Peter Jackson (Upon the release of Braindead, a.k.a Dead Alive)
Most people don’t even know where New Zealand is, let alone that this island country is exporting one of the most brilliantly disgusting films to be unleashed on U.S. audiences since David Cronenberg wheedled a Canadian tax loophole into Videodrome. The offending picture is Braindead, 29-year-old Kiwi director Peter Jackson’s darkly comic zombie holocaust epic that will make audiences simultaneously gag on vomit and belly laughs.
While George Romero’s ground-breaking Living Dead trilogy simply followed the adage “kill the head and the body will die” for flesh-eater disposal and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead antagonists required “complete body dismemberment,” Jackson takes a decidedly great leap forward by arming his hero with a. . . rotary lawnmower. Complete liquefaction is the only way to stop these undead fiends, resulting in some of the most ghastly, carnage-strewn images ever legally committed to celluloid. But then again, self-propelled, flesh-hungry gastrointestinal tracts are not a common foe and must be dealt with appropriately – gruesomely.
It’s in this over-the-top manner that Jackson also attacked his two proceeding features, the no-budget, alien invasion splatter classic Bad Taste and his much lauded, but little seen, Meet the Feebles, a self-described “spluppet” (splatter+puppet) film that plays like a bad acid trip Muppet movie. Though Jackson’s films have been embraced by an international cabal of hardcore gore fans, his work is more often compared to the cinematic antics of Monty Python’s Flying Circus (a readily admitted influence) than any particular strain of horror film. It’s this off-kilter, comedic take on the zombie subgenre that makes Braindead both palatable to non-horror audiences and a necropheliac’s wet dream.
Set in 1957, the film plays like the mutant offspring of Psycho and Return of the Living Dead as our virginal hero, Lionel, must overcome his smothering mother to requite the love of Paquita, a nubile Latina grocer. Unfortunately, Mum falls ill after being bitten by a rare Sumatran rat-monkey – while spying on the enamored couple at the zoo – and begins the gruesome transformation into a slobbering ghoul. Her zombification quickly spreads, conjuring up bloodthirsty hordes that must be “liquefied” before Lionel can finally face his undead maternal adversary and become a man. Sight gags abound as the body count mounts, with Jackson’s delicate balance of laughs and schlock leading the film to its hilariously repugnant finalé.
Taking time out during a whirlwind Los Angeles visit – searching for both a distributor with the guts to release Braindead unrated and an agent that can further his twisted directorial dreams – Jackson followed me to a Freda Kahlo-themed café for an interview.
[ After starting out as a kid making Super 8 shorts, how do you dare to make a feature? ] ^ You’ve got to realize, that when I started doing Bad Taste, it was only a short film. In my mind the enormity of the project was restricted to ten or fifteen minutes, so we started shooting and it just sort of. . . spread. I never, ever dreamt that it would be a feature and I never thought it would until about a year into it. Until then, I hadn’t edited any of the footage – I was just sticking it in tins under my bed – so I took a week off work for editing and put together a 60 minute rough cut only to find it didn’t have an ending. I thought, ‘Christ, there’s nothing I can do, other than just patch on and make a feature.’ It was actually scary at first, making a feature. I thought, ‘Its impossible, you can’t just make a feature film,’ but then I thought, ‘Why not?’ So I wrote out this ending and we just started shooting again. Not to make this sound so quick though, the film took four years to finish.
[ There are so many gross-out gags that are central to the film’s humor, how did that aspect develop? ] ^ After that first rough cut. It wasn’t too gory in the first hour, just boring. So I decided to make it really gory. The film was vastly improved at this point, and much more entertaining. Besides, I liked doing the effects. Special effects are what got me interested in making films in the first place – they were an excuse to blow things up and make monsters and such. I never wanted to really direct films until much later, my effects work was still progressing, but the storytelling was becoming more important. Bad Taste was really like a great film school. In New Zealand we don’t have film schools, though I wouldn’t have wanted to go to one even if we did, because I’d just get impatient. I don’t want to sit there being told what to do, I’d rather just go out and do it, and make my own mistakes.
[ How did you scam The New Zealand Film Commission to fund finishing Bad Taste? ] ^ I screened it for one guy in particular, Jim Booth, now my producer, who was then the Commission’s executive director. He liked it, but knew he was going to have a tough job trying to convince the others on the board to back the film. However, he, as the director, did have the ability to approve small amounts for script developments, like $5,000. So he organized it behind the backs of his colleagues, but we eventually got the point where we needed the money for post production and had to go to the Commission with the film. They approved it and I’m sure they’re happy now that they did because it became their most financially successful film. People actually respect them for being brave enough to support this kind of stuff. Meet the Feebles and Braindead were also financed by the Commission.
[ They never worry about your pictures lacking “socially redeeming values?” ] ^ No, they already make enough of those kinds of films, so they just leave me alone. Probably because they know I’ll make them some money whereas the others won’t.
[ What kind of reaction did the film get? ] ^ Well, during the years I was working on Bad Taste, I’d meet up with some auntie or cousin and they’d say, ‘Oh, you’re still making your film,’ but it was more like they were asking, ‘Oh are you still banging yourself on the head with a brick on a daily basis?’ It became this mythical thing, but when they finally saw it they reacted quite well. People outside my immediate circle saw it out of duty because it was a New Zealand film. And while they were for the most part these queasy, politically correct types, they quite liked it. I think because there were no women being victimized, and that’s what these people mostly complain about. It was sort of a “safe” splatter film that even the most bleeding heart liberal could admit liking.
[ What kind of agenda do you have? ] ^ I don’t. There’s nothing, even in Meet the Feebles, that I’m trying to do on any kind of serious, political level. If we’re satirizing anything it’s the squeamishness of people, breaking taboos – but just for fun. Using puppets allowed us to do a lot of things I never would have tried with humans, we got away with murder, and made a lot of people blind to the film’s subversivness. But some found it sacrilegious to make an adult puppet film with sex and splatter violence. One critic, who said he needed a shower after watching Feebles, just released a book on New Zealand cinema that doesn’t have a single mention of me or my films.
[ I understand that Jim Henson’s daughter Lisa was deeply offended by Feebles . ] ^ She was at a screening and I hear that was a bit aghast at seeing a little frog that looked suspiciously like Kermit on a cross, but I don’t know that she was really offended. The Commission never really liked Feebles either. They did fund and support it, but didn’t really care for the subject matter.
[ Braindead has some of the best gore effects I’ve ever seen but was still digestible to even my girlfriend, who won’t eat eggs because they gross her out. What’s the reaction been from hardcore fans? ] ^ Good. But like Bad Taste, it’s a splatter film that non splatter fans can go see. The humor dilutes the gore to a point that is acceptable, but still there for the fans. On the other hand, I’m not interested in making “hardcore” horror films, like a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer or even Texas Chainsaw Massacre, although I enjoy both those films. I like comedy too much, to the point that I could never make a film that took itself that seriously. Fundamentally, I just want to entertain people, so I usually trade in cheap laughs for true horror.
[ In light of Braindead’s lawnmower massacre ending, is there anything gore-wise that could bee too over-the-top? ] ^ No, but it was a bit tough to come up with new gags. Francis Walsh, Stephen Sinclair and I wrote the original script for Braindead five years ago while still shooting Bad Taste and it’s been quite frustrating to see a lot of the gags we wrote back then turn up in other movies in various forms. Like one where a zombie is cut in two but still crawling along, I saw that in Return of the Living Dead II. So along the way we had to keep coming up with new stunts just to stay on top. Although there are endless variations on what you can do to a zombie, there are a limited number of original ideas. But the more over-the-top a gag is, the funnier it will be and I don’t see a problem with that so long as it’s properly executed. Besides, the real, creepy horror stuff usually doesn’t have a lot of blood in it. Going that way disturbs people a lot more than a gory film because it has to be taken seriously. You can’t defend against it. But if you go way beyond the saturation point, there’s no way people can be offended or shocked. They just have to laugh. Monty Python first made that apparent in 1974 with The Holy Grail. For the first time, arms and legs were chopped off for laughs. I’m just carrying on with that. Dawn of the Dead is one of my favorite films, not that it was so comedic, but it was outrageous in it’s use of gore.
[ Did the extensive gore effects make Braindead a tougher to make than you expected? ] ^ Not to sound arrogant, but it was actually quite easy. With my effects background, I’m very at home with this kind of film. Feebles was actually much more difficult, a nightmare because we were getting a lot of shit from the Film Commission, but things went so smoothly on Braindead that I never felt like I was really stretching myself. I actually became more interested in the drama scenes because I had never worked with real actors before and found it a challenge.
[ How did the actors react to being covered with gore every day during shooting? ] ^ I got on their nerves a bit, and I felt sorry for them (laughs) because we were shooting all day long for weeks. No one complained, but it was so uncomfortable, this sticky maple syrup we used just gets everywhere. And by the end the main set where we shot most of the carnage had this sweet, gassy atmosphere that was enough to make you sick even if you weren’t covered in blood. The syrup had fermented under the hot lights. Your shoes would stick to the floor like in a bad cinema – it was a nightmare.
[ Have you been getting offers from Hollywood to sell out? ] ^ I started getting some after Feebles but nothing has worked out yet. But I, with other people of course, write and direct my own films, so why should I get tangled up in the nickel games over here when I can just happily do my own stuff back home? Actually, my situation isn’t about staying there or coming here, but finding the money necessary to do other kinds of films. The Commission has a financial limit, so I’ll have to find American or European money at some point. I understand what working for a studio is about though – making someone else’s film where they make the decisions. I’ve read about the situations with Alien3 and I know I’d hate a nightmare like that. I just don’t need it. I’m not looking to direct Die Hard 3 and that actually throws people off, especially in Hollywood where everyone expects you to jump at something like that.
[ Would you be afraid if someone ran up to you on the street and claimed to be your number one fan? ] ^ I do get recognized in New Zealand a lot, which is weird, but I haven’t come across any real loonies yet – though I’m sure they’re out there. I haven’t even gotten any weird mail.
[ I’m sure we could arrange that. ]
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Peter Jackson (Upon the release of Braindead, a.k.a Dead Alive)