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The Brain That Wouldn't Die
Special Edition

The Brain That Wouldn't Die
Synapse Films
1962 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 85 min. / Special Edition
Starring Herb (Jason) Evers, Virginia Leith, Leslie Daniels, Adele Lamont, Bonnie Sharie, Paula Maurice, Marilyn Hanold, Bruce Brighton
Cinematography Stephen Hajnal
Special Effects Byron Baer
Art Direction Paul Fanning
Film Editors Leonard Anderson, Marc Anderson
Original Music Abe Baker, Tony Restaino
Written by Rex Carlton and Joseph Green
Produced by Rex Carlton, Mort Landberg
Directed by Joseph Green

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

You can tell a lot about a movie that declares itself The Brain that Wouldn't Die up front and The Head That Wouldn't Die over its end title. This is one of the loopiest and most endearing of the Z-budget independent cheapies. Released by AIP in abridged form, copies of the uncut sleazefest version have been around on video for awhile, but not looking this good. Synapse Films' DVD is a satisfying rendering of this campiest of mad doctor movies.


Dr. Bill Cortner (familiar character actor Jason Evers, here billed as Herb) is obsessed by unconventional surgical ideas, even though he's openly discouraged by his father. But not even his fiancée Jan Compton (Virginia Leith) knows that Bill has installed his own Frankenstein-style mad lab in the family country house, complete with a crippled assistant and an unseen 'Thing', the result of his failed earlier research, locked away in the dark.

A teeny tiny accident happens on the way to the lab ... Jan is decapitated in an auto mishap. But faster than you can say "Suture self!" Bill has her head propped upright in a plate of blood and connected to various life-sustaining support systems. Although Jan's ghostly voice begs to be allowed to die, Bill makes plans to graft her head onto the body of another ... and immediately goes out on the town to choose his future wife's body from the available babes & strippers. Back in the lab, Jan discovers that her disembodied state has given her extrasensory powers - and starts transmitting telepathic orders to the horrid Thing in the Closet.

Under-funded, under-directed and dripping with some of the earliest outright gore scenes, The Brain that Wouldn't Die is a wonderful mess. It has perhaps the worst-filmed accident ever in a movie and is padded with trashy strip acts and catfights that apparently were retained in the general release for the kiddie matinee market. But artistic poverty is totally beside the point. Enjoyable precisely for its utter lack of taste, the film features three great - no, awful - no, great camp performances.

As the assistant with a mangled hand, Leslie Daniel matches the immortal Jay Robinson for exuberant delivery of his grossly overwritten dialogue - you want to clap for him. 'Herb' Evers should be concerned that he's throwing his career away by being trapped in the wrong role, but instead aquits himself well under the impossibly primitive direction. That the movie works at all is due to the impressive Virginia Leith, who weirdly is never humbled by the risible situation of playing a head on a dish. Her voice is the first and last thing heard in the film, saying creepy things like, "Please let me die." If the IMDB is to be believed, she was the only woman in the cast of Stanley Kubrick's first movie, Fear and Desire, made nine years earlier.

The film is so patently 'unreal' that petty details like how a severed head can possibly talk are irrelevant. The Brain that Wouldn't Die is one of the best of the Z-pictures, the kind of irrational creepshow that once aired on local television stations at 2 AM. You'd see it half-asleep and then spend the next day wondering if it was really that strange, or if you had just dreamed it up. It's as if the show had beamed in from another dimension -- absurdly ridiculous, but impossible to forget.

Surgical horror made a comeback in the late fifties with George Franju's Eyes Without a Face, which seems to have inspired sick surgery pictures like Die Nackte und der Satan (The Head) and the ever-popular They Saved Hitler's Brain . But Virginia Leith's head has the most personality by far -- there's a giddy tension wondering what will become of her and what she'll say next: "There is an ultimate in horror - and it is I." You can't hate a picture with dialogue like that.

The box claims 20 minutes of reinstated footage but that must refer to some grossly edited television cut. Some of the sleazy female wrestling may have been restored as well, but the big shock are the famous deleted shots of gore at the end when the Thing in the Closet breaks out and finally gets its hands on someone to mangle. Couple that with a prolonged dismemberment scene earlier on and the show comes to a gory, abrupt, and frankly disturbing finish. There's a bizarrely haunting final dialogue line that I won't spoil by repeating here.

Synapse Films' DVD of The Brain that Wouldn't Die presents this cult favorite in the best possible light. The transfer is fine -- the source appears to be 35mm in good shape (a few blemishes here and there) and the sound is exceptionally clear. The movie actually looks, well, like a real movie instead of the blurry 16mm prints we're used to. The quality holds up when cropped to a theatrical 1:78 on a widescreen television; the tighter compositions help focus the dreamlike atmosphere. Synapse's slightly windowboxed transfer displays the full width of the image, too. Some packaging says 'widescreen edition' but the picture is neither letterboxed nor enhanced. Savant's review copy reads 'Special Edition.'

Bryan Senn's liner notes are adequate but don't get around to expressing the picture's basic appeal. The lurid cover art is right from the original posters and is included in a gallery of stills along with an odd shot of the monster with a nude model. The original trailer is also on board.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Brain That Wouldn't Die Special Edition rates:
Movie: Just Fair - but hilarious camp fun
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer, still selection.
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: May 4, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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