GORE IN THE STORE
BRAIN DEAD ***.
Directed by Adam Simon.
Starring Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, Bud Cort, Nicholas Pryor, George Kennedy, Patricia Charbonneau.
Horror/Sci-Fi, USA, 85 mins, cert 15.
Released in the UK on Limited Edition Blu-ray by 101 Films on 28th September 2020.
You have to hand it to 101 Films as their dedication to bringing cult gems that you may have forgotten about back to life with their Black Label releases has been impressive so far. Yes, not every title has been a five-star corker but they all have that certain something, that indefinable ingredient that makes each title worthy of bearing the Black Label name.
BRAIN DEAD (not the Peter Jackson zombie movie) may not be an instantly recognisable title to most but if you hung around the now-fetishised video shop in the early 1990s then you very likely saw the poster for this movie, which basically shows the skin of somebody’s face stretched out and pinned to a metal ring. A startling image and one that sets a tone for the movie that it advertises, or at least, it’s the marketing exec’s idea of how to promote the movie by showing probably the most surreal image from the film, although that particular scene is very near to the beginning of the film and doesn’t really have a lot to do with the rest of the story.
What does have a lot to do with the story is Dr. Rex Martin, played by face-puller extraordinaire Bill Pullman, a man who constantly looks like he is holding in a potentially troublesome fart. Martin is a neurosurgeon who is approached by his friend Jim Reston (Bill Paxton – ALIENS), a man so dead behind the eyes it appears it is only his corporate aspirations keeping him going, to delve into the brain of an institutionalised mathematician named Halsey (Bud Cort – HEAT) in order to obtain some valuable information that only Halsey knows. Martin agrees but once he is exposed to Halsey’s brain the brilliant doctor cannot tell reality from illusion in a nightmare that doesn’t seem to end.
It is a plot we’ve seen before in countless horror and sci-fi movies and TV shows, and it probably wouldn’t surprise anybody that BRAIN DEAD is based on a story by TWILIGHT ZONE contributor Charles Beaumont because the film does feel like an extended episode from that show, and director Adam Simon goes into a lot of detail about how the film came to be in the extensive documentary in the special features. Bill Pullman gurns a lot and looks troubled like he does in every film he is in as Rex Martin begins to see visions of a man in a white suit spattered with blood who begins to follow him wherever he goes – is he real or is he a part of Halsey’s memory? Is Halsey real or is he a figment of Rex’s imagination? Where does Jim Reston really fit into all this? And is he really banging Rex’s wife? Seems a complicated way to go about it if that’s all he wants...
Yeah, BRAIN DEAD is hardly original when it comes to a story and Bill Pullman, despite what are probably his best efforts, just doesn’t have enough presence or charisma to make you want to care what happens to Rex, a character so one dimensional and unappealing that it could actually be seen as an inspired piece of casting. However, despite the creeping tedium of Bill Pullman BRAIN DEAD is carried along quite swiftly thanks to another winning performance from Bill Paxton, who could play a sleazy money-man like nobody else and completely steals every scene he is in. Nicholas Pryor (DAMIEN: OMEN II) plays the man in the white suit (amongst other characters) and also brings a sense of fun to the plot, switching from maniacal laughing to deadly serious exposition delivery in the blink of an eye, adding the necessary confusion to proceedings and succeeding in making Bill Pullman hold that fart in a lot longer than he really should judging by the pained expression he has whenever the two meet.
In keeping with their Black Label mission statement, BRAIN DEAD deserves to be in 101 Films’ catalogue of bizarre sci-fi/horror titles alongside the likes of SCREAMERS, SPLIT SECOND and EXISTENZ as a movie from a specific time that will appeal to a certain audience. If truth be told it isn’t a great movie; in fact, it is quite bland and repetitive when put up against the much more exciting mind control thrills of TOTAL RECALL or the waking nightmare of JACOB’S LADDER but if you were on a marathon of split-identity thrillers or surreal sci-fi horrors then BRAIN DEAD is certainly the lesser of the other titles mentioned but it does have the necessary cult appeal to make it worth a watch. Probably only once, granted, but worth a watch nevertheless.