Levi’s Lessons in Evil: Braindead (1992)–A Unique Approach to Slapstick Horror

Dead alive poster

Peter Jackson’s Braindead (1992) employs parodic conventions in a multitude of forms. From the substantial amounts of exaggerated blood and gore-ridden scenes to the sportive jokes made by the characters, Braindead successfully intertwines comedic conventions in what is portrayed as a zombie-based horror film. Throughout the film, the splatter is in overdrive as the audience is witness to numerous blood-squirting scenes. However, the sound effects that are used mirror a show analogous to The Three Stooges (1925). We see this employed during the appalling lunch scene as Vera’s wounds send projectile globs of blood and flesh into Mr. Matheson’s custard. Of course, as if to taunt the audience, Mr. Matheson unknowingly shoves his face with the gore-infused pudding. It feels as if Jackson intentionally implements this disturbing scene as a horrific presage for what is to come. Following in the footsteps of Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator (1985), Braindead holds nothing back while seizing the audience’s attention with outrageous splatter effects and slapstick horror techniques while subtly introducing novel elements of romance, semi-sentient zombies and unique comedic constituents.

Beyond the upfront grotesque but comedic elements, one scene employed the use of a diegetic song being played which closely describes the character’s actions in the film. This scene is kickstarted by Lionel (Tim Balme) falling and accidentally turning on what appears to be an old radio which elicits the beginning of the song. Following the start of the ironic, ebullient song, Zombie-Vera, Lionel’s undead mother, staggers towards Lionel with a cannibalistic intent. The scene cuts to a shot of a wide-eyed, horror-stricken Lionel looking onto his rotting mother just in time for the audience to hear the narrating song play, “Oh my mother, you aren’t looking well today!” Staggering back in utter shock, Lionel grabs ahold of what appears to be a teapot, which he shatters over his mother’s head in synchronization with a teapot shattering in the song, and just on cue, we hear the song chime, “Sorry mother! That was your favorite teapot.” By this point, Jackson has gracefully transitioned the scene from horror to an atmosphere of laughable comedy. This conceptual model of horror converting to comedy tends to be prolific throughout the film, utilizing further implementations of subtle elements pertaining to both genres. The combination of Jackson’s ability to grasp the audience with a certain feeling of horrified suspense just to rip it away through the implementation of an exaggerated parodic element blended with Richard Taylor’s disturbing special effects is nothing short of cinematographic expertise.

While the film takes on a similar world to that of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), Jackson diverges in various ways to personalize his zombified world. For example, as opposed to Night of the Living Dead, the viewer is exposed to a more explanatory origin story of how zombies are created. Moreover, superficial to the intertextual basic drive for human flesh, we see Jackson’s zombies exhibit human-like behavior on multiple levels. While Lionel is desperately hiding and tending to the zombies within his home, we are forced to watch an unsettling scene of intercourse between two zombies, one of which was the former priest. In unbelievable time, a mischievous toddler zombie is born from the earlier interaction with an inherent lust for human flesh. This unprecedented conception is a construct an audience would have never expected to witness in an earlier zombie-based Romero film. Through this unique undead infant, Jackson adds an antagonizing recurring character trope, being the mischievous devil-toddler. As the film progresses, we anxiously await what evil deed the baby-zombie will carry out next as he demonically giggles his way on and off the screen. The addition of this element to the diegetic structure of the film adheres to the great scaffolding of comedic and horror motifs that Jackson has created.

baby zom
The baby zombie sadistically giggles at a biker’s misfortune. https://bit.ly/2UxxW8p

In retrospect, one of the greatest elements within Braindead is how the plot structurally aligns the viewer with Lionel, but simultaneously maintains a slapstick-horror trope in keeping the viewer distant from him during life-threatening scenes. Meaning that while Lionel’s life is in danger, the audience doesn’t necessarily experience the suspense a viewer might feel towards a movie that underscores Carol J. Clover’s concept of the “final girl.” Conversely, the audience witnesses the parodic, life-threatening scenes with a sense of dispassion towards the character resulting in a greater sense of awe towards other features constructing the mise-enscène. For example, while Lionel is dangling from the ceiling by a cord and the entrail-zombie is pulling him up, personally, I was not nearly as concerned for his life because I was too busy chuckling at the artifice and exaggeration of what was occurring in the scene. However, the film does align the viewer with Lionel to a point where you feel pity for the poor guy. Throughout the film, his skittish personality, most likely due to his controlling mother, and his desperate attempts to keep his life together evoke a perception of empathy towards his situation. On the contrary, multiple elements providing comedic relief prevent the viewer from ever feeling truly depressed towards the negative aspects of Lionel’s life. Through this alternate form of alignment with Lionel, Jackson successfully allows for an established connection between Lionel and the audience without setting a grave undertone.

Behind the blood and flesh-ridden scenes Braindead offers a mountain of implicit artistic substance that must be acknowledged. Outside of the film’s exploitation of uncharted territory within the slapstick-horror genre, the cultured viewer is rewarded with diverse references and homages paid to classic horrors. From this infrastructure, we are exposed to the full appreciation Peter Jackson has for innovation, comedy, and the horror genre as a whole. But why stop there? As if horror and comedic tropes were not enough, by the end of the film, Jackson leaves us with one finalized element touched on throughout the film: romance. Just after the event of Vera’s death, a slew of firetrucks and bystanders arrive on scene in result of the burning home. Through the clearing of the crowd, we are subjected to a shot of a blood-soaked Paquita and Lionel, arm in arm, finally in the romantic moment they deserve. With one last grotesque jab at the audience from Jackson, the couple engage in a nauseating bloody kiss to cap off the film. The copious amounts of bloodshed and cannibalism throughout the ninety-seven-minute film leaves the audience feeling exhausted as they wake from their gore-induced captivation. However, Peter Jackson compensates this with an evoked sense of catharsis before the screen finally fades to black.

— Levi R. Schmillen, Film Blogger

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