Underground Film Journal

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Movie Review: Brain Dead

By Mike Everleth ⋅ September 19, 2008

Green-faced zombie covered in blood

Hardly a scene goes by in Brain Dead without either some gratuitous gore or gratuitous nudity or a gratuitously bad joke. In other words, this movie totally rocks.

It’s directed by Kevin S. Tenney, a twenty-year horror film veteran, who’s probably most well known for his second film, 1988’s Night of the Demons, which I saw way back when. He’s made several films since then that I’m not familair with myself, so I don’t know what tone he’s developed over the years. But this one felt like a terrific modernized throwback to classic ’80s horror films, the type of film the teenage me would totally would have been totally out of my mind ecstatic for seeing in the theater like I did with Return of the Living Dead and Evil Dead II.

While not quite on the level of those two horror classics — and certainly not as dark as either of them — Brain Dead is the most good-natured horror film I’ve seen in a good long time. It lands somewhere in that horror-comedy mix, probably leaning more towards the comedy end of the spectrum because it never quite becomes terrifying. Tenney seems to be more intent on letting the audience have a good time rather than a frightening one. This type of approach towards horror is typically extremely hard to pull off, but Tenney is successful here through a laid-back, never-taking-itself-seriously approach to the material.

For example, while the movie is crammed full with groan-inducing wisecracks from the main character, Clarence (Joshua Barton), one never gets the sense that Tenney expects us to laugh at them. It’s almost like listening to an old vaudeville routine of stale old one-liners that are still amusing thanks to the pleasant nature of the comedian who’s just so happy to be able to put on a show that you can’t help but feel happy for him.

The plot and tone of the film is set-up in a snap. In the very opening scene, a thumbnail-sized meteor embeds itself into the skull of a fisherman who is immediately turned into a space zombie who tears the head of his fishing buddy right in half — all in its close-up and revolting detail.

Then, we’re introduced to a ridiculously large cast of cliché characters. Again, this is a plus for the film, not a detriment, that only ups the film’s fun quotient. There’s Clarence, the good guy who’s always wrongly in trouble with the law, who is handcuffed to a psychopathic killing machine, Bob (David Crane). Claudia Bush (Michelle Tomlinson) is a man-hating lesbian ill-fatedly paired up with her bubbly sorority sister Sherry (Sarah Grant Brendecke). And there’s also the “good” Reverend Farnsworth (Andy Forrest) who lusts after his hot, young assistant Amy (Cristina Tiberia). Plus, there are a few policemen and forest rangers thrown into the mix.

The ultimate goal is to get all these strangers to converge at a dilapidated cabin in the woods where the zombies — there’s more of them at this point — either try to turn them into more zombies or kill them and eat their brains. (An aside: In films like these, I never fail to feel sorry for the poor actors who are forced to munch on God-knows-what masquerading as human internal organs.)

One thing Tenney proves in this film is that one can make a successful zombie film without needing a rampaging horde of them. There’s never more than one or two zombies at a time menacing our main characters, yet there’s still the effective tension that one of them can pop out of anywhere and eat anybody. Also, surprisingly, when it comes time to explain the space zombie’s origin so that our heroes can defeat it once and for all, the scientific reasoning behind it actually comes across as very plausable and believable.

Well, that’s a lot of writing for a film that can basically be distilled down to a simple one-liner: Brain Dead is a real hoot and a half.

(This film was sent to the Underground Film Journal as a screener from the 2008 Spooky Movie Film Festival, Washington, D.C.’s horror film festival, which runs this year Oct. 16-20.)

Watch the Brain Dead movie trailer: