Famous Firsts: Bad Taste (1987)

Focusing on the debut feature work of famous, and infamous, figures of film

Debut film of: Peter Jackson, writer and director

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By Roderick Heath

In the depths of a governmental office, a shadowy bureaucrat, upon hearing a report of an alien invasion, dispatches his operatives from the Astro Investigation and Defence Service (AIDS) to the scene of the landings, a small coastal town called Kaihora (which is Maori for “hungry”). The two agents on the scene, Barry (Pete O’Herne) and Derek (Peter Jackson), contend with the silent, stupid, blue-shirted men hanging around the town who prove to be the predatory aliens. One chases Barry through the deserted village, until Barry pulls out his .44 and blows its head off. Nerdy but ballsy Derek (“Dereks never run!” he declares) has captured another alien and has him safely suspended over a cliff edge with a rope around his ankle. Whilst awaiting the Service’s two muscle men, Ozzy (Terry Porter) and Frank (Mike Minett), nicknamed “The Boys,” Derek worries about an invasion of “extraterrestrial low-lifers” spreading beyond the town and attacking large cities, though he concedes the idea of them exterminating Auckland isn’t too objectionable.

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Soon Barry is being chased by a bunch of the alien goons. Derek fights off a trio of them, only to be hurled off a cliff by his alien prisoner to shatter his skull on the rocks. The Boys try to intercept a relief aid collector named Giles (Craig Smith) who’s due to go door to door in the town, before he gets captured. Giles escapes the town by the skin of his teeth, only to be caught when he seeks refuge at a large colonial house that is now the aliens’ base of operations. He’s left to marinate in a giant pot by the alien leader, Lord Krum (Doug Wren, voice of Peter Vere-Jones). Krum and his goons have landed on Earth in search of new taste sensations for Krum’s galaxywide chain of fast food restaurants, and they’ve slaughtered the whole population of Kaihora for treats that Krum thinks will help him regain the lead in the market: “McYabbalo’s Fried Boobrat won’t know what hit them!” Giles is going to provide their celebratory feast. But they didn’t reckon on the amazing competence of The Boys in comparison to their own amazingly feeble skills (they’re all “third-class workers,” Krum admits), and Derek, his shattered skull strapped back together with his belt, returns to the fray in order to give these intergalactic yahoos a taste of their own menu.

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Bad Taste is an exemplar of a dream that drives aspiring filmmakers the world over: an essentially homemade film made with sweat and duct-tape that displays enough energy and invention to start its director towards Oscar-garlanded triumph and riches. Bad Taste was the product of four years’ incessant, no-budget labour by Jackson and friends from school after work and on weekends, and funds from his day job as a trainee newspaper photographer. The production utilised homemade camera apparatus, including a crane and Steadicam harness; rockets that ran on fishing line; models made of cardboard; and foam-rubber alien masks baked to hardness in Jackson’s mother’s oven. Early sequences were filmed on a hand-cranked camera that allowed shots of no longer than 30 seconds, and most of the sound was added in post-production. As the production dragged on, the proposed storyline changed several times, and the concept stretched from a 20-minute short to a feature. It was finally finished with funding from New Zealand government film boards.

The movie Jackson and his mates patched together was a surprise success at Cannes, and swiftly became a true cult classic for gore and action aficionados. But a sense of proportion ought to be maintained. Bad Taste begins shakily and never quite makes you forget its backyard origins. The acting is largely shocking, the sound often badly post-synchronised, the narrative initially barely coherent, the score tacky, and, though Jackson’s gore-as-hilarity approach is as revivifying as it is in his subsequent, far more polished Brain Dead (aka Dead Alive, 1992), the jerry-built script’s humour is hit and miss. I’m not entirely sure if the film should be lauded for being as successful as it is in light of the distended, penniless production and the constantly altered storyline and script, because the truth is that it barely hangs together.

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And yet it’s a doggedly admirable film in that it’s obviously the work of an original, dedicated, and prodigiously talented creator. The familiar quirks of Jackson’s eye, with his love for wide-angle lenses used up-close to give his action an overlarge immediacy, and his swooping, physically forceful camera motions edited together with surprising sharpness and dexterity, are startling in such a context. It’s very difficult to describe how Jackson uses grotesquery as high comedy, but as skulls erupt, sledgehammers lodge in foreheads, spines are torn out and wriggle, guts are trodden on, and bowls full of green vomit are consumed with relish, it’s hard to stop laughing.

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The first part of the film begins so awkwardly, with its (perhaps deliberately) superfluous prologue and subsequent early scenes lacking an effective internal rhythm, that it threatens to prove a mere slapdash curio. But as the film finds it groove (right about the point when some money was finally injected into the production), it pays off with a lengthy, funny, well-filmed combat between humans and aliens, employing some deftly clever effects, such as those homebake latex masks and some wittily employed model work. The film’s imitation of a rollercoaster-like ideal of action movies is far superior to most action movies. The aliens, once revealed, are not only grossly ugly, but they also amble along like large apes with their swollen shoulders and buttocks jutting out of their clothes.

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Because it’s never even vaguely scary and not really tense either, Bad Taste works best as a comedy, sending up and mimicking a host of other genre entries and adolescent obsessions with a smirk on its face. It’s also a very antipodean piece of work in its way, extracting humour from the low-rent, arse-end-of-the-world vibe of it all. The Boys tear around in their souped-up Ford (“I told ya you should’ve gotten a Holden!” Terry rebukes Ozzy when it breaks down), listening to head-banger music that drives the aliens crazy. Evil alien overlord Krum irritably dismisses the heroes as “wankers” and describes them as a mob of “right arseholes” for killing his workers. The generic riffs are plentiful, from the deflation of macho men Ozzy and Frank, as when Ozzy gives a cigar to a wounded Frank, only to snatch it back when Frank tells him he doesn’t smoke, to the hordes of aliens who, unlike similar movie menageries of disposable Indians or Nazis who prove to be mysteriously bad shots, are easily wasted because of a well-defined lack: they’re too dumb to shoot straight. But the neat, satiric core—that the aliens are intergalactic fast food moguls visiting upon humans the sort of exploitative, consumerist carnage they dish out to other species—is not pursued as anything more than a broad joke.

Which is, by and large, a good thing: Bad Taste’s near-unique pleasure is in its lack of pretension and determination to let its audience in on the fun. The constant barrage of Jackson’s references and sly gags realise an almost MAD Magazine-like air of zany, culturally diverse attentiveness, as if, down at the edge of the world, all the world’s influences become refuse to be remade by the imaginative schlockmeister.

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When Jackson revisited the same style of outrage in Brain Dead, he to a certain extent recycled the approach of his debut, but also perfected it. References to it dot later works, like the hero’s car in The Frighteners (1997) and the look of the leader of the Orcs in The Return of the King (2003). Another consistent career motif Bad Taste revels in is the notion of the scrawny, deceptively nerdy hero winning through, as Derek runs rampant with his chainsaw, finally dispatching Krum in a coup de grace that sees him high dive and lance Krum’s head with the war cry, “Suck my spinning steel, shithead!” When he finally ends up wriggling about within Krum’s hollowed-out body, his head emerging from Krum’s ruptured loins, he cries “I’ve been born again!”—a notion repeated in a more Oedipal consummation in Brain Dead. Jackson, who plays Derek with a degree of amusing competence, also plays the alien Derek has taken prisoner, which leads to the utterly confounding sequence in which Jackson is fighting…himself. Derek is last seen drifting off into space on the spaceship (still in the shape of the house), threatening Krum’s home world: “I’m comin’ to get the rest of yez!” Such could have been Jackson’s warning to Hollywood.

Bad Taste is in very bad taste. I recommend that only people of good taste watch it.

Grade
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  • Rick spoke:
    19th/08/2009 to 2:15 pm

    I think there is a lot of the gleeful little boy left in Jackson, perhaps that was part of his problem with “King Kong”: gleeful little boys are notoriously bad at knowing when to quit.
    This sounds intriguing, but with my low tolerance for lousy filmmaking, maybe I’ll just see “Brain Dead” and be done with it.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    19th/08/2009 to 3:01 pm

    You’d never say to yourself, “future Oscar winner”, after seeing Bad Taste. All things considered, I like Jackson’s pre Lord of the Rings films better because they are more fun to watch. I think it hilarious that audiences were convinced of the truth of Forgotten Silver.

  • Rod spoke:
    19th/08/2009 to 9:38 pm

    I’m just a Jackson fan, period. He stands with Guillermo Del Toro as the most vigorous genre-attracted director alive.

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