“How do we really know that we exist? What if we’re some sort of computer program, predestined to live out our lives in a certain way? How do we know if we’re awake or in some hyper-real dream and when we wake up, that will be ‘real life’?”
There are two types of people who frequently ask these questions: science fiction writers and people trying weed for the first time. Actually, the question of existence and reality is the fundament of most philosophies. How do we ever know what we’re experiencing is real. As Abraham Sofaer as “The Swami” put it in Head:
“We were speaking of belief. Beliefs and conditioning. All belief can be said to be the result of some conditioning. Thus the study of history is simply the study of one system of belief deposing another. And so on and so on. A psychologically tested belief of our time is that the central nervous system, which feeds its impulses directly to the brain, conscious and subconscious, is unable is unable to discern between the real and the vividly imagined experience. If there is a difference. And most of us believe there is. Am I being clear? For to examine these concepts requires tremendous energy and discipline. To experience the ‘now’ without preconception of belief. To allow the unknown to occur and to occur requires clarity. For where there is clarity there is no choice, and where there is choice there is misery. Then why should anyone listen to me? Why should I speak? For I know nothing!”
In the Julie (wife of Roger) Corman-produced Brain Dead (and not the alternative title to Peter Jackson’s Dead*Alive), Dr. Rex Martin (Bill Pullman) is a brilliant neurosurgeon studying the part of the brain that produces paranoia. He spends his days in a dim storage room (Number 8, the number constantly flipping upside down)surrounded by shelves upon shelves lined with human brains in glass jars, the kind you’d find in Young Frankenstein or The Man With Two Brains. His assistant treats these brains like office supplies, thinking little beyond the mess it makes when he happens to drop one. “People, Birkovich. Individuals. Minds, souls. Every brain is a living record of a journey taken,” Dr. Martin tells him. “Who knows what journey they’re on now?”
Martin’s new journey begins when he gets a visit from his old friend, Jim Reston (Bill Paxton), an executive climbing the ranks and upgrading suits. The company Reston works for, The Eunice Corporation, wants Martin to meet with and diagnose John Halsey (all hail Bud Cort), a mathematician institutionalized for murdering his entire family. Halsey created an elaborate mathematical formual that the Eunice Corporation desperately requires. The problem is that Halsey is so wracked with the paranoia that drove him to kill, the formula is locked away deep inside his mind. Indeed, Halsey has invented a false persona for himself in which he believes he is being persecuted by his “former boss” at Conklin Mattresses, who was having an affair with Halsey’s wife. Halsey believes that Conklin spied on him through money, “Instead of Ben Franklin I saw Conklin’s greasy face staring up at me.” His plastic wallet is filled with home made construction paper dollars, to fool Conklin and any of his agents still snooping around.
Returning to Reston, Martin is skeptical that he could do anything surgically to remove Halsey’s paranoia. “We can’t all do good, but at least do no harm.” Eunice Corp suggests an alternative then: cut into Halsey’s brain and destroy the formula, ensure that no one else can ever get at it. Martin balks at this as well. “It could be worse,” Reston tells him.” You could be the patient and Halsey could be the doctor.”
That afternoon, while walking to his car, carrying one of his favorite brains to work on at home, he is accosted by a raving homeless man who insists that the brain in the jar is his. Wrestling with the man and juggling the jar, Martin is suddenly hit by a car belonging to Conklin Mattresses, their slogan: “To Sleep, Perchance to Dream.”
Suffering only a mild concussion, Dr. Martin awakes from a bad dream in his own bed next to his wife, Dana (Desert Hearts’ Patricia Charbonneau) who he believes is having an affair with Reston. He makes the decision to operate on Halsey after all, and the next morning, before the entire board of the Eunice Company (including George Kennedy in a thankless cameo), behind two-way glass, he opens up Halsey’s head and starts poking around in the man’s brain.
Whatever visions plaguing Halsey almost immediately plague Martin. He finds himself pursued by a man in a bloody white coat (Nicholas Pryor, playing multiple roles here…or maybe just one), witnesses Reston having sex with his wife on their dining room table. Martin’s behavior changes. He’s often confused, dazed, speaking and acting inappropriately. Just the same, Reston approaches him with a brand new idea: custom lobotomies, cosmetic surgery for the brain, “kinder, gentler lobotomies”, to eliminate painful memories and bolster self-esteem without the cost of therapy. “Change their personalities, their very souls.” He even has a slogan, “The new you, from Eunice.”
The next morning, Dr. Martin wakes up in the Mayside Sanitarium, his doctor is the same man in the bloody coat who has been stalking him, and that somehow his own office has been moved to this building, and now houses the new doctor, who tells him that he’s been there for days. “We can be distracted by too much detail.” Martin is told that his psyche is shattered. He has projected Halsey to be his patient and himself Halsey’s doctor. Martin resists this explanation, insists that the office is his office and he knows who he is, insisting, “I have a Ph.D from Miskatonic University!”
Worse, Reston arrives, identified as the hospital’s accountant. Martin, too, is an accountant, the prize of Conklin Mattresses. Halsey visits him at his bedside at night and each visit ends in Martin waking up from a nightmare.
Halsey: “They told me the same stinking story. That you didn’t exist. That we’re the same person!”
Martin: “Didn’t we do this before?”
Halsey: “Are we doing this now?”
The pair pass in and out of each other’s subconscious minds, each insisting they’re part of the other’s dream. Each time a dream ends, Martin finds himself in a new location and a confused state of mind. People insist on calling him Halsey. The number 8 on his door has fallen again and again he spins it, stopping halfway to ∞. “No, I’m not dreaming,” he insists. “I’ve ruled that out. It’s like I’m being dreamed. Like we’re all being dreamed by Eunice.”
Before too long, it’s Martin in that chair, his brain exposed, and at the probe is not Halsey but the man in the bloody coat, Dr. Reston, aka Ed Conklin, owner of Conklin Mattresses, a partner with (or dummy name for) the Eunice Corporation. Martin repeats, “Just do no harm. No harm done.”
Originally scripted by Twilight Zone staple Charles Beaumont, Brain Dead is how Cronenberg would handle a slapstick comedy. The writer behind such classic episodes as “Long Live Walter Jameson” and “Shadow Play”, involving tricks of the mind, dreams and memory, Beaumont (aka Charles Leroy Nutt) wrote short stories for Amazing Stories and other pulp science-fiction magazines, he was also the first writer to publish a short story in Playboy. His original script for Brain Dead written (obviously) some time before his death in 1967, possibly around the same time he was writing for Corman and AIP, turning out the screenplays for Premature Burial (1962), The Haunted Palace (1963) and The Masque of the Red Death (1964) (as well as Burn, Witch, Burn (1961) and 7 Faces of Dr Lao (1964). So much was made out of this “new” Beaumont credit when Brain Dead was released in 1989 (in some markets as Paranoia), many fans apparently forgot that he was dead and saw this as his big comeback movie. “Big” being a relative term here, of course.
“The script was one that had been sitting around in Roger Corman’s possession for several years. It is rather amusing to picture Corman trying to get such a whacked out script off the ground in the days before [Nightmare on] Elm Street made this baffling reality flip type of film commonplace,” wrote Richard Scheib. “The final ending arrived at is amazingly bleak. While in another film all the reality bendings would collapse into meaninglessness, Brain Dead sustains them at such a dextrous series of whiplash reversals that it contrarily becomes thoroughly ingenious.”
Brain Dead never saw much success. Released on VHS in the latter part of ’90 after playing a few late nights on HBO, it was finally dumped on DVD as part of “Roger Corman Presents: The Actor Series”, its cover showing a face stretched across a metal frame, taken from a visual non-sequitur in the beginning of the film. “The opening scene shows Dr. Martin’s assistant smiling gleefully as he wields what looks like a soldering iron above an exposed brain, connected by wires to a stretched, boneless face whose muscles the brain apparently controls. As the assistant shocks the brain in different areas, the eyes on the face turn to the left, then to the right, and finally go cross-eyed as the assistant titters to himself. Actually, this image of a grotesque, surgically removed face gone cross-eyed is a wonderful metaphor for a film whose cringe-worthy visuals are mitigated by a pervasive and singular humor.” (JonathanFoltz ©2010 NotComing.com)
Over the years, it’s acquired a modest cult following, due to no little help from its confusion with Peter Jackson’s Braindead. Directed by (A Haunting in Conneticut screenwriter) Adam Simon, Beaumont’s posthumous movie offers a lot of mind teasing to make up for its utter lack of zombies. Aside from Foltz’s and Scheib’s reviews, it’s difficult to find a critic who doesn’t treat Brain Dead with condescension, if not outright disrespect. Much humor is to be found in the movie’s primitive effects (Cort’s open-brain prosthetic in no way resembles the actual brain-surgery footage projected in the board room during the first act surgery), and many have dismissed it as being “nonsensical”. However, as Foltz later writes, “Once the labyrinthine plot takes its initial turn, Brain Dead offers little consolation that it all makes sense, moving at a disorienting pace through realities and alternate realities. In fact there are so many scenes where Dr. Martin wakes up as from a dream that reality starts to lose its meaning, even for the viewer. This slippery, mise en abyme structure owes a debt to the script by Charles Beaumont, the legendary Twilight Zone writer whose life was cut short by disease. Indeed, Brain Dead’s contorted but campy brilliance feels like a faithful adaptation of the classic Twilight Zone aesthetic, but updated to be at once gorier and goofier.” [ibid]
Which still seems a little harsh. Maybe in these post-Matrix, post-Inception days Brain Dead has little to offer audiences who have become accustomed to dream logic narratives. But unlike modern mind-fuck movies, Brain Dead revels in its playfulness. Martin doesn’t chiropractically dodge bullets or rely on a spinning top to know when he’s awake, but wanders around in an uncomprehending daze of contradictory information, and the viewer is right there on his shoulders, looking for hints and clues amidst the film’s many details to figure out who, exactly—if anybody—is the sane party of the first part. If you decide that you did dig it the first time through, give it a second go and see if the movie changes your mind in whatever direction. It’s a fun movie filled with narrative close-up magic. And it has Bud Cort in it. Everything is better with Bud Cort.