Splatter and Society: Braindead and Killer Condom in context

A common reaction to Peter Jackson’s Braindead (New Zealand, 1992) is to praise the film for the fact that it has everything. Despite occasionally obvious budget constraints, the iconoclastic exuberance of this movie shows clearly that this is the zombie film that Jackson always wanted to make. Farrah Anwar, reviewing for Sight and Sound, lists almost reverentially the film’s many generic borrowings, twists and turns and odd juxtapositions whilst bemoaning that after this film there is no chance of reclaiming or reinvestigating zombie mythology for serious or scary exposition, since this, the Evil Dead cycle and Return of the Living Dead place zombies firmly in the realm of the comic. ((Farrah Anwar, “Braindead” in Sight and Sound 1993 33 (6), pp48-9)) For Jackson, Braindead marks a turning point in his career: it is the final film in his trilogy of low culture splatter films—Bad Taste (New Zealand, 1987), Meet the Feebles (New Zealand, 1989) and finishing with Braindead—which brought his work to critical acclaim in cult circles around the world. Jackson subsequently turned to making movies for the arthouse circuit with Heavenly Creatures (New Zealand, 1994), for Hollywood with The Frighteners (America, 1996) before undertaking one of the most famous and ambitious movie projects of all time, the Lord of the Rings cycle.

Braindead is the clear result of a steep learning curve from his first picture, Bad Taste, which Jackson initially financed himself, and shot at weekends over a three year period. Showing the rushes to Jim Booth of the New Zealand Film Council resulted in a grant to “finish the shoot, blow it up to 35mm format and do postproduction”. ((Don Groves, “Strained relations for NZFC” in Variety, 13 x 1997)) Bad Taste suffers from the circumstances of its production: the film is badly paced and barely narratively coherent, trading entirely on set piece gross out humour. But it is exactly those gross out scenes that provide it with its word-of-mouth notoriety: I first started watching Jackson films after an awestruck Australian friend recounted one such scene where a rocket launcher misses its target and explodes a sheep on a hillside, to riotous applause from antipodean audiences. And it is those gross out scenes produced to such effect with so small a budget that marked Jackson as a horror auteur, and resulted in Bad Taste being shown at the Cannes film festival ((according to IMDB biography at http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Jackson,+Peter . The jacket of the 1998 video released through 4front only refers to Bad Taste winning the Gore Award of the 17th Paris Festival of Fantasy and Sci Fi)) to wide acclaim from genre fans. This in turn opened the door to further funding from the NZFC for Jackson’s next two films.

With a larger budget, Meet the Feebles and Braindead retain much of the shocking gross-out quality of Bad Taste but are able to provide consistently higher quality production values. Feebles is a unique filmic experience: puppets have never been used to such effect before or since. Catapulting the zany humour and anthropomorphised animals of Jim Hensen’s Muppets into a dark, adult world of sleaze, sex and substance abuse, the jaw-dropping crunch of genres keeps the viewer on edge throughout. The film mercilessly showcases many of the unsavoury and downright criminal activities on the periphery of showbusiness, and in doing so, borrows from a wide range of film genre. Take Heidi, the prima donna hippo songstress with a weight problem and an eating disorder, whose black and white flashback early days recall the initial love affair between herself and her current manager. The underground nightclub/music business flashback references countless Hollywood backstage and mob movies from the classic era. The film later shows her manager, a walrus with the revolting name Bletch, to be running a mafia sponsored drugs empire; and it is his affair with a stockings-and-suspenders-clad Siamese cat / sex-kitten crossover that launches the film’s dénouement, as jilted machine-gun-toting Heidi (“400 pounds of repressed hippo passion” as the box cover describes it) annihilates her colleagues with rapid fire. The setting easily allows the Feebles to satirise the entire musical genre, in particular through a chorus number paean to sodomy complete with giant phalluses, and sub plot charting an ingénou hedgehog on his first, eye-opening steps in the business. And of course the show repeatedly references the Muppets, except these puppets not only behave in a way the innocent Muppets never did, they are also revealed to have bodily floods, diseases and viscera. Dylan, the sex-crazed rabbit, enjoys untrammelled promiscuity in his dressing room before falling victim to the graphically portrayed dual threats of a venereal disease and tabloid journalism, the latter represented by a fly-reporter who literally lives on dung. But Jackson also takes the Feebles through a set of genres that fit less easily, most notably the Deerhunter parody, which probably gave rise to the fake working title of Frogs of War. Whilst Kermit the Frog had nothing more troubling to fight off than Miss Piggy, the frog in the Feebles is addicted to narcotics in an attempt to obliterate from his mind the horrors of Vietnam. And the flashback shows us just what those horrors were, including subtitled Vietnamese frogs debating the merits of capitalism.

Anwar, reviewing Braindead for Sight and Sound said “it’s impossible to imagine anyone out-grossing [Jackson’s] effort”. It’s equally impossible to imagine how Jackson was able to top Meet the Feebles—you have to see Braindead to believe it. Braindead takes everything Jackson has learned in Feebles and Bad Taste about gore on a budget and puts it to the most effective use possible. Where Feebles had a contemporary setting, Braindead takes us back to a lovingly reproduced 1950s Wellington complete with vintage cars, trams, costumes and social mores. Actually arguably more restrained than Feebles, particularly in its visual style, Braindead relies on a not-quite-sepia historic look and feel, whilst the Feebles’ theatricality gives it a lurid multi-coloured neon edge. We do, however, know from the start that this is no rose-tinted sepia costume drama in the shock pre-titles cameo from Jackson, on “Skull Island, south-west of Sumatra” (where sixty years earlier King Kong was caught ((P Rouyer, “Braindead” in Positif, 1993 385, p41)) ) capturing the Sumatran rat-monkey whose later ill-fated presence at the zoo is the precursor to the gruesome events of the film. Jackson’s cameo in the pre-titles is neither his only cameo in this film (he also features as the mortician’s assistant after one of Mother’s (Elizabeth Moody) more public deaths) or in his others. Following in the shoes of Alfred Hitchcock, Jackson has either cameo or main roles in all of his films, with the obvious exception of Meet the Feebles. Braindead borrows more than its cameos from Hitchcock: there are other parallels to Psycho (America, 1960). In Braindead the domineering mother-figure has a rather more literal post-mortem effect on her emasculated son; and the opening shots of Mother’s colonial-style turreted house set high on a hill top also recall the now legendary setting of the Bates Motel.

Braindead is all about Mother stunting Lionel’s (Timothy Balme) emotional life: the events of the entire film can be read as an archetypal battle between Mother and Wife (Paquita, Diana Pañalver). Mother is only infected in the first place because she follows her son on a date to the zoo where the rat monkey is kept. Her injury at the mouth of the monkey, allows her to reassert the moral authority and, both pride and arm injured, allow Lionel to lead her home. Never mind the fact that she shows herself quite capable of dealing with the monkey in the most brutal way, she needs her son. Poor Lionel can only gaze over his shoulder at his abandoned new girlfriend as Mother triumphs. His dressing-down at home is a triumph performance for Moody who runs the full range of emotional blackmail and plain prejudice whilst she explains that Paquita is no good for him because she’s both an “oily shopgirl” and “experienced”. But Paquita is also motivated by an all-powerful matriarch—in her case, her grandmother backed up by the force of Tarot cards. The ensuing balcony scene counterpoints exquisitely Lionel and Paquita arguing, parting, reconciling and making love, with Mother’s wound pulsating and Paquita’s grandmother laying down increasingly negative cards. In a series of cuts homaging the famously gruesome sex scene of Delicatessen (Jeunet and Caro, France, 1991) the three scenes cut across each other with increasing speed, simulating impending orgasm until Lionel and Paquita finish, Grandmother plays the ‘Death’ card, and Mother’s wound ejaculates pus onto a photograph of her late husband on her nightstand. This short scene is the key to the plot of the entire film. Paquita’s grandmother’s cards’ suggestion that ‘Death surrounds’ Lionel leads her to give him the cross/crescent pendant that saves his life in the final scene; keeping the Lionel/Paquita relationship alive despite the odds is the key overriding plot; the knowing insertion of Lionel’s father here foreshadows Lionel’s discovery in the attic of the remains of his father and his lover, and his recovery of the repressed memory of his mother murdering them both in the bath. Mother’s wound, of course, leads to filling Lionel’s house with zombies.

Zombification in the world of Braindead occurs as a result of a bite from the Sumatran Rat Monkey or from contact with another zombie. There is little doubt that the rat monkey is the harbinger of doom. The men who collect the monkey from the Sumatran island know of its power and are prepared to remove, forcibly and immediately, any limb that has suffered a monkey bite. Anyone unfortunate enough to receive a wound to the head, as the character played by Jackson is, is beheaded rather than face the risk of allowing the wound to take hold. And with good reason, as we discover in the film proper the consequences of allowing a wound to run its course of infection. The immediate reaction to Mother being bitten by the monkey now residing in Wellington Zoo is her scream. (Lionel’s immediate response to his mother’s scream in the zoo—“Mum?”—foreshadows a later visual gag in which Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) immediately recognises the hideously deformed enormous monster that erupts from its burial place in Lionel’s cellar—“Vera?”.) Mother’s intemperate response to being bitten by the fiendish claymation rat monkey is entirely typical: she squashes it beneath her heel. The progress of the infection is a slow decline: the infected bite takes over her arm, but doesn’t actually kill her until she has had time to embarrass herself before the austere leader of the Wellington Ladies Welfare League and her henpecked husband. If in Mother’s case, death and resurrection are slow, it’s almost an instant process with Nurse MacTavish, who Mother kills as her first zombie act, and thereafter, all new zombie infections are as quick. Zombies in movies have come a long way from those of Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, America, 1968): slow, almost sleepwalking men, women and children with an insatiable urge for human flesh their only motivation. As William Paul points out, Romero’s zombies, whilst very familiar, are a departure from the original zombie mythology in that

they seem a rough combination of zombie, werewolf and vampire: they exist in a net her world between life and death like zombies, they devour like werewolves, and they communicate their disease by biting like vampires. ((William Paul, Laughing Screaming, (New York, 1994) p263))

Jackson’s zombies borrow much from Romero’s zombies in that they too are undead, insatiable and highly infectious, but as Barry Keith Grant notes,

the story reverses the premise of Night of the Living Dead in that […] Lionel must prevent the zombies from leaving his basement rather than from entering ((Barry Keith Grant, “Dead Alive (aka Braindead)”, extract from Barry Keith Grant, A Cultural Assault: the New Zealand Films of Peter Jackson, (Nottingham, 1999), as reprinted at http://www.screamtelevision.ca/essays/dead_alive_essay.htm ))

But they also borrow a new sense of purpose from Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead. Anwar points out that Braindead “owes a heavy debt to Raimi” in that both Raimi and Jackson use their zombies for comic set pieces rather than establishing a sinister mood. ((Farrah Anwar, “Braindead” in Sight and Sound 1993 33 (6), pp48-9))

What makes Jackson’s zombies different is there new sense of zombie society. Romero’s zombies were animalistic: although there were a great variety of people in the zombie mass, they did not retain any individuation. Raimi’s zombies bear only a passing physical resemblance to the people they were and assume the characters of the centuries-old malevolent spirits they become. But Jackson’s zombies retain elements of the characters they were before their change: Mother remains matriarch, the kung fu vicar Father McGruder channels his energy into copulation with Nurse McTavish, the Teddy boys remain bullies—indeed Vince, the lead Ted has such a death wish for Lionel he continues despite the complete annihilation of his body. Fortified by the “Poison” which turns out to be “animal [and zombie] stimulant” (a visual gag excellently pastiched in South Park ((Trey Parker, Matt Stone, South Park, cult cartoon series)) where dead Kenny is turned into a zombie by a bottle of Worcester Sauce, rotated to show the warning “Not to be used as embalming fluid”) chopping him in half only leads to having two half-bodies with Lionel as a target. One of the most revolting scenes of the movie is the spectacle of Vince’s persistent but disembodied digestive system working independently in an attempt to throttle Lionel as he hangs from a light cord. Braindead’s undead are not Night of the Living Dead’s seething, animalistic mass or Evil Dead’s grotesque reincarnated spirits, rather they are individual characters, and from this fact the film derives much of its humour. An insatiable priest, a nurse and a Teddy boy sitting down to eat together could be a source of humour even if they weren’t zombies. Added to that is Lionel’s unorthodox response to the zombie menace: embarrassment rather than horror ((Anwar)) : at all costs, the neighbours must not find out about the zombies in the cellar. Both point to the film’s key element of “satire about the repressed suburban middle-class world in which story-writer Stephen Sinclair grew up” ((Grant)) This satire threads through the narrative of the film: the events only occur in the first place because Lionel carries on with an “oily shopgirl”. Throughout there is an emphasis on appearances: Mother must be at her best for the President of the WLWL, Lionel lets his family down with his “display of grief” at his mother’s funeral; Paquita briefly walks out with dull sports-fan Roger in an ill-fated attempt at respectability. Moreover the flashbacks show Mother’s motivation in drowning her husband in a bathtub as a way of preventing the neighbours finding out about his infidelity. And even in the stressful throes of fighting off zombie hoards, Paquita and Lionel remain in clearly defined gender roles. Whilst Lionel is hacking through zombies wholesale with the lawnmower, his girlfriend is in the kitchen doing much the same with a far more feminine food processor. But the most shocking indictment of society comes in the form of a nod to psychoanalytic critics at the end of the film. Mother, resurrected into a monster the size of her own house literally takes Lionel back into the womb; he is only able to escape by hacking out with the pendant Paquita had given to him, which Michael Atkinson referred to as “cinema’s most graphic episode of the vagina dentata” ((Michael Atkinson, “Earthly Creatures” in Film Comment 31 (3) p33))

Writing in 1995, Atkinson would not yet have been able to see a far more toothy version of the vagina dentate in the sublime film Kondom des Grauens (1996, English title Killer Condom, although the German translates literally if not alliteratively as Condom of Horror). Kondom is a faithful film adaptation of a graphic novel by Ralph König and is more appropriately considered critically in a framework of König’s work (and even other film adaptations of other of his graphic novels) than in the very small canon of films by Martin Walz. Kondom has largely been ignored by the English speaking world, but was finally released in 2000 on the Troma label in the States. Troma is a small, independent, New York-based horror outfit that specialises in extremely low-budget exploitation horror; but the bulk of their output is of a significantly lower standard than the German film. Many of their films rely on one joke in the title—eg Sergeant Kabukiman, NYPD (Lloyd Kaufman, 1990), or Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell (Brett Piper, 1991) ((“Where the prehistoric meets the pre-pubescent” – a tagline which the over-graphic box cover picture of the heroine plainly demonstrates as false.)) carried far beyond the boundaries of humour. Whilst it is true that there is a joke in a title of Killer Condom, the film is of a much higher standard throughout: shot on film, with an orchestral score played by the Prague Philharmonic ((And available on the Polymedia label, including not only the main orchestral themes but also the camp anthems that feature in the cabaret of Hotel Quickie.)) , excellently scripted and of course, being derived from a comic book, very well storyboarded. But whilst the joke in Troma output has little variation, Kondom is alive with humour. Kondom crosses genres with impunity: there is little doubt that this film is splatter horror, but it is also police procedural, against-all-odds minority sexuality love story, mad-scientist sci-fi, AIDS narrative, transvestite cabaret, and last but not least, vengeance-cop story—“Keine bißt ungestraft ein Macaroniei ab!” [“No-one bites off a Macaroni bollock and gets away with it!”] as gay cop lead character Detective Macaroni (Udo Samel) makes clear. And Kondom could easily be read as the antithesis of exploitation horror, particularly in how it portrays its lead characters. Gay love affairs on screen have rarely—and never in the realms of mainstream horror—been handled so sensitively as that between Det Macaroni and the rentboy-with-heart-of-gold Billy (Marc Richter) (who doesn’t charge if he enjoys it). ((The central love story between endowed-like-an-elephant middle aged man who doesn’t shave very often, and strikingly attractive blond 20-year-old is one that figures throughout the canon of König’s work, eg Iago, where the protagonist is William Shakespeare, and Der bewegte Mann and its sequel Pretty Baby, where the attractive younger man is played in the film versions by Til Schweiger in the days when he was still a German superstar. He is now a Hollywood extra.)) Despite opposition from colleagues who believe it is Billy who bit off Macaroni’s testicle (whereas it was of course in fact the titular condom) the pair manage to walk off into the sunset together at the end of the film, with Macaroni promising to take Billy to meet his mother, and Billy murmuring sweet nothings (“Bulle”, a pun on Macaroni’s endowment and his job as a cop) in his ear. A film set largely in a sexual underworld of prostitutes, transvestites and leather fetishists has a great potential for exploiting its characters, but it resolutely refuses to do so; reserving its least positive portrayal for mad scientist Frau Dr Riffleson (Iris Berben), the Catholic mad scientist whose aim in creating the killer condom was to wipe out the “perverts” who use them—principally non-Catholics, prostitutes and homosexuals. She never imagined it could possible get out into the public and attack ladies in the park and prominent anti-sleaze campaigning senators.

Kondom takes New York for its setting, and about half of the film—including many exteriors—is shot on location there. Interiors, which were shot in a German studio in advance are over exaggerated, from the Hotel Quickie where the condoms are first released, to the police precinct, which could be taken straight out of any of a thousand cop movies—or of course Naked Gun. And if main characters are not exploited, minor ones are simple but effective caricatures. The pre-title scene has archetypal schoolteacher (Gerd Wameling) abusing archetypal Mädchen Phyllis Higgins (Meret Becker) in return for better grades before a killer condom intervenes by doing what killer condoms do best: biting off the penis of the man who tries to wear it, and then scuttling away with it under the bed. On the first occasion, it leaves Phyllis covered with blood sobbing “Ist es aber immer so beim Sex?” [Is sex always like that?]. We later see her at the precinct where the police assume that her teacher’s castration had more to do with her teeth than the unlikely sounding little beast. But there are a number of prostitutes telling the same story and for such an unusual thing to have happened so many times in one night is distinctly odd. Det. Luigi Macaroni is despatched to investigate, and whilst at the hotel falls for the charms of the Stricher [rentboy] Billy; when it comes to consummation the only rubber available is one supplied by the hotel, which turns out to have teeth. Since Luigi is impossibly well endowed (the full 30.6 centimeters demonstrated somewhat coyly as a shadow against Billy’s astounded face) the condom escapes with only a testicle—as Luigi discovers when he wakes up in a hospital under the ministrations of Dr Rifleson. Returning to the precinct determined to catch the condom he finds his colleagues have launched a manhunt for his lover, and his attempts to redirect them to finding the beast fall on deaf ears. Disgusted, he hands in his badge and goes out on the hunt alone. During his first stay at Hotel Quickie he remade the acquaintance of former policemen Bob (Leonard Lansink), now living as Babette, drag act and prostitute, and enlists her help in the hunt. Babette misunderstands Luigi’s intentions towards her, and when she discovers herself unloved stalks over to Luigi’s flat with the intention of stabbing him in the shower. This almost obligatory ((Or as Carol Clover puts it “The spiritual debt of all […] slasher films to Psycho is clear, and it is a rare example [of the slasher and by extension the splatter film] that does not pay a visual tribute, however brief, to the ancestor—if not in a shower stabbing, then in a purling drain or the shadow of a knife wielding hand.” Carol Clover, Men Women and Chainsaws, (London, 1992) p26)) nod to the ur-Mother of all transvestite psychopaths, Norman Bates, is happily thwarted and for the first time the pair manage to catch a killer condom in the wild, by attaching it to a gas pipe and inflating it until it explodes. The remains are taken to chainsmoking forensic pathologist (Evelyn Künneke) whose hands are shown in close up prodding the beast with forceps and a fag end. She reveals it to be no ordinary condom, but a genetically engineered lifeform. Chance eventually leads Luigi and his now large coterie to the underground lair of Dr Rifleson, the entrance concealed under the altar of the hospital chapel, where we discover she has an extensive laboratory and harmless genius Prof Boris Smirnoff (Ralf Wolter) held hostage. Dr Rifleson attempts to get Luigi to feed himself to a giant, evil-looking condom there expressly for him, but is finally defeated by Macaroni’s rhetoric as he calls for equality for all.

Randall Halle identifies Killer Condom as falling into a categorisation of German film that emerged in 1990 and continued throughout the decade ((Randall Halle, “‘Happy Ends’ to Crises of Heterosexual Desire: toward a social psychology of recent German comedies”, in Camera Obscura 2000 (44) pp1-39)) . The German Comedy Wave is characterised first and foremost by a happy ending that leaves audiences feeling good about themselves. A secondary important characteristic is that these films “share anxieties about sex and gender”. ((Halle)) Whilst in most other films of the genre, gay characters are at the periphery—a prime example would be the Ralph König inspired Der bewegte Mann (Maybe, maybe not, Sönke Wortmann, 1994) where protagonist Axel Feldheim (Til Schweiger) rooms with gay Norbert (Joachim Król) until he has learned enough about cooking and shopping for his girlfriend to take him back—in Kondom, the gay relationship is the primary narrative thread. The abundance of positive gay characters clearly follows the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Germany. Most other films in the Wave also explore concerns about other elements of gender and sexuality rather more subtly than the direct attack on male genitalia from condoms with teeth. Social issues such as the place of women in the workplace echoed social trends of unemployment. The killer condom itself is all too clearly an analogy for AIDS, picking up on the conspiracy theory that HIV was deliberately conceived as a means of suppressing male homosexuality.

3,788 words

Biobliography

Michael Atkinson, “Earthly Creatures” in Film Comment 31 (3) p33

Farrah Anwar, “Braindead” in Sight and Sound 1993 33 (6), pp48-9

Carol Clover, Men Women and Chainsaws, (London, 1992) p26

Barry Keith Grant, “Dead Alive (aka Braindead)”, extract from Barry Keith Grant, A Cultural Assault: the New Zealand Films of Peter Jackson, (Nottingham, 1999), as reprinted at http://www.screamtelevision.ca/essays/dead_alive_essay.htm

Don Groves, “Strained relations for NZFC” in Variety, 13 x 1997

Randall Halle, “‘Happy Ends’ to Crises of Heterosexual Desire: toward a social psychology of recent German comedies”, in Camera Obscura 2000 (44) pp1-39

Mark Jancovich (ed), Horror: The Film Reader (London, 2002)

William Paul, Laughing Screaming, (New York, 1994) p263

P Rouyer, “Braindead” in Positif, 1993 385, p41

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