Since the 1970s and '80s, it has been the case where an aspiring filmmaker with not much cash but plenty of willing friends and relatives could most easily make a profitable film in the horror genre. There are exceptions like Kevin Smith's Clerks, Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66 and, of course, The Terminator, the film that put James Cameron on the map, but the list of horror films in that period made on a shoestring budget is incredibly long including such a genre classics as The Evil Dead, Bad Taste and Halloween. Not much has changed since then with myriad low budget horror films being released every year, some straight-to-video and others being theatrically released with an immense outlay-reward profit margin. (The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity are two fairly recent films which cost several thousands of dollars but took in many millions.)
Brain Dead, a film produced and directed by Kevin Tenney, who is probably best known for the horror films Witchboard and Night of the Demons, and written by Dale Gelineau, a writer with only an episode of Moonlighting to his name, is a horror-comedy film about alien controlled zombies. It begins with a couple of friends out fishing and having no luck at all whilst a meteorite hurtles to Earth, burning up and shrinking all the while. By the time it gets through the atmosphere, it is a tiny rock which hits one of the fishermen, Bill, square in the middle of his forehead but, rather than killing him, turns him into a bloodthirsty zombie.
Unlike normal zombies, this one doesn't spread the 'infection' by biting other people, but by spewing black liquid onto them, although the usual rule about ingesting a zombie's flesh or blood still applies. Almost as soon as Bill been turned into a seemingly mindless killing machine, he murders his friend, Ben, and eats his brain (which he attains by tearing his head in half) before heading off to the woods in search of 'fresh meat'.
Meanwhile, a couple of convicts, Clarence and his cousin Bob, have just escaped from police custody and have sought refuge in an abandoned fishing lodge. They don't know where they are or what to do, but need to stay out of trouble because, rather than just leave the unconscious cop in the back of the prisoner transport vehicle, Clarence blew his head off with a shotgun. This must be the busiest part of the middle of nowhere as there are two sorority friends hiking and, after skinny-dipping in a river, have become hopelessly lost and decide to see if the cabin is somewhere worth spending the night. Also in this region is televangelist preacher Reverend Farnsworth and a dim but attractive member of his congregation, Amy Smoots. Deciding they needed some fresh air, Amy got out of the car and Rev Farnsworth, who was driving, followed but forgot to put the handbrake on, so it careered off down the hill and straight into a tree.
When Forest Ranger Sydney Mayes stumbles across Bill's remains, she is ambushed by Bob, now a fully fledged zombie, but manages to avoid Bob and make for the cabin looking for help. Clarence sees the uniform and thinks she's come for him so begins firing a shotgun her way, hitting her in the thigh. This is only the beginning of Sydney's problems as Bob has followed her and, in order to get her brain, punches a hole straight to Sydney's head.
So, whereas Clarence and Bob wanted somewhere quiet to lay low, they now went up sharing a cabin with a televangelist and his assistant, two lost hikers (one straight, one a lesbian) and zombies outside that just won't leave them alone. Furthermore, the food situation is far from perfect and, despite mocking the girls' selection of organic health food snacks, Clarence has wolfed his way through just about all their supplies. Food stocks will turn out to be a minor worry when the undead and their black ooze begins attacking and entering the cabin, threatening to turn everyone into an alien controlled zombie.
This has a rather interesting structure, beginning with a fuzzy and out of focus interview with a man who you know will survive the film and then ends with some more interview footage as a retrospective on events and what happened to those who lived through it. This puts an interesting twist on zombie films as it asks the question 'What if no one believed in the zombies and just thought the dead bodies were takes humans?'
Making a successful horror-comedy is clearly a very difficult thing to do as, for every one that is successful at being both funny and scary, there are numerous others that fail on both counts and largely disappear without trace. Although a great deal of money isn't a prerequisite for making these films, it doesn't hurt as some of the finest in this subgenre (Shaun of the Dead, Young Frankenstein, An American Werewolf in London etc) were pretty well financed. That being said, I have seen some very well made and effective horror-comedies that were clearly made without much money at all so didn't prejudge Brain Dead one way or the other just because it looked, for the want of a better word, a little 'cheap'.
Although most of them have these elements, horror-comedies don't necessarily need gore, nudity or expletives but, used correctly, they can add to the experience and make a scene funnier, scarier or both. It is clear from the first act that this film will use all three as Ben responds to Bill's 'encounter' with the meteorite in a way that most people probably would. In the very next scene, Amy Smoots thinks that the Reverend is coming onto her and responds by lowering her strapless dress and displaying (almost) all. You then have the two hikers going skinny-dipping with some full frontal nudity, Sydney Mayes in the shower and then, as the film progresses, heads being blown open, ripped in half or covered in alien slime and being thrown on the fire! As you have probably gathered, this is not a sophisticated movie. I have absolutely no problems with this as I could quite happily do a double bill of a respected piece of cinema such as Citizen Kane, The Godfather or Tokyo Story with some thinking great deal more trashy and sleazy.
Brain Dead is a film that knows exactly what it is and what its audience is likely to be which is why the film is littered with obscenities, has sexual dialogue and scenes of zombies being shot, burned, beheaded or chopped up with machetes. It will never be considered a classic film but it's an enjoyable watch. It is reasonably well directed despite some pacing problems, some of the writing is very good and the acting is perfectly adequate for this kind of film. I'm not a desperate rush to return to this, but there may be one evening in the future where I just fancy watching it for no other reason than to see if my original opinion is still valid.
Just by looking at the menu, there doesn't appear to be a great deal of supplementary material as it only lists the Trailer, Also Available and Behind the Screams. This featurette (45:53) shows that the filmmakers wanted to document the entire process of making a film so it begins with location scouting before moving on to auditions and SFX make-up. So that he aspect ratio choices are a little strange as there is the footage of someone having an upper body cast made which has been 'squashed' from widescreen into fullscreen which is then rectified so it perfectly fits the 4:3 frame for the next actor and section.
This comprehensive and well made featurette (covering from pre-production to the Fangoria convention) came as a welcome surprise as I was really expecting just a trailer and perhaps some 'other attractions' and maybe a very brief making of.
The disc also contains, under the Also Available heading, trailers for Bad Day, Snub, Temptation, Fated, Arc, Senseless and Running in Traffic.
Shot digitally, this generally has a good colours, contrast levels and detail that there are some occasional scenes with ghosting, digital banding and aliasing. None of this is enough to detract from what is, overall, a very good and pleasing picture which is as good as I was expecting, if not better, as this kind of low budget horror film will never look as if it was shot on the most expensive and up-to-date equipment by someone like Roger Deakins.
When it comes to the gore and SFX make-up, the film certainly delivers with some excellent prosthetics, latex appliances and squibs so the most bloody scenes are effective and will impress the most ardent gorehound. Saying that, some of the blood looks extremely fake and is clearly corn syrup and red dye and there's no real explanation why some of the zombies are green and others have fairly 'normal' flesh tones.
There is only one audio option: a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo soundtrack which delivers the dialogue clearly enough whilst doing a good job with things like gunfire and fight scenes with aplomb. It really isn't the most demanding of soundtracks as there aren't any explosions, car chases or helicopters flying around so there is no need for the rear surrounds or subwoofer.
I have to admit to watching this hoping for the best whilst expecting the worst and I don't think that really had any bearing on my overall opinion as I quickly forgot my preconceptions and just went along with it for the ride. This certainly isn't in the same league as something like Return of the Living Dead but, as low-budget horror films with comedic moments go, Brain-Dead is very watchable and, especially with an RRP of £15.99, a rental is probably the way to go.