in the next in a completely different way, usually to illustrate a certain theme. For instance, the bloody white-suited man is also the iffy guy running the mental hospital Pullman is admitted to when he really can’t begin distinguishing reality from unreality.
Final Thoughts: I found BRAIN DEAD to be a very smartly done movie. I don’t love the cinematography, but I love the script and performances. You can’t go wrong with Bill Paxton, especially in this era. He can play slimey like nobody else. Pullman is great as usual and makes me wish he’d get more leading man parts in movies. The mindfuck of this movie is what makes it entertaining, it just takes you a little while to get there.
I was trying to think of a good movie to pair this with. I was thinking maybe something like DREAMSCAPE, but even though that dealt with similar reality-bending issues it didn’t feel right. Then I realized the right pairing is there in the damn title.
I anticipate if you’re reading this you need me to recommend BRAINDEAD like you need me to recommend THE BIG LEBOWSKI. You’ve more than likely seen it, but if you haven’t the by God get thee to Amazon or Blockbuster or Netflix or steal it from Wal-Mart. I don’t care. Just watch this movie.
When I was visiting my Grandmother in the miniscule town of Glenwood, Arkansas around the age of 14 or 15 I was taken to the local video store. In that store I found a video with that above cover. I didn’t know who Peter Jackson was, but the cover looked good. I have been burned before and I had the suspicion that the cover didn’t reflect what was in the movie, but I rented it anyway.
That night I watched and freaked the fuck out. It was so good, so different, so gory and hilarious. It didn’t have the gag on the VHS cover like I thought, but after the opening credits sequels involving the theft of the rat monkey and the subsequent dismembering of an individual thought to have been bit I had forgotten about the cover.
What I got instead was a horny uncle, an evil zombie baby, a priest that kicks ass for the Lord, the most disgusting pudding ever shown on film, zombie fucking, a hot gypsy girl and the bloodiest finale in movie history. That was more than enough for me.
I love BRAINDEAD or DEAD ALIVE depending on where you live and I love the little bits of Peter’s filmmaking style that carried over from this film onto LotR. The return of Gandalph the Grey to the shire, where he grabs Frodo in the darkness demanding he returns the ring, is a specific example of classic horror Peter Jackson directing.
This film was the stepping stone between RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and SHAUN OF THE DEAD and is just as good (and just possibly better) than both of those. I can’t imagine there’s a regular reader geek out there that’d be reading about vintage horror movies every day during October having not seen it, but if its you… rectify that immediately. It’s even on VOD at Amazon for $2.99.
Seriously, this movie has some of the most inventive gore work I’ve ever seen in any movie, ever. Early Weta Workshop was on fire! Even when it doesn’t make any sense (How did Baby Selwin get inside that horn-rimmed glasses wearing chick’s head?) you don’t care because it’s a spectacular effect. Really top notch stuff here.
I remember picking up Jackson’s MEET THE FEEBLES about 6 months later at a Hollywood Video chain store and giving it a shot having no idea the same dude that directed FEEBLES directed BRAINDEAD.
Here are the next week’s worth of AMAD titles:
Thursday, October 8th: VISITING HOURS (1982)
Friday, October 9th: MACABRE (1980)
Saturday, October 10th: PRIVATE PARTS (1972)
Sunday, October 11th: ROAD GAMES (1981)
Monday, October 12th: DEAD END DRIVE-IN (1986)
Tuesday, October 13th: PSYCHIC KILLER (1975)
Wednesday, October 14th: THE BODY SNATCHER (1945)
Tomorrow is an early ‘80s hospital-set horror flick starring Michael Ironside and William MFing Shatner called VISITING HOURS! Don’t miss that one!
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