The Putrid, Repulsive, Unparalleled Romance of Peter Jackson’s ‘Braindead’

What says “I love you” quite like fighting your way through your own undead mother’s retractable womb and physically rebirthing yourself to be with the woman you love? Before the ‘Before’ trilogy, there was ‘Braindead.’
By  · Published on February 13th, 2019

It’s a love story for the ages: boy meets girl; girl’s grandmother prophesizes they’ll endure unimaginable torment; boy’s mom gets mauled by a Sumatran rat-monkey; re-animated corpses ensue.

Truthfully, after watching Peter Jackson’s 1992 New Zealand splatstick horror film Braindead (alternatively titled Dead Alive in North America), other romance flicks and romcoms don’t quite match up. You see, it just isn’t much of an impassioned love affair if the hero in question wouldn’t use a lawnmower to annihilate an endless hoard of bloodthirsty, juice-dribbling zombies in order to save the girl of his dreams; and not only from these oozing unmentionables, but from the murderous devotion of his own mother. Christian Grey wishes he was Lionel fucking Cosgrove.

Perhaps, one might think Braindead to be uncharacteristic of a typical cinematic romance, but the batshit, gonzo gore simply acts as the cocoon encasing a beautiful and familiar love story, of two star-crossed lovers destined to be together while the world seems intent on keeping them apart. From the near-incestuous possessiveness of Lionel’s mother Vera, to the grotesque, money-grubbing grasp of his Uncle Les, to the dead bodies Lionel keeps subdued with animal tranquilizers in his basement, with whom Les believes him to be fornicating, it’s Romeo and Juliet, minus everything — except for the star-crossed lovers part, of course.

Lionel (Timothy Balme) and Vera Cosgrove (Elizabeth Moody) could’ve been contestants on “Motherboy XXX.” Holed up in their Victorian mansion in 1950s Newtown, New Zealand, Lionel has swapped romantic love all his life for his mother’s, doting on her every whim, keeping her content and happy as a substitute for his own personal fulfillment. The pair have been living as such ever since the unfortunate early death of Lionel’s father in a swimming accident, which left Lionel traumatized with a lifelong fear of water.

Meanwhile, young Paquita Sánchez (Diana Peñalver) is lovestruck. A shopkeeper’s daughter infatuated with a local doctor who makes deliveries at her family’s store, she yearns to find the love of her life. After a prophecy foretold to her by her grandmother, Paquita learns that not only is the man of her dreams nowhere near the likes of this handsome, young medical practitioner, but his grand debut in her life aims to be right around the corner. Signified by the symbol of the moon and stars, Paquita and Lionel soon find their awkward courtship to be more natural and healthier than the love shared between an inseparable mother and son.

But it’s after a visit to the Wellington Zoo when Vera, spying on her son in the despicable act of going on a date, is savaged through an animal enclosure by the ravenous and blasphemously conceived Sumatran rat-monkey, that Lionel and Paquita’s love is put to the ultimate test. The rat-monkey’s bite acts as the catalyst to an incurable contagion; the onslaught of a half-dead corpse horde who threaten to not only usurp Lionel’s budding romance and the very population of Newtown, but Lionel’s way of life as he knew it.

As Father McGruder (Stuart Devenie) muses in his prayer service at Vera Cosgrove’s funeral (during which Lionel must consistently pump her bloated, stinking corpse with an animal tranquilizer to conceal her true undead status) Lionel was “blessed with an abundance of mother love.” Indeed, it is that mother love which surpasses the desires of Uncle Les (Ian Watkin) to seize Lionel’s rightful inheritance and the pandemic of the rat-monkey, acting as the dominant force of malevolence in this film.

Mother love is the main villain that Lionel must overcome as he trundles exasperatedly through much more trivial complications such as super-gluing Vera’s own skin to her face and forcing two zombies apart from having sex on his dining room table — but not before they’ve conceived a zombie baby that is as maddening as it is repugnant.

While it’s all probably not the most efficient means to confront Lionel’s unhealthy relationship with his mother and his desire for romantic love, it is, undoubtedly, the most zealous, and the film proves as much a test of the resilience of one’s love as the resilience of one’s stomach. When Lionel looks on in abject horror as Vera’s colleague gobbles up two healthy spoonfuls of her rotten, bloody discharge, which has spurted unknowingly into his custard, Lionel endures it for not only the sake of himself and of his mother but for the sake of his potential relationship with Paquita as well.

It’s the same reason he contains in his basement the re-animated carcasses of his mother and all the other unfortunate souls she’s infected with her disease. If he can save his mother from this fate that is wet and sopping and utterly drenched in one’s own entrails, then he can surely both save his precious Paquita and return to a state of normalcy with Vera.

But through the course of the film, Lionel begins to understand that normalcy and a healthy relationship with his mother were forgone well before she devoured Paquita’s dog and swallowed her own ear. It is his newfound love for Paquita and rage towards confronting his mother’s treatment of him (as well as the discovery that she drowned his father herself all those years ago) that triggers Lionel’s ultimate spark of heroism and ignites his true fervent passion. Sure, Noah restored an entire house for Allie in The Notebook, but did Noah stomp down the torso of a zombified greaser into a shattered door, physically extricating him from the bottom half of his body before stuffing the enraged upper half into a toilet?

In the end, it’s after gestating on a generous helping of accidental animal stimulant, when Vera reaches her most terrifying transformation yet, that Lionel finally wells up the courage to face her off in a battle of mother’s love vs. Paquita’s. There is a message festering somewhere within Braindead’s perverted husk that family can be about as toxic as the bite of a cross-bred demon monkey with the face of a mutant rat, and that even new love can be more powerful and healing than the putrefying blood shared between a decomposing corpse and her only child.

Braindead is, at its heart, an impassioned romance to challenge what we believe to be the greatest love stories of our time. It is about not only learning how to utilize an everyday lawn maintenance machine for the decimation of the undead but how the love you share with your soulmate is more powerful than a sentient intestinal tract or a giant, retractable womb. It’s about a timid young Norman Bates dead ringer overpowering his mother’s unhealthy control over him and rewriting his own destiny, by using his dormant murdering abilities for good rather than evil.

But underneath the tearing flesh, foul, discolored secretions, and frenzied displays of gore-drenched romance, it’s just a good old-fashioned story of boy meets girl – where boy slashes his way out of his monstrous mother in a bloody form of rebirth.

The Notebook what? Titanic where? This Valentine’s Day, watch Braindead.

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Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer with bylines at Polygon, Little White Lies, Thrillist, The Film Stage, Bright Wall/Dark Room, and more. She runs a bi-monthly newsletter called That's Weird. Follow her and her big beautiful brain on Twitter: @justbrizigs.