In the discussion of filmmakers who have changed cinema, eventually the conversation leads to Peter Jackson. New Zealand’s top export made history when he “filmed the unfilmable” and directed The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Grossing almost $3 billion over three years, the series remains one of the most beloved franchises of all time, earning Jackson a fellowship of fans. Some of those fans were shocked to discover the various films Jackson made before LotR. Now, there are many filmmakers who started in the horror genre, but Jackson’s early horror was something else. Initially, this clown prince of horror crafted slapstick, punk rock, politically incorrect, gorefests that nobody had seen before. And his feature film debut, Bad Taste, hit the ground running.
Bad Taste is the story about “the boys”, a four-man paramilitary unit sent to investigate a small abandoned town near Wellington, after the residents have mysteriously disappeared. The town isn’t completely abandoned however, as the team encounters seemingly crazed cannibals wearing identical blue shirts and jeans. Did the blue-collar workers revolt? Nope, they’re an army of aliens sent there to collect humans for an intergalactic fast food chain. The team is split up, each having crazy encounters that can only be described as Monty Python meets Return of the Living Dead. Barry, played by the late Pete O'Herne is almost killed by a pack of aliens and later has to come to the aid of an unaware charity worker, Giles, played by Craig Smith. Derick, the team’s nerdy, but unhinged, wild card, played by Jackson himself, captures one of the aliens, also played by Jackson, in an attempt to torture it for information. Yes, Peter Jackson directs and stars in a scene where he has a fight with himself, and loses when he falls off a cliff. Don’t worry, he lives, but barely. Lastly, Ozzy and Frank, played by Terry Potter and Mike Minett, infiltrate the aliens’ hideout in a secluded, two story home. It’s there that the two discover the invaders’ plan and their leader, Lord Crumb, played by Doug Wren and voiced by Peter Vere-Jones. Can the boys save the day? Well, it’s hard to tell because both sides are dangerously incompetent.
On the production side, Bad Taste is a low-budget, amateur film, made by Jackson and his friends every Sunday over a four-year span. So, it’s far from a perfect film, but it’s a marvel to witness. Sure, you can see crew members in some shots, dialogue and lip movements aren’t always in sync, and characters seem to slightly age between shots. Jackson goes full on one-man crew: directing, writing, cinematography, editing, and special effects pre-Robert Rodriguez. You can see many of the traits brewing that would be seen in Jackson’s later fantasy epics. There’s an incredible amount of coverage, ambitious camera angles & shots, and this all-around energy as the characters are running all over town (physics and stamina be damned). You can really feel the passion at play, as anyone who’s made a film with friends can tell you, it’s hard to keep morale high, especially when the only guy not on screen has to hold the camera.
As far as tone, Bad Taste is a laugh a minute. The film pushes over Re-Animator in terms of combining splatter horror and slapstick. Not a scene goes by without a character smashing through a surface or tracking their feet through a questionable substance. Couple that with copious amounts of fake blood and severed limbs, and you’ll be chuckling through clenched teeth. This is also a case where lack of proper equipment led to creativity. Due to the lack of sound equipment during filming, Jackson had to go Italian cinema style and record all sound in post-production. This did allow for the addition for every cartoonish sound effect at the filmmaker’s disposal, fully embracing the sadistic Looney Tunes feel that Jackson would implore in his later films, Meet the Feebles and Braindead (Dead Alive in the US).
Back to the film, Barry rescues Giles from being executed by the aliens, while Ozzy fires off an RPG at the house. The aliens all revert back into their natural, gross form (probably shouldn’t be eating any Chicken McNuggets during the climax). Next, a backyard, John Woo style gunfight ensues, followed by an insane Derick wielding a chainsaw while dealing with a gaping head wound. With most of his foot soldiers killed off, Lord Crumb makes his escape, revealing that the house is their spaceship. The ship takes off leaving the boys dumbstruck. But Derick is still inside and promptly eviscerates the alien leader, and puts on his skin. He proudly declares "I'm coming to get you bastards!" as the ship flies off to the alien home-world.
Sometimes, you just need a good ole fun, ridiculous film to take your mind off the world. Bad Taste demands a bigger following than it has had and should be mandatory viewing for both fans of schlock and first-time directors. It’s a goofy, slimy testament to the passion for storytelling and a filmmaker discovering his craft. And it’s even more incredible that a film this unapologetically crass launched the career of a future Academy Award winner. If this was made ten years prior, it would have Midnight Movie status and would be double featured with Pink Flamingos. And Jackson is still proud of Bad Taste, mentioning it and his other early works in his best director speech. Most of all, you can see Bad Taste’s influence in The Return of the King, where a memorable looking Orc captain bears an eerie resemblance to Lord Crumb.
Last year, Peter Jackson announced that he’ll be remastering his early works for a 4K restoration, so in due time, Bad Taste will have its rediscovery and a new generation of horror fans can experience the Clown Prince in high-def glory. We can all appreciate a film where the director plays a character with his brains leaking out of his head. There’s your metaphor right there. Turn your brain off and enjoy the show.
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