I think I was a freshman in high school the first time I saw Dead Alive (aka Braindead), which I blindly rented on a Saturday night with my one of my best friends Frank because we were both drawn in by the box art, the critic's quote promising "the goriest fright film of all time" and the fact that the movie was unrated, promising us we would see some shit. We were not disappointed. By the time the movie reached its insanely bloody climax, neither of us could believe what we were seeing. We laughed at every gore gag, floored by the movie's ability to top itself. It ended and something had chemically changed inside me. I had climbed my Everest and fallen in love with its peak. For years later, it was go-to movie when initiating friends -- if they could handle Dead Alive, I knew they were people I wanted to be around. To this day it remains one of the best horror comedies of all time and the best splatter movie every made, hands down.
It also introduced me to Peter Jackson, sending me down a rabbit hole to discover everything I could about the insane genius who had unleashed Lionel and Vera and the Sumatran rat monkey on the world. This was in the days before the internet, meaning I couldn't just Google him or type his name into IMDb. There weren't yet books written about him. What there was, if memory serves, was a brief mention in the pages of Premiere magazine talking about his next project (which would end up being Heavenly Creatures, though I'm not sure if that was mentioned by name or if my memory is playing tricks on me). This is where I learned about the likes of both Meet the Feebles and, more importantly, Bad Taste -- Jackson's debut feature and the subject of today's Friday First.
There's not so much a story as there is a premise: aliens have invaded a New Zealand town to harvest mankind for their own line of fast food. A government organization dispatches four agents to stop them, including Derek (Jackson), who takes a nasty fall off a cliff early on and is presumed dead by his friends.
A Fistful of Fingers (the first Friday First column) just as it's true of Martin Scorsese's Who's That Knocking at My Door? and Wes Craven's Last House on the Left and Spike Lee's She's Gotta Have It just as it's true here.
What Jackson starts here -- and what he would perfect just a few years later in Dead Alive -- seems so obvious that you can't believe no one had already done it, combining the insane gore of Herschell Gordon Lewis with the energy and humor of early Sam Raimi. To be fair, Jackson wasn't exactly the first, as there are elements of what he did in Bad Taste in everything from Basket Case to Re-Animator. He's not inventing splat-stick (a term I've heard credited to Jackson himself), but he's clearly on his way to perfecting it. There's something about gore that's completely outrageous that makes us laugh instinctively, either out of shock or as a way of protecting ourselves from our own fears of what can possibly be done to deface and dismember the human body. Conversely, the fact that so much of the violence is played for laughs makes it easier to accept. When a soldier tries stuffing his organs back into his body during the D-Day sequence of Saving Private Ryan, it's tragic and horrifying. When Derek continually shoves pieces of his brain back into his head or pushes down the flap of skull that keeps coming loose, it's hilarious. The tone of the approach is everything, and Jackson understands that to carve out his place as the master of this very specific and narrow subgenre he's got to push the humor of disgusting gore further than anyone.
There is a cleverness to Bad Taste that also marks Jackson's work. That might seem like an odd word to describe a film with this silly a plot, this many goofy jokes and exploding sheep, but that's all the kind of stuff that only works when made with intelligence. Truly dumb filmmakers can't do dumb well. In Bad Taste, the cleverness reveals itself in the timing and staging of the gags, or in the way Jackson fights himself early in the film (Derek versus Robert; bearded Jackson versus beardless Jackson) or in Jackson gets around having to build a spaceship on his budget by making the house the ship. Smart choices and clever staging would carry all the way through his LotR trilogy, which is maybe most clever for the way it blends CG and practical effects.
Which brings me to the question I've been trying to avoid: what happened? King Kong was over a decade ago now and is the last good movie we've had from Peter Jackson (and yes, I know many would disagree with me on even that point). He's been stuck in a Hobbit cage for the last four years and recently admitted that he made a lot of mistakes with the second trilogy, including breaking up one film into two to buy himself more time. Even before that, though, he made The Lovely Bones, as disastrous as big-budget Hollywood dramas get, though it is, in the words of Roger Ebert (referring to someone else) the kind of bad movie only a great filmmaker makes. Has his interest in pushing technology forward -- I'm looking at you, 48fps -- replaced his ability to tell a story? The blood in his movies -- not the blood on screen, but the life blood pumping through the films themselves -- has been replaced by 1s and 0s.
I've never missed Peter Jackson more than on this rewatch of Bad Taste, a charming and delightfully offbeat reminder not just of who PJ used to be as a filmmaker but of all the potential that once laid before him. Don't get me wrong; I would never argue that he did not reach that potential and make the most of it. But it feels now like his wax wings have long since melted, flop sweat accumulating movie after movie. I think we'll see him return to form someday. From spending four years making his first movie to tackling what is arguably the most ambitious film trilogy of all time, he's never been one to run from a challenge.
Derricks never run.