That’s right! During Braindead’s cemetery carnage there is a brief close-up shot of “Mum”, Lionel’s zombie mother, lurching at the camera about to throttle it. That’s me! Well, that was me under a prosthetic mask and wearing prosthetic hands (gloves). I also got to play one of the dozens of zombie extras during the movie’s climactic household carnage, and for one brief moment body-doubled as the beheaded priest (see pic below).
In 1991 I pulled out of Victoria University of Wellington for a bit of hands-on experience within the film industry. I had become frustrated with the curriculum offered by VUW; you couldn’t major in either of the two areas that most interested me: film and drama.
I still needed about another year’s worth of credits in order to complete my B.A. But I’d had enough of varsity life. I desired something in my chosen vocation to engulf me. Lady Luck patted me on the back. My father’s partner mentioned to me to contact film producer Jim Booth in regards to a trainee position on a new horror movie being directed by Peter Jackson, who was about to start work on his third feature.
I scored the position. I can’t remember exactly how, probably a little nepotism and a whole lot of unbridled enthusiasm on my behalf. But there I was about to start work on a full-blown zombie movie! I was stoked!
My full official title was Production Assistant Trainee, basically a glorified gofer. I spent a lot of the time production running and liaising with the production coordinator and production manager. However, the title also meant that at any given moment I could be hauled off whatever job I was doing in one department and thrown into another department to assist. It was gruelling at times. But there was also a constant air of excitement and anticipation.
It was a twelve week shoot, of which two weeks were a night-shoot spent in Karori cemetery, Wellington, and four weeks were spent in a huge open-plan house set at Avalon studios shooting the escalating mayhem and carnage that makes up the movie’s last third set in Lionel and his mother’s home.
Some of the jobs were hell, especially to a newbie like me. Having to be on-set a full hour before everyone arrived (often arriving when it was still dark outside) and another after everyone left, making sure coffee and tea was constantly available (unit assistance) was not my idea of fun. But hanging with the special effects boys definitely was; watching them create the blood and latex molds, build the miniatures, getting grossed out looking at their forensic pathology “bible”. Dirty horror mischief alright.
Richard Taylor was head of the creature and gore effects team, his wife Tania was the administrator. This was all pre-digital, before WETA. There were eight technicians, as well as Australian veteran Bob McCarron on board for special makeup and prosthetic application. Those boys worked like dogs, and delivered the goods in spades.
But the special effects didn’t stop there, there was another team doing miniatures (a Peter Jackson specialty) and another team of puppeteers working various bits and pieces (of which I had a go operating the punk zombie Void’s disemboweled and re-animated intestine and sphincter from under the house set floorbaords! Wahey!), and there was even a chunk of stop-motion photography employed as well, which Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson handled.
Peter Jackson knew where he wanted the budget spent, that was for sure. This was a horror movie for horrorphiles made by a horrorphile. No gore effect was undercut. No drop of blood was spared. In fact Braindead holds (still?) the record for largest volume of blood ever used on a horror movie. To get an idea, during the infamous lawnmower scene fake blood was being pumped at five gallons per second! A total of 300 litres of fake blood was used during the movie’s final scene alone!
There is an unpleasant downside to having that much fake blood on set under baking studio lights over several weeks. It becomes very sticky, and starts to give off a really disgusting sickly sweet smell. Not fun when you arrive on set early in the morning with a hangover from drinking with the art department the night before. Everyone was relieved when we wrapped the interior house-set.
The movie was released in America as Dead Alive (another film already had the rights to the title Brain Dead) and was butchered of much of its climatic gore footage. It was my own suggestion to Peter to combine both words as one (my other obscure claim to horror fame), so as to be unique, at the expense of being grammatically incorrect.
It was a chaotic shoot, with numerous scenes being shot in a wham-bam fashion, but that was the visual style Jackson was after. The film has more cuts per half hour than most films have in their entire running time! It’s a blink and you’ll miss it kinda movie. So make sure you have your eyes peeled during the cemetery scenes otherwise you’ll blink and miss my moment of on-screen horror glory!
We knew we were making a film destined for cult status (Jackson’s earlier two films had already garnered that status), but we didn’t envisage Braindead eventually becoming regarded by horror fans the world over as possibly the bloodiest, messiest, over-the-top goriest horror movie ever made. Sure, it’s a real cheeseburger kind of flick, and much of the effects have a B-grade look and feel, but that’s precisely the point. Jackson was never intending to make High Art; this was never going to look like Ridley Scott’s Hannibal (2000).
Ideally one should consume Braindead with heavily buttered, heavily salted popcorn, a super-large coke, or a six-pack of beer, and your tongue playfully squirming in your cheek. Its utter splat-stick, and I had a bloody ball being part of it.
Now, please, Peter, pretty-please-with-entrails-on-top, can you put together a deluxe special edition Blu-ray with commentary, deleted scenes, and extras (I know George Port shot a lot of behind-the-scenes video!), as you apparently promised you’d do some years ago. We've been waiting patiently, but, hell, it's the 25th anniversary this year!