Back in the 1980s a bunch of yahoos flooded the backwoods of New Jersey, camcorders in hand, to cash in on the fruits of slashermania - and maybe even make a little history. OK, they probably weren't thinking of making history, but with the advent of Home Video (anyone can do it!) and the way low-budget aesthetics skew so delightfully towards horror, history was made nonetheless. Of course now, if not for intrepid DVD labels, no-one would remember such ridiculous low-lights as Woodchipper Massacre and other titles filled with exuberantly cheap gore and little else. Furthermore, today's avant garde of fear-filmmakers frequently seem compelled to pay homage with weirdly uneven efforts like Brain Dead
No mistake, Brain Dead delivers everything you could want from an '80s gore flick, and it can't fail to please fans of the genre; as an homage, however, it lacks that certain something that made these films special in the first place. Call it stupidity, I guess. Filmmakers too stupid to realize that hacking apart a mannequin in their backyard in New Jersey might look really stupid on VHS. Too stupid to know that paying your friends and cousins in beer won't generate those top-notch performances that made movies like Halloween great. Too stupid to write good scripts. But not too stupid to know that if you throw all of these things together you're going to get a barriers-busting funfest that will always go down easy with a beer or three. Because everything in Brain Dead is calculated to resemble those attributes mentioned above, it bears a slightly hollow tone.
Yet by including everything you'd want in an '80s gore movie, and bringing a level of professionalism that's dozens of summer camps away from anything you'd rented when Reagan was President, Brain Dead satisfies the filmmaker/viewer contract anyway. The story is shamelessly unoriginal - a pastiche of everything that's come before - involving ancient alien parasitic slime that possesses folks, eats their brains, and turns them into demonic zombie monsters bent on finding more brains to eat. No surprise that the monsters trap a disparate group of folks in a cabin out in the woods, a group including three super-hot gals, a couple of convicts-on-the-run, and a Church Pastor. The siege ensues, but the fun has already begun.
Because Brain Dead director Kevin Tenney and writer Dale Gelineau start things off fast and furious (the way we like it). Someone's head is blasted apart like a watermelon, alien zombies start drooling, and every woman in the cast gets naked within seconds of her first appearance. Though gore continues apace, our gorgeous heroines sadly stay clothed for the remainder. Oh well, at least we have fists-through-the-head and other even-more shocking things to keep us entertained. Less consistently entertaining are numerous attempts at smart-'n'-sassy humor; these parts represent the true weakness of such semi-serious homage. You just can't fake real, laughable badness, and when you try to maintain that atmosphere through cheesy humor delivered with sit-com timing, it really tends to grate on one's nerves.
Though cheekily derivative, larded with plenty of dopey humor, and not-exactly packed with great performances, Brain Dead still packs a fun punch. Plenty of gore and some truly delightful nudity form the backbone of a silly story of zombie aliens or something that provides a few jump-scares and won't leave you feeling guilty in the morning. Old-school fans will appreciate the effort, even with its 21st-Century sheen, while newbie teens will find this a fun date-movie or good for a night with a couple of beers. (Don't tell your parents!)
Brain Dead looks a damn sight better than those '80s movies it strives to emulate. Coming at us in 16 X 9 widescreen anamorphic, the picture sports decent detail levels (how clearly do we want to see every leaf on every tree in the background anyway?) and is crisp and clear enough. Colors are very good, rich, warm and well saturated. I didn't notice any visual defects other than darks that maybe weren't dark enough, and possibly some minor posterizing in very limited instances.
Dolby Digital Stereo Audio certainly works nicely as well. There's a bit of ingenious placement to liven things up a bit, though it (probably obviously) won't compete with big-budget releases geared toward 7.1 Sound. Otherwise, everything is mixed and balanced with quality, and all dialog is easily discernable.
Nothing makes a fun DVD better like a slew of nice extras, and Brain Dead delivers those, as well. A Commentary Track with director Tenney and cast members is frank and funny, while the 45-minute "Behind The Screams!" The Making Of Brain Dead Documentary is exhaustive and quite interesting in its level of detail, from scouting locations through casting, to special effects and beyond. It's really well put-together, insightful and also features a fantastic sound track. You also get 4 minutes of a Blooper Reel and 5 minutes of Deleted Scenes, plus the Theatrical Trailer and other usual gory Previews, which seal the deal.
Brain Dead hearkens back to the heyday of '80s SOV horror. With the requisite amount of nudity, bunches of low-budget, high-octane gore, and plenty of hit-or-miss humor, Brain Dead is right on target as a fun, freaky time. It might be lacking the naivety and get-it-done-for-nothing brio of those early efforts in effrontery - something you can't manufacture by trying - and as such seems slightly disingenuous, but that doesn't mean that it isn't heartily Recommended to horror-freaks on the hunt for good old-fashioned fun.
- Kurt Dahlke
~ More of Dahlke's DVD Talk reviews here at DVD Talk I'm not just a writer, I paint colorful, modern abstracts, too! Check them out here KurtDahlke.com