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Peter Jackson and the bad taste of 'Braindead'

The notion of ‘taste’ is rooted in social history, a way for class groups to rudimentarily set themselves apart from one another. This self-evident in the audience of heavy metal vs classical music, an Oscar-winning period drama vs a gory ‘splatstick’ horror. The rebellious nature of the mid-to-late 20th-century teenager sought to expose these cultural constraints, deviating from the social norms to embrace the very depths of ‘bad taste’. 

This cultural deviance works to explain the upsurge in commercial horror of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, with franchises like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy and George A. Romero’s ‘Trilogy of the Dead’, fully aware of their active teenage audience thirsty for gore. Simultaneously, whilst yet unknown, New-Zealand born director, Peter Jackson, embraced all that the teenage population epitomized, releasing his debut film Bad Taste in 1987. Jackson continued to foray in the realm of bad taste to create a trilogy of horror, releasing a filthy vision of the ‘Muppets’ in 1989’s Meet the Feebles and shortly after, Braindead in 1991. A film, which as author Geoff Mayer noted, was “to take the splatter subgenre of horror to a point of implosion”.

The film follows Lionel and his mother, Vera, who soon becomes a victim of the ‘Sumatran Rat Monkey’ and physically decays until she is reborn as a zombie, infecting the town around her. Possessing a homemade aesthetic of rubber props, thick exaggerated blood and theatrical performances, this culminates in the film’s conclusion, described by author Mark Jancovich as a “thirty-minute non-stop parade of zombie dismemberment”. 

Braindead’s camp tone spins the genre on its head, experimenting with playful, unprecedented freedoms, the conventions of the zombie sub-genre. The film works as a comedic counterweight to the darker tones of classic gore horror, parodying the anatomy of the zombie, their bodies as fragile and as light as ‘playdough’, as they hurl out the window, fly over-head and are impaled by a human fist.

Jackson takes the once ‘serious’, deadly zombies of canonical film past, and re-appropriates them to a new camp context. Taking their once blood-thirsty heads and turning them into water balloons of blood, guts and pus. The scary becomes funny, and gore becomes an enjoyable by-product of this, as audiences revel, as appose to squirm, at the sight of gushing wounds and gooey eyeballs. 

Braindead presents itself as a rebellious taboo-busting teenager on the borderlands of society, eager to upset the cultural norms and likely the tastes of its social ‘superiors’. The film’s original trailer supports this idea, actively challenging this conflict of tastes, mocking the ‘good taste’ of ‘proper’ society with half the screen being covered by innocent, frolicking lambs and the other, with gruesome film footage. The trailer, encouraging only those who ‘enjoy a good, broadminded laugh’ to watch on, creating a literal barrier between the two ‘fields’ of taste.

Jackson’s lack of involvement with big studio constraints meant that he could make a film for this sub-culture of bad taste with fewer strings attached, As a result, Braindead captures this blasé attitude for the serious, as well a total adoration for the fun and the frivolous, reflecting the mindset of an early ’90s youth, rejecting social norms and embracing individuality. 

Watch Jackson’s 1991 film in full, below.