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  • Writer's pictureRob Binns

Braindead (1992) Review and Summary

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

“Rich and creamy. Just the way I like it!”

Caution! This Braindead 1992 review contains spoilers. Proceed at your own peril!

I’ll say it before we get started – Peter Jackson’s Braindead (released in the US, originally, under the somewhat awkward moniker Dead Alive – means a lot to me.

First and foremost, it’s set in Wellington – the city I grew up in.

Second? It came out in 1992, the year I was born – so, while it wasn’t quite my end of the 90s, it does serve as a fascinating encapsulation of the times. (That’s all despite it being set in 1957. Ha.)

Third, well – zombies! Anyone who knows me knows the gnarled, gnashing teeth of the zombie subgenre sunk themselves into me from when I was just a wee lad – so to say it’s my favourite form of horror is an understatement.

As for this zombie film, for me it’s up there with Romero’s OG Dead trilogy – albeit with a fair bit of humour (and even more sloppy, slapstick gore) thrown in with the intestines.

With that in mind, just know that what you’re getting here will be an outrageously positive review. Fair warning: I’m revisiting this thing in 2023 purely through rose-tinted glasses. So, now you know what you’re getting, let’s kick off with this Braindead/Dead Alive review and summary.

We kick things off on Skull Island, as New Zealand zoologist Stewart McAlden (Bill Ralston) and his hired man flee down a rocky valley with a box. This, as we soon learn, contains the Sumatran Rat Monkey – a rare specimen enshrined in local lore. But not in a good way.

A tribe catches up with them, brandishing spears. And the Kiwi official – a pompous, officious, entitled man we swiftly don’t like – pulls out a machine gun, threatening to open fire on the local – in his eyes – ’savages’.

Stewart McAlden (Bill Ralston) and his hired man struggle to escape from the spears of the local tribe in Braindead 1992

A Kiwi zoologist finds himself at the pointy end of his journey.

The two get away with the monkey and into a jeep, before the official cops a bite on his hand. The locals in the jeep cotton on fast, and despite his protests ("there's some Dettol in the truck") they act even faster. McAlden's associates chop off his arm, before the wound – in a bloody scene foreshadowing the disgusting devastation to come – quickly spreads to the other arm. They chop off that, before a new indicator of infection pops up on the bloke’s forehead. A machete goes up; the opening credits come down.

Pretty soon, we’re in Welly – and boy, is it good to be back.

Trams shuffle through the streets sporting ads for teabags and biccies (ah, Griffins – how I miss thee) – as the truck ferrying the rat monkey to its destination lurches inexorably on. How good are these opening scenes – everything from the music, to the slow establishing of the Wellingtonian backdrop; a sleepy town going about its business with no idea of the doom about to descend on it.

Next, we get a look at our heroine, Paquita (Diana Peñalver), who’s infatuated with the local, smooth-talking butcher. Is that our hero? Nope – because, after a doom-laden tarot reading in the back, in walks Lionel (Tim Balme), picking up groceries for his mum. Clumsy, awkward, shy, Lionel spills some licorice. As it falls, it makes the symbol from the reading – Santa Maria – and we see from the intense look in Paquita’s eyes she recognises Lionel as her future lover. Misreading the advance, Lionel becomes terrified, and flees.

Back at his home, Jackson paints a picture of Lionel’s domestic life. He lives with his mum – the narcissistic, overbearing, and manipulative Vera (Elizabeth Moody). Fortunately, some respite arrives, as Paquita turns up and invites herself out for a date with the lad the next day, to visit the zoo. As we know, though, here’s where that rat monkey washed up – and that this sweet scene is going to end up in chaos.

It does! We get a couple of scenes at Wellington Zoo profiling the rat monkey – the product, we learn, of the rape of local monkeys by slave-ship rats – as it pulls off a regular monkey’s arm and eats it. (For all your eagle-eyed viewers out there, we also get a cameo from legendary science fiction magazine editor Forrest J Ackerman; keep your eyes peeled!)

Then, we see a jealous Vera – who snuck down to the zoo to spy – pulled against the cage and bitten. Hoo, wow. In the words of Fabrizio Romano: “Here we go!”

Spliced into this subplot is, of course, the budding romance between Lionel and Paquita. She turns up at his balcony that night and, though fear of his mama means he initially turns her down, they kiss passionately. Here, we get some neat intercuts between the tarot cards coming down, the couple getting off, and Vera lapsing feverishly into the early throes of the Sumatran infection. A big bit of pink goo splashes up out of the wound and onto an old picture of her husband. It rules.

The next morning, things are looking even more grim for Vera. She’s shaking, her wound is pulsating, she can barely speak – and her face is peeling off. She won’t, however, let that get in the way of the arrival of the Mathesons, from the WLWL (Wellington Ladies’ Welfare League). We’re then treated to a hilarious scene in which Vera mumbles and grates her way through lunch – gnawing on meat like an animal – before a truly harrowing scene involving a bowl of custard that really needs to be seen to be believed. Then, she eats Paquita’s dog.

From here, things start to tailspin. In the worst way for the film’s inhabitants; in the best way for us. Vera brutally kills the nurse, inserting her fingers into the latter’s cheeks in a way reminiscent of some of the dispatches in John Carpenter’s The Thing; Lionel grapples with his mother – and soon, the reanimated nurse – shoving them both into the cellar as Paquita, oblivious, gathers his mother’s things.

Later that night, Lionel sits, petrified, alone – with only the deranged howlings of the basement zombies for company. He buys some tranquilisers, and, bedecked in protective cricket pads, heads down. A goofy, gory scene proceeds (a needle is shoved through the nurse-zombie’s eye in a potential homage to that scene in Zombie Flesh Eaters; then up through the Vera-zombie’s nostril.

The zombified nurse from Braindead 1992 staring at the camera looking worse for wear

This nurse has seen better days.

We later see an increasingly wild-eyed and dishevelled looking Lionel visiting Paquita, where he receives an amulet of 'White Light' from her ma. Paquita – or anyone beyond the cellar – still doesn’t know about the burgeoning zombie apocalypse. How long can Lionel keep it under wraps?

Not long. Vera escapes, gets hit by a tram, and ends up crashing through the window of Paquita’s 7-Eleven. She’s pronounced ‘dead’, and a funeral takes place. There, we’re introduced to Lionel’s uncle, Les (Ian Watkin) – a sleazy character whose ill-fitting suit's buttons barely cover his sizable bulk.

As he’s oozing over Paquita at his sister’s graveside, we’re treated, in the embalming studio, to a different kind of ooze. It's Lionel: desperately trying to keep his zombified mother sedated before she’s delivered into the ground.

Visually, this scene is so much fun to look at: with its green glowing test tubes and Lionel – brandishing a syringe filled with goo – doing his best Herbest West impression from Stuart Gordon’s Reanimator. It’s a reminder that, before Peter Jackson become known for his big-budget Oscar-scraping blockbusters, he was just a dude with a talent for directing, and – first and foremost – a huge horror nerd.

These tributes to genre films of yore are scattered throughout Braindead; lovely to see.

Here, the film begins to pick up page. The funeral proceeds, with the sermon (topic: the sanctity of motherhood, of course) overlaid over Lionel breaking into Vera’s coffin to sedate her. The coffin comes crashing through into the chapel, with Lionel lying there, prostrated, next to his mother as the mourners look on. Yikes.

Lionel's zombified mum reaches up from her coffin to grab him by the throat in Braindead 1992

Funerals are difficult at the best of times.

Well anyway, she’s buried, and some passing comments from mourners tell us Lionel will be the sole beneficiary of his mother’s estate. A shot of Uncle Les, smoking a cigarette and chuckling evilly, tells us he may have other plans.

Cut to night, the graveyard, and Lionel – back, again, to keep his mum tranquilised – gets grabbed by a gang of greasers. (It’s the 50s, remember.) The leader, Void (Jed Brophy), begins to urinate on Vera’s grave – prompting Lionel to utter the brilliant line “that’s my mother you’re pissing on” – before we get an equally iconic scene. Vera’s charred, noisome arm reaching up, presumably ripping off the greaser’s bollocks before eviscerating him: leaving only a corpse with a hollowed-out ribcage in her wake.

The undead Vera promptly sets about goring the rest of the greaser gang, who summarily return as zombies. Things don’t look good for Lionel, until the priest, Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie), turns up: kung fu-ing the zombies and serving up one-liners such as “I kick ass for the Lord” and “this calls for divine intervention”.

They get the man of God eventually, though, and the poor priest ends up impaled on a gravestone; later, we see him with the rest of Lionel’s zombified charges in Lionel’s dining room. He attempts to feed them in a grotesque parody of a domestic scene.

Happy Families is interrupted, however, when Uncle Les turns up at the house to do some more oozing; making thinly-veiled threats and alluding to his exclusion from Vera’s Will. This back-and-forth is interrupted by a different kind of back and forth – the zombified priest and nurse fucking in the dining room. Lionel manages to get rid of Uncle Les, before – when Paquita confronts him outside the 7-Eleven – breaking up with her. The butcher we saw at the beginning comes over and punches him, taking Paquita away.

By this point, Lionel’s cellar is full of a growing number of rotting, walking corpses. Growing, because that unholy union earlier produced a love-child – a zombie baby.

A zombie baby! A zombie baby. Of course. We spend the next few minutes with Lionel as he takes the baby out for a walk in the local sun-drenched park: a Benny Hill-type chase scene ensuing as Lionel subdues the “hyperactive” baby while local mothers look on in horror.

The zombie baby cries in the park in Braindead 1992

It's a zombie. It's a baby. It's a zombie baby.

Returning home, Lionel finds his uncle waiting for him – Les has found the corpses, and blackmails Lionel for the house and cash he’s been bequeathed.

Les goes into party mode straight away and, as we enter the film’s final half an hour, revellers descend on Lionel’s home.

Let it all come down!

There’s one gatecrasher, though – Paquita, fresh from her date with the boring butcher, sees the lights and music and heads over. Finally, she discovers the basement full of zombies. It’s lovely to see them united again under this newfound shared knowledge of the unfolding apocalypse, and we also get Lionel dishing up what’s perhaps the movie’s most iconic line:

“They’re not dead, exactly. They’re just sort of…rotting.”

They bury the bodies, before Lionel ends up in a fistfight with Uncle Les, who – if we didn’t already know it – proves himself a truly reprehensible character. He utters some racist remarks, then drags Paquita into the laundry to try and rape her. Meanwhile, Lionel is dealing with his own issues, as her realises he’s been injecting his zombie pals not with with tranquiliser – but with animal stimulant(!)

They come bursting forth from their graves, set against a backdrop of Creepshow-esque blue-and-red light as the putrid peeps pursue Lionel up the cellar stairs. Clutching the amulet, trapped against the wall, Lionel’s saviour comes – a random reveller who happened to be in the right place at the right time. This soon becomes the wrong place, however, as the zombies knock down the door: first pinning him, before removing his ribcage sans fuss.

The zombies burst forth into the party. Faces are pulled unceremoniously off; throats have large, mouth-shaped chunks ripped out of them. The greaser has developed a penchant for the organ-removing game, and does it a few more times; the shindig unravels into a bedlam of blood and bile as the partygoers reanimate and turn upon each other in relentless waves of violence and cannibalism.

The zombie greaser Void (Jed Brophy) stares off after his next victim in Braindead 1992

The zombie greaser, Void: played with mindless malevolence by Jed Brophy.

It’s worth noting here that what makes Braindead such an impressive film is that it works as both comedy and horror. It’s a balance so many films (and few comedy horrors, bar Shaun of the Dead) get right. The gore here is over the top, excessive, comic – yet still damn frightening. Even when we get a cartoonish scene with Lionel – struggling to run on a floor so drenched in blood he can only jog in place; immobilised on the spot – we’re still terrified as we laugh. That’s a rare thing – and I bloody love this movie for it!

Anyways – away from the chaos, Lionel’s found himself in the attic. All film, he’s been experiencing intermittent visions of a woman, drowning. Now, poring over some hitherto unseen photographs, we see him begin to piece together the puzzle – the final part of which, it seems, is a skeleton lying in a box beneath the memorabilia. There’s no time to dwell on it, though – because the reanimated innards of the head greaser appears, and starts chasing Lionel through the upper reaches of his home.

Elsewhere, Les is loving living life – hacking zombies down in a mania of gore and gristle. We see him perched by a stack of zombified corpses, smoking a triumphant cigarette. Then, shortly after, running a zombie through a laundry mangler as its red contents come spilling out the aperture of its decapitated remains. Hehe. But of course, Les gets his just desserts. And, just after we see a mound of dirt in the basement rumbling ominously, we get a brilliantly slapstick (and again, Creepshow-inspired) shot of Les, lit from behind by neon purple, getting tapped on the shoulder by a large, clawed hand.

“Vera!” he cries. And yep, it’s his sis. Yet she perhaps takes Les’s earlier-stated maxim that “blood is thicker than water” too literally, picking him up by his head before separating his skeletal system from the rest. Adios, Les – we hardly knew ye.

Things aren’t looking too hot for Paquita: stranded in the lobby and surrounded by zombies. (By this stage, it’s well clear the zombies are of the Return of the Living Dead ilk – no simply ‘removing the head or destroying the brain’ here. Like the Deadites of the Evil Dead trilogy, only full bodily dismemberment will do.)

But of course, Lionel – now at the apotheosis of his transformation from repressed, socially awkward young man to bonafide hero – bursts through the front day, wielding a lawnmower. The comparisons here to Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn are obvious, so I want to give a shout out instead to how good Tim Balme is in the role of Lionel.

He does the bit with a perfect blend of vulnerability and determination, making his journey from a mama's boy to a zombie-fighting dynamo both believable and endearing. Balme's physical comedy skills are on full display, too, as he navigates the absurd challenges thrown his way – and the script’s intentionally exaggerated character development – with impeccable timing and commitment.

A blood-spattered Lionel gets ready to kill some more zombies in Braindead 1992

Party's over!

“Party’s over”, he quips, before cutting a bloody swathe through the zombie horde.

Apparently, Jackson and his crew chewed through a staggering 300 litres (79.2 gallons) of fake blood in this scene, and it shows.

In fact, the film set a record for the most fake blood ever used in a movie when it came out. That record stood for 21 years, until Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead (2013) remake broke it, with 70,000 gallons used in total (50,000 in the final scene alone).

Lionel stands in his living room holding a lawnmower he has repurposed as a zombie-killing tool in Braindead 1992

The party is, indeed, over.

Anyways, the zombies are finished, and – bar a last scare from the top half of that annoyingly persistent head greaser, and Paquita having to finish off a couple of stragglers in the kitchen – Les’s ill-fated housewarming is over.

But as Lionel points out, we “haven’t seen Mum yet”. She soon arrives, though – now mutated beyond all belief into a gargantuan, rat-like (and fully naked, with big drooping tits and ass) figure. The hideous thing pursues Lionel and Paquita to the roof, where he does something he’s been unable to do his entire life. He stands up to her – claiming she’s been feeding him lies as long as he’s lived, and that she murdered Lionel’s father and his lover, before stashing the body in the attic and covering the whole fiasco up.

Weirdly, the Vera-thing has recovered the part of its brain responsible for thought and coherent speech, and it retorts: admonishing Lionel, while a flashback shows us Vera drowning Lionel’s father in the bathtub as the poor boy, terrified and traumatised, looks on.

But back to the action. “No one will ever love you like your mother” the huge, hideous creature utters, as its belly opens into a Venus fly-trap-esque cavity and swallows Lionel whole. “Such a good boy” it bellows, as this film offers up yet another of its seemingly inexhaustible supply of quotes. But there’s another twist in the tale! Lionel uses Paquita's family amulet to saw his way out of the belly of the beast, as blood cascades down in droves. (Sorry, Fede; this one’s the OG!)

Paquita, covered in gore, screams after Lionel in Braindead 1992

Paquita: played with warmth and depth by Spanish actress Diana Peñalver.

Lionel emerges from the creature’s goo just in time to save Paquita as the house goes up in flames. The zombie baby, still animate, remains inside amongst the flames: its ultimate fate isn’t clear. Our heroes’, however, is – and they kiss, before walking off down the street as the credits roll.

Which leaves our fate – wrapping this Braindead review up in a neat bow. But how?

It’s fair to say that, in the pantheon of cult cinema, few films have left a mark as indelible and bizarre as this one. With its over-the-top gore, slapstick humour, and unapologetically outrageous premise, the film has secured a permanent spot in the hearts of genre enthusiasts and cult film aficionados alike.

Braindead takes the horror-comedy formula to grotesque new heights: showcasing Jackson's early penchant for imaginative storytelling and a gleeful indulgence in practical effects – yet also shining a light on the technical skill and filmmaking vision that would, in just over a decade’s time, book the Kiwi's place in directorial legend. The film exudes Jackson's trademark creativity and his ability to infuse even the most outrageous scenes with a sense of earnestness. While the camera work – coupled with the seamless integration and execution of practical effects – creates a visual feast that showcases his distinctive cinematic voice.

The movie also exhibits Jackson's fascination with grotesque creatures and nightmarish landscapes (selamat pagi, Sumatran Rat Monkey!). This abomination, in particular, embodies Jackson's willingness to explore the furthest corners of his imagination and transform his darkly whimsical ideas into tangible visuals.

Braindead’s practical effects, though, are the real stars here. Braindead revels in pushing the boundaries of gore, delivering scenes that are so over-the-top that they veer into the realm of dark comedy. The blood flows freely, often in gravity- and common-sense-defying fountains. It's a testament to Jackson's creativity that he manages to balance the film's absurdity with the effect works' meticulous attention to detail.

From pus-filled wounds to spurting arteries, the visual spectacle of carnage is a hallmark of the film's charm. Yet the film’s story – penned by Stephen Sinclair – retains an emotional resonance and reach that, 30 years (and counting) down the track, still hits home. Paquita's genuine belief in mysticism and her unwavering loyalty to Lionel, in particular, offer a counterbalance to the film's absurdity; grounding the whole thing's more egregious excesses in a solid semblance of emotional authenticity.

This, above all – not the gore, or the humour, or the horror, or even the Wellington setting that means so much to me – is what helps this film still stand up today. That beneath the dismembered body parts, the dislocated organs, or the vaguely anthropomorphic circulatory systems that come to life to attack the living, lies a different kind of heart.

A beautiful one!

Want more horror movie reviews – new, old, and legendary?

Check out my Malum (2023) review and summary, my Brooklyn 45 (2023) review, or a Talking Terror take on Talk to Me (2023).

And stay tuned – I'll be dropping fresh reviews and news every week, so don't go anywhere!

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