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Retro Review: BRAIN DEAD (1990)

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BRAIN DEAD
(US - 1990)

Directed by Adam Simon. Written by Charles Beaumont and Adam Simon. Cast: Bill Pullman, Bill Paxton, George Kennedy, Bud Cort, Patricia Charbonneau, Nicholas Pryor, Brian Brophy, David Sinaiko, Andy Wood, Kyle Gass. (R, 84 mins)

One of the most ambitious and bizarre films to roll off of Roger Corman's Concorde Pictures assembly line, BRAIN DEAD began life as a Charles Beaumont script titled PARANOIA. Best known for his contributions to THE TWILIGHT ZONE (including classic episodes like "Perchance to Dream," and "Long Live Walter Jameson"), and his work scripting earlier Corman classics like THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) and THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (1964), Beaumont's life was cut tragically short when he died in 1967 at just 38 after being diagnosed with both early-onset Alzheimer's as well as Pick's Disease, the latter now known as frontotemporal dementia. Symptoms began appearing as early as 1963, but by 1965, his condition worsened to the point where he was no longer able to work. His decline was rapid, and friends and colleagues recalled him having the appearance of a frail, elderly man by the time he died. A cult following formed around Beaumont's work, both on the big screen (he also scripted the 1964 George Pal production 7 FACES OF DR. LAO) and on THE TWILIGHT ZONE and numerous other TV shows of the era. Beaumont's PARANOIA script dated back to around 1961 and was dusted off and assigned to writer/director Adam Simon, a Chicago native who arrived in Hollywood and started hanging around the famed Corman lumber yard headquarters.







Charles Beaumont (1929-1967)
Beaumont's core premise remained, but Simon largely rewrote the screenplay, updating it to the then-present 1990 and retitling it BRAIN DEAD. In a way, because it was shot very much in the late '80s/early '90s Concorde style and is clearly working with a low budget, BRAIN DEAD is, aesthetically speaking, very much a typical circa 1990 Corman product. But it's also immediately obvious that something's different about BRAIN DEAD. It's headlined by Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton, both of whom already past the point in their careers where they'd still be doing Roger Corman productions, and its plot is a jawdropping exercise in surreal, alternate-reality mindfuckery that's almost completely lacking the exploitation elements that Corman typically required from his directors. BRAIN DEAD isn't an undiscovered classic, but watching it almost 30 years on, it seems remarkably ahead of its time, and with some upgraded production design and a more stylish director at the helm, it could almost pass for an 84-minute BLACK MIRROR episode.


Dr. Rex Martin (Pullman) is an eccentric neurosurgeon conducting experimental brain tissue research. He's visited by Jim Reston (Paxton), an old college buddy who now works for a top-secret and vaguely sinister corporation called Eunice. Reston needs a favor: Dr. Jack Halsey (Bud Cort, who's really terrific here), a former mathematician and numbers cruncher for Eunice, has had a complete breakdown and is currently in a mental institution, accused of killing his wife, his children, and three research assistants, murders he blames on a mysterious "Man in White."  He knows vital financial and research intel and Reston believes Martin has the ability to surgically extract it from the specific section of the brain that stores such memory. Martin agrees to help, much to the satisfaction of Eunice CEO Vance (George Kennedy), but after the procedure, he begins suffering from the same paranoid delusions as Halsey, including several run-ins with the blood-splattered Man in White (Nicholas Pryor).


At a certain point, the reality of Dr. Martin collapses altogether. He's convinced Reston is making a play for his wife Dana (Patricia Charbonneau), based on the fact that they competed for her attention back in college. He watches the Man in White gouge out the eyes of Reston and Dana after Martin walks in on them having sex, only to be thrown in a mental institution when he's accused of their murders and subsequently mistaken for Halsey by the entire staff. BRAIN DEAD continues on this path, as people thought dead are suddenly alive or start changing identities, and Martin can no longer recognize what's real or imagined. The film even finds time to reference the Daoist "Butterfly Dream" story by Zhuangzi dating back to 300 B.C., not the kind of subtext you'd typically see being explored in other Roger Corman productions from 1990, such as BLOODFIST II, WATCHERS II, and SLUMBER PARTY MASSACRE III.


Just out on Blu-ray from Scream Factory (because physical media is dead), BRAIN DEAD was a video store staple in the 1990s but has become relatively obscure over time. It's probably been referenced for its movie trivia value more than it's actually been seen, thanks to it being the only time that Bills Pullman and Paxton--each confused for the other by many a '90s moviegoer--appeared in a movie together (additional trivia: production designer Catherine Hardwicke would go on to direct the first TWILIGHT; and future Tenacious D member Kyle Gass can be briefly spotted as an anesthesiologist). At the end of the day, it doesn't quite hang together and its ambitions and ideas are too far beyond what a 1990 Roger Corman budget could possibly accommodate, but along with Paul Mayersberg's NIGHTFALL, this remains one of the most unusual projects to be shepherded under the Corman/Concorde banner (Simon mentions on the commentary track that Corman disliked the finished film and wanted to drastically recut it, but ultimately didn't). BRAIN DEAD is a true oddity that manages to show proper respect and homage to Charles Beaumont and old-school TWILIGHT ZONE while simultaneously being ahead of its time in ways that would anticipate BLACK MIRROR as well as certain key elements of films like JACOB'S LADDER (which hit theaters ten months later), 12 MONKEYS and INCEPTION.


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