So far in my Halloween DIY Horror Rundown (which is a theme I totally planned and did not just notice halfway through, honest), we’ve had an influential classic (BLOOD FEAST) and a scrappy underground curiosity (DARKNESS). Director H.G. Lewis did pretty well for himself after BLOOD FEAST, enjoying the slightly dubious accolades as the Godfather of Gore, but his film career basically ended with the ‘70s. Even that little bit of fame eluded Leif Jonker after DARKNESS, he’s yet to make another film (still have my fingers crossed). A few breakout success stories have come from the dark and hokey world of DIY horror, though. One of the biggest burst out unexpectedly onto the scene from the twisted Kiwi mind of a bloke named Peter Jackson in the form of 1987’s BAD TASTE.
After hearing reports of an alien invasion of the small New Zealand town of Kaihoro, the government sends out an elite four man team of paramilitary goofballs simply known as,The Boys. They find the town deserted, except for roaming packs of mute, homicidal lunatics. Barry (Pete O'Herne) discovers the lunatics are something more than they seem when it takes six shots to the head to take one down. The team’s tech expert, Derek (Peter Jackson), attempts to get information from one of the captured fiends (Peter Jackson, but with a beard), which ultimately results in a near fatal fall from the cliffs. Meanwhile, scamming collection agent, Giles (Craig Smith), accidentally stumbles into the middle of the madness and is captured by the leader of the crazies. They turn out to be shapeshifting aliens from an intergalactic fast food corporation with plans to box up Earth’s entire human population for a new line of junk food. It’s up to Barry, Rambo wannabe Ozzy (Terry Potter), and the cool, capable team leader Frank (Mike Minett), to take on the army of aliens, save Giles, and keep the whole world from becoming happy space meals. And Derek isn’t going to let a traumatic brain injury stop him from getting in on the carnage.
BAD TASTE is a horror/comedy that skews way more to the comedy side than the horror. It is filled from beginning to end with goofy gags and cornball humor. The humor of DEAD ALIVE, which Jackson made five years later, seems subtle and nuanced by comparison. There is a big emphasis on jokes, most of which, in my opinion, fall flat. They may be dated, or just speak to a very Kiwi sense of humor. I do like the way they all earnestly keep plugging away at it, though. Coupled with the over the top gore gags, it comes off as charmingly stupid. There are a few bizarre bits that I appreciated, like Derek’s double decker van staged to seem like cardboard cutouts of The Beatles are driving it. It’s so baffling I couldn’t help but smile. After Giles is knocked unconscious by an alien cook (who looks a lot like Leatherface, only without a leather face), he wakes up in a giant pot of water with bits of carrots and potatoes floating around, as if he were in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. I also like the mysterious government agent who calls in The Boys in the beginning. He is missing a hand, but instead of having a full prosthetic one, he just has a single rubber finger on a rod coming out of the stump. It’s designed only for pushing buttons. Later when he’s smoking, he tapes the cigarette to the finger with a Band-Aid.
Jackson filmed BAD TASTE on the weekends with his friends over the course of four years. Like with DARKNESS, the actors do not remotely look like movie stars. They are more like the drunks you would see in the background of a bar scene. Pete O'Herne, who plays Barry, looks like he just woke up from a bender. What’s worse is that since they were filming for so long, he had to stay with that look for four years! That's dedication. Terry Potter’s Ozzy is sort of a Kiwi Rambo with a perm. He’s the loose cannon who likes to run around with a rocket launcher. Frank, played by Mike Minett, is the composed leader of the group. He’s the most sensible, but he does get the movie’s grossest gag. While in disguise as an alien (by wearing a blue shirt), he is forced to partake in a delicacy of green pudding puked up by another alien. He puts it off as long as he can, squirming his way to the back of the line, but in the end it turns out to be so tasty he goes back for seconds. It’s a Green Eggs and Ham message, except with vomit.
The flat out strangest member of the team is the director himself as Derek. Jackson does not go out of his way to make himself look good. In fact, with his drooling at the graphic violence and his gleeful torture of aliens, he’s more of a psychopath than even Ozzy. It only gets worse after he falls off a cliff and has to deal with a flap of skull that keeps flopping down and exposing his brain. Every stumble causes him to lose a little more gooey grey matter. Eventually he stuffs a bit of alien brain into his skull to fill the space. It seems to work, though I’m dubious of its medical accuracy.
The aliens are the real stars of the show, especially the leader, Lord Crumb (Doug Wren). When in human form, he’s an aristocratic looking old guy, and the only alien who talks. He refers to his underlings as 3rd class aliens, barely worth mentioning to the board members of Crumbs Crunchy Delights. Face to face, though, he plays the caring boss. He gives an impassioned eulogy to the others about the aliens killed in self-defense by The Boys, or as he puts it, “murdered by some real assholes.” Like Donald Trump, he constantly criticizes people's actions while doing far worse himself. In fact, if his alien form had been orange and had a mop of crazy straw hair, they could have been twins.
Most of the other aliens behave like doped up mental patients. They are mostly there to be killed in ridiculous, horribly violent ways. My favorite is the one who gets broken in half by Derek’s car. He just lies on the ground, looking perplexed and annoyed at his legless state. The only thing he can do is bonk pinecones off Derek’s head, ruining his dramatic charge into battle.
After Lord Crumb, Jackson’s alter ego alien gets the most screen time. His name is Robert. It’s funny how Jackson is almost unrecognizable as the baby faced Derek, but add a beard and messy hair and he looks exactly like he does today. Robert is the most goonish of the aliens, which is saying something. He mimes the finger across the throat gesture when trying to intimidate Giles, except that he is holding a knife and accidentally slices his neck open. He’s the one who pukes up the delicious alien pudding, by the way, so somewhere there is a paper mache Peter Jackson head with a gaping, green stained mouth.
The gore is just as jokey as the rest of the movie. Robert eats brains out of an exposed skull like it was a cereal bowl. He even has a spoon. Heads get pulled off with the spines still attached, which is always appreciated. One alien accidentally caves in his buddy’s head with a sledgehammer and then gets his arm shot off, so someone is walking around with a hammer in the head and an arm dangling from it. Points for creativity on that one. There is a variation on the “reborn” gag that Jackson uses again, more disturbingly, in DEAD ALIVE. In fact, a lot of the gore is a not-so-dry run for that epic splatterfest. For some reason, the only thing that really got me was all the dirt and grass that gets into Derek’s brain when he closes his skull flap. The brain should be a clean zone, in my opinion.
BAD TASTE is about as far from Jackson’s Oscar award winning later work as you can get (unless you count the Muppets-on-crack horror show MEET THE FEEBLES), but you can see the seeds of a great director in there. It is an ambitious story, especially considering Jackson had to create almost everything himself. This included the guns, the alien suits, the miniature effects, even the camera equipment. I’m surprised he didn’t figure out how to make his own film stock. The props look far better than they should for a nickel and dime production. The submachine guns he fabricated totally fooled me, they even have detachable magazines and working breaches. Granted, he had four years to get everything right, but it shows the attention to detail that would allow him to create an entirely believable fantasy world years later. He also exhibits skill with miniature work and forced perspective, which would come in handy for making small things seem towering or regular things seem hobbit sized.
As with DARKNESS, they do some very irresponsible filmmaking that could have gotten people killed. The camera operator had to ride on (and fly off of) the hood of the car because they didn’t have a camera mount. One of the actors almost got a sledgehammer to the face for real. Peter Jackson has a fight while dangling off a cliff-- an actual cliff-- with no safety harness. One slip and The King never would have Returned.
I’m not sure why BAD TASTE succeeded in launching Jackson into an ever ascending trajectory as a director when most home grown horror movies fail to catch on. Perhaps the novelty of it being set in New Zealand helped it stand out. Perhaps some could see the potential for greatness under all the blood squibs, gross-out gags, and cornball humor. In any event, BAD TASTE stands as one of the greatest origin stories for a director ever. It paved the way for his masterpiece, which is of course, DEAD ALIVE. And those ring movies too, I suppose.