RARE & VINTAGE: Brain Dead (1990)

Not every great movie becomes a cultural touchstone.  Some simply escape notice, some are obscured by time, and some are actively suppressed.  In this column, Jared adopts a few orphaned films in need of a good viewing.

If you, dear reader, are the discerning cinéaste I believe you to be, then it should only take me five words to tell you why you ought to watch Brain Dead:

“Bill Pullman AND Bill Paxton.”

Yes, the two “Joe Everyman” supporting actors, who are so frequently misidentified that their interchangeability has become a cultural joke, appear together in this film.  The results are magical.  In their scenes together, they appear to be competing for the title of Smarmiest Actor.

One of the pleasures of B-movies is getting to see your favorite character actors and bit-players get more screen-time, often in roles that lie outside of their regular idiom.  Another of course, is sheer dumb fun—the joy of nonsense.

And make no mistake, this is a B-movie.  The 1990 film Brain Dead, not to be confused with 1992’s Brain Dead AKA Dead Alive or 2007’s Brain Dead, didn’t fall through the cracks.  It was deliberately stuffed down the cracks as soon as nobody was looking.  But the letter-grade “status” of a film does not invalidate its position in film history.  Every film, regardless of budget, reflects the trends and ideas of its era, and represents a step in the evolution of cinema.  Brain Dead, in particular, represents a popularity spike of an odd sub-genre of science-fiction, which more-or-less began with The Twilight Zone and is still present today in movies like Inception.  It’s a sub-genre that I like to call “mindfuck movies.”  They’re movies in which a) the argument of perception as reality is questioned and explored, and b) the whole fun of watching them is trying to figure out what’s going on.

In Brain Dead, neurologist Bill Pullman (those words usually aren’t seen so close together) is contacted by his old friend Bill Paxton, a corporate crony with a problem only a doctor can solve.  For beginning players, Pullman is the one with floppy hair, and Paxton is the one with awful Wall Street style slicked-back hair.  Anyway, a brilliant mathematician named Halsey has lost his marbles, and Paxton’s company needs some numbers pulled out of his head.  Pullman is reluctant to help, but Paxton appeals to his ego with eloquent lines such as these:

“Nobody knows more about paranoia than you.  You’re the… brain man, for Christ’s sakes.”

Dr. Bill Pullman has been studying the brains of paranoid schizophrenics his entire career, but only when they were in jars.  Once he meets a live one, his own latent psychosis starts to surface, and he gradually becomes his own case study.  In other words: let’s watch Bill Pullman go insane.

rv braindead 1The secretly marvelous thing about this film is its structure.  It’s not just “random things are happening now because he’s crazy.”  That would be impossible to follow, or enjoy.  Instead, every person, image, and event that Pullman encounters during his episode is alluded to earlier in the film.  Even impromptu, throwaway figures of speech, such as, “You open that door, and you step off a cliff,” become dangerously literal later on.  I can’t say this about many B-movies, but you might actually appreciate Brain Dead more on a second viewing.  Plus, this structure endows the film with a sort of dream-logic, and gives the story a sense of connectivity that urges you to try to puzzle out the missing pieces.  You may find yourself formulating three or four theories at once: “I’ve got it!  Pullman is Halsey!  Or, no, it’s the other way around!  I bet Pullman died in that car accident and this is just his dying dream!  No no no wait!  Pullman himself is a brain in a jar and the entire film is what he thinks he’s experiencing!”  Pullman eventually develops an hypothesis of his own: that he and everyone else in the world are all part of a huge dream being dreamed by Paxton’s evil corporation, EUNICE.  It’s a ludicrous theory, but not one that the film ever invalidates.

As the film goes on, and the cracks in reality turn into fissures and then chasms, the scenes themselves become briefer, and separated by larger distances of location and elapsed time.  I mention this just because it’s always nice when the structure of a film reflects its theme.

If this all sounds like a Twilight Zone episode on drugs, that’s because it was based on a screenplay by Twilight Zone scribe Charles Beaumont, which sat on a shelf for twenty-three years after he died and then became this movie with the help of some drugs.

The film ends with not one but two Twilight Zone-patented ironic punchlines.  In the more chilling of the two, Pullman dies, and the neurosurgeon operating on him wrings his hands and says, “Well, at least he didn’t feel any pain.”  If only they could know what he’d been through inside his mind!

The film begins with Pullman adjusting the number on the door to his lab.  Number eight.  It’s fallen sideways, to become the symbol for infinity.  It’s a symbol later used as a logo by the EUNICE corporation.  It also represents the potential of the hundreds of human minds stacked up on shelves behind that door.

Bill Pullman also has a stretched-out human face behind that door.  Brains I get, but who donates their face to science?

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About Jared Latore

Jared Latore is a Chicago-based author, writer and podcaster, and the co-host of the Alcohollywood podcast.

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