Brain Dead (1990) – Blu-Ray Review

Disclaimer: this is not about the much-beloved Peter Jackson film Braindead, or Dead Alive as it was retitled in the US on its release in 1992, but the 1990 film directed by Alan Simon. This film is based on an old Charles Beaumont script called Paranoia, written for Roger Corman back in the ’60s. The script lay dormant for years until Julie Corman got some interns to go through a room of old scripts and see if anything was worth pursuing as a new film. Beaumont was a writer of pulpy sci-fi short stories in the ’50s, often published in Playboy, but he is best known for writing nearly two dozen episodes of The Twilight Zone and for his involvement some of Roger Corman’s best films, including The Intruder and The Masque of the Red Death.

Brain Dead is basically a Twilight Zone episode dragged out to 82 minutes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: one of the main criticisms of one of my favourite films, Secondsis exactly that, but for two hours. Both of those films are about corporate malpractice with a big twist ending, although the twist in Brain Dead is pretty damn obvious from the get-go, and doesn’t have the shock value of the climax of Seconds.

Bill Pullman plays Dr. Rex Martin who is a top neurosurgeon. Former high-school buddy Jim Reston (Bill Paxton), who is now a corporate suit, asks Martin for his assistance to study former employee John Halsey (Bud Cort), who was once a brilliant mathematician but has since gone crazy. You see where the film is headed pretty quick, but it has a dreamlike narrative that is very appealing, even if the final twist has been done a 1000 times before, and better. The film also has some pretty gruesome scenes involving open surgery on brains, as you would want from a film called BRAIN DEAD, so gore-hounds might enjoy that.

The best thing about the film is probably the cast, Bill Pullman was just beginning his career after leads in Spaceballs and The Serpent and the Rainbow, and pulls off the nerdy surgeon role surprisingly well. Paxton, who is also enjoyable, has fun with his slicked-up corporate shill role. Bud Cort struggled in his career for the longest time after his 1979 car accident, and is having a blast playing this paranoid psychotic. The rest of the cast are all good character actors: Nicholas Pryor, George Kennedy and Desert Hearts‘ Patricia Charbonneau. It’s a decent paranoid sci-fi horror with a nice surreal edge, so even if the film isn’t completely satisfying, it’s worth checking out.

101 Films has put together a nice package for their fantastic Black Label range. It includes a new documentary on the film, a new interview with director Alan Simon, an audio commentary with co-writer/director Adam Simon and filmmaker Rodman Flender, deleted scenes and the trailer. It comes from a new 2K scan, and the booklet includes the essays “A Dimension of Mind” by Sean Hogan and “Evil Brains from the Movies” by Barry Forshaw. 

★★★

Ian Schultz

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