Monday 28 February 2011

#8 Braindead: Gore! (Huh!) What Is It Good For?

Hello again. Before you read this blog, a couple of bits of zombie-related news you might enjoy.
Firstly, the good people at Whippersnapper Press have just posted my story of zombies and travel insurance, Recorded For Training Purposes.

The Whippersnapper was also responsible for a rather brilliant evening of poetry and stand up a couple of weeks ago. They plan to repeat this with a Vogon Poetry Slam on the 25th of May in London, to observe the twin geek holidays of Geek Pride Day (marking the anniversary of the release of Star Wars) and Towel Day (commemorating Douglas Adams). Come along to enjoy poetry from the geeky, to the competitively awful. Providing the Earth isn’t destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass in the mean time.

Anyway, now for something a bit more on topic. This contains spoilers, and some really gross bits:

This week we’re going to be taking about Peter Jackson’s Braindead, known as Dead Alive in the States, but we’re not going to use that title because it sounds like it was thought up by Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein monster.

These days, Peter Jackson is best known for massive, three-hour long CGI-filled epics. However, he started out with nothing but a shoestring budget and an imagination that must have made his parents very concerned as he grew up. It’s a little known fact (little know because I just made it up) that before Peter Jackson was signed on to direct some of Hollywood’s big budget tent pole movies, he was made to sign a contract saying he wouldn’t blow the SFX budget on showing a man being eaten alive by giant, toothy, CGI sphincters.

Nobody tells Peter Jackson what Peter Jackson can’t do.
I have just re-watched Braindead, and it is by far the grossest, goriest zombie movie I have ever seen. I made the foolish mistake of eating lunch beforehand, and I nearly lost it no less than three times.

Now gore is pretty much the stock in trade of the zombie movie. Night of the Living Dead might seem pretty tame by modern standards, but at the time it was incredibly shocking (although this didn’t stop people taking their kids to see it). Whether it’s the classic Death Becomes Her shot in Shaun of the Dead, or Jim gauging out the eyes of one of the soldiers in 28 Days Later, there’s going to be some sort of splatter in whatever zombie movie you happen to be watching.

But when talking about zombie movies in any critical way, the gore tends to get brushed aside (even if it leaves a sticky patch). Night of the Living Dead is about Vietnam, Dawn of the Dead is about consumerism, Shaun of the Dead is about Shaun’s relationship problems. It’s easy to talk about all these films and forget what they actually spend the majority of their special effects budget on.

So, to return to the awesome pun I made in the title of this blog entry- what is gore good for?

Look Mummy! I made a satire!
Well, firstly, as I said last week, zombie movies aren’t just extremely violent- they’re often about violence- and a natural consequence of extreme violence tends to be gore. Personally, I find a bit of gratuitous splatter preferable to the weirdly bloodless gun fights you’d see in old Westerns or Bond movies.

Zombie movies aren’t just about violence though. This might shock you, but if you look at the names of the works that we’ve reviewed so far in this blog, there’s one word that keeps popping up in the title.

Go on, have a look, see if you can spot it...

Figured it out yet?

It’s the word “Dead”. Weird huh? It’s almost like death is somehow a recurring theme in these movies. The zombie, with its slow, clumsy but inevitable approach is a great metaphor for death. We fear becoming zombies because it means a loss of identity, it means becoming a merciless, constantly hungry killing machine and a danger to all those who you once loved. But we also fear it because becoming a zombie means you’ll look really gross.

So on that note, let’s start talking about old people. In Braindead (See? I hadn’t forgotten) the first person to succumb to the bite of the Sumatran Rat Monkey is the mother of Lionel, the main character. Before she starts to crave human flesh it’s made clear she’s already far from a positive influence in Lionel’s life, she’s clingy, possessive and jealous, actively trying to obstruct Lionel’s budding romance.

And once she’s bitten, she actually becomes more vulnerable. Her ability to speak is impaired, her hands become stiff and unresponsive, and her skin has to be literally glued onto her face to stop it peeling off. But just as Shaun and Ed see a zombie and immediately conclude that she must be pissed, when the president of the Women’s institute pays a visit she looks at Lionel’s mother and sees her as someone who’s a bit senile. It’s a parody of old age, and our fear for Lionel isn’t that he’s going to be eaten, but that he’s going to be stuck looking after his zombified mother, old, gross-looking, but basically immortal, at the expense of any chance of a life of his own.

When the Lionel’s zombified mother finally breaks loose and goes on a killing spree it actually drives this point home. In a desperate bid to cover up his mother’s condition, Lionel ends up bringing all her zombified victims back home, feeding them, cleaning them, and keeping them doped up on tranquilisers and as they decompose around him.

Zombies also love Countdown
There’s more to the gore in this movie than Peter Jackson exorcising his fear of having to care for elderly relatives however. One of the earlier and more revolting parts of the film shows Lionel’s mother slowly crushing the rat monkey’s skull beneath her heel after it bites her. Here it’s important that the camera lingers on the rat, sees its eyes bulging out of its skull, and the look of satisfaction on Lionel’s mother’s face. The rat monkey has already been built up as a horrible, unpleasant monster, with a back story involving the slave trade, interspecies rape and black magic. This scene is purpose built to drive home the fact that Lionel’s mother is far worse than any of that.

In Braindead, your innards are Peter Jackson’s paintbrush, and he finds no end of imaginative and bizarre ways to apply it to the canvas. In this movie a dead baby crawls up inside a woman’s skull, sticks his arms out of her ears and rips her face open. In one scene, Lionel is unable to flee from a horde of approaching zombies because the floor is too slippery with blood- he gets to safety using dismembered limbs and heads as stepping stones. At one point he has to fight off being strangled by an animated intestinal tract (Peter Jackson doesn’t give a flat fuck for the Romero Rules), which then somehow manages to appear to begging for mercy before it is vaporised by a lawnmower.

What do you mean it’s not cute?
And while I’m at it, seeing Lionel literally mow down a horde of zombies is one of the most awesome scenes of zombie slaughter in movie history. The gore in the grand, blood-soaked finale of the movie is less a grim parody of human mortality than a piece of gleeful slapstick. Jackson is positively revelling in it.

The trouble is, if you hate gore (Like certain more wussy bloggers I won't name) it’s very hard to look past that first visceral reaction to see how the gore is being used. In Braindead we see gore being used as a metaphor for our fears about old age and mortality, as the basis for a huge, elaborate slapstick routine, leading up to a scene where Peter Jackson shows us that subtext is for pussies by having an old lady literally drags her son back into her foul, rotting womb.

Pictured: Subtlety
So, there’s a lot to be said for becoming desensitised to violence.

Okay, time for the drinking game. Strict interpretations this week, as there were complaints last week that I was being a bit too lenient (Okay, they didn’t spend most of Shaun of the Dead actually in the Winchester, but I still say the Winchester was a big enough character in the story to justify the shot). So this week you only get to drink for mankind being the real monster (Lionel’s uncle and mother are both pretty horrid before they’re zombified), for the zombies being walking dead (One shot) who move slowly (One shot) and then another two drinks for the zombified baby (My favourite character in the whole film).

Now if there’s one complaint often levelled at bloggers who write about zombies (You know who you are!) it’s that it’s easy for us to judge while we’re ensconced safely behind our laptops, but that we never get out in the field and report from where the story is.

Well, to silence the complaining types, next week I will be doing just that, reporting from the front line of the Zombie LARP!

In the meantime, game organiser and award winning journalist Mary Hamilton recently gave a talk alongside the likes of Tim Kring and Graham Lineham at The Story conference. You can read her insights here.

Now get out of here. You sicken me.

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