We open with the infinity symbol hanging above the door to Dr. Rex Martin’s brain laboratory. As Martin walks through this door he falls down the rabbit hole, finding madness around every corner. Brain Dead, not to be confused with Peter Jackson’s Brain Dead/Dead Alive film, is a descent into the mind of a brain surgeon who has lost his grip on reality. A story that could only be told from the mind of a original Twilight Zone writer, Brain Dead breaks all conventions and leaves you spinning.
One of the leading brain surgeons of his time, Dr. Rex Martin is asked to perform a new type of brain surgery hoping to unlock the secrets of a madman. But when Martin successfully cures his patient he finds himself picking up where the madman left off. Slowly reality starts to slip away and the fears of a psychopath take its place.
Many films have depicted a main character going mad. Often we find hallucinations of talking animals, strange universes or mysterious voices. What is so fun about Brain Dead is none of the standard motifs are used. Instead of obvious dream versus reality states, the film is a puzzle for the viewer to decipher what is real and what is not. Only after several viewings was I able to pick apart the story and decide for myself what really is going on. The film feels like a dream and rewards you with mesmerizing images and incredible acting.
My two favorite Bills, Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton, star in Brain Dead as the master brain surgeon and best friend always trying to catch up. Pullman had this to say about the story, “My character is forced into this other world, where he becomes a stranger in a strange land. Some might describe it as a psychedelic trip, but I see it as a journey into someone’s mind.” The film is played out with a perfect subtlety that takes, would could have been a hokey mess and makes it a classic.
Surprisingly this is Director Adam Simon’s first film (and his best; other than Brain Dead he made Carnosaur and Body Chemistry 2). Watching the film he seems to have a lot of potential. “The films I want to make have one foot in the genre and one foot in the world of surrealism,” Simon said. “I want a level of imagery where the image itself contains a lot of meaning and intensity.” Reading that quote years later and looking at his skimpy IMDB page it’s a wonder what happened. Even Bill Paxton had some really nice words to say about the director, “We met for an hour, and we talked about Descartes and the meditations and wondering what reality was, and I ended up thinking: This man has such a depth of knowledge, and its perverse all the way down the line.” What happened Mr. Simon?
Of all my favorite underrated films, Brain Dead is one of the most surprising. There is little to complain about from the all-star cast, to the superb directing, but the most fascinating aspect of the film has to be its author, Charles Beaumont. Beaumont was one of the head writers for the original Twilight Zone and wrote more episodes than anyone but Serling himself. He wrote many screenplays from 7 Faces of Dr. Lao to The Masque of the Red Death. Unfortunately he died from a degenerative aging disease which caused him, at the age of 38 to look over 100 years old. Roger Corman found the script years later, “Charles had actually written the script so long ago that the copy we found was on onion skin. We had a lot of trouble photocopying it because the paper was pre-Xerox” Although the script had to be updated, Corman swears they stayed true to the original. This will come to no surprise because the film often comes off as a long and brilliantly written Twilight Zone episode.
Unfortunately, while the film IS on DVD, it’s a horrible “Roger Corman Classic” which means there’s NO WIDESCREEN (*tear*) and no special features. I guess we should be thankful that it’s available at all. It’s definitely a title that’s dying for a proper release, a commentary with the two Bills would be fascinating to say the least but don’t hold your breath. While the film is outstanding a surprisingly few have actually seen it. It’s a cult classic in waiting and definitely a must for any film freak.
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