Has another filmmaker had the same amazing meteoric rise from novice to name as Peter Jackson? A mere 21 years ago he was an unknown Kiwi geek who had spent four years making his own monster movie. A quick sale at Cannes and his alien cannibal comedy was a glorified cult smash. But consider where he was in 1999. With only six feature films under his belt, and limited commercial cache to show for it, New Line named him the guide for their all important Lord of the Rings franchise. Three epics, billions of dollars, and a trio of Oscars later, Jackson is now a monumental moviemaking figure, an example of talent trumping the standard studio thinking. Looking back at 1987's Bad Taste now, it's clear that this was a director worth watching. But it's also clear that, within his limited budgetary purview, there was more ambition than ability.
The entire town of Kaihoro, New Zealand is missing, and its up to the Astro Investigation and Defence Service to figure out why. While Derek determines the extent of the damage, Barry explores the deserted city. He is attacked by a zombie and barely escapes with his life. Frank and Ozzy phone in, explaining they will be delayed in providing backup. In the meantime, Derek watches over a captured creature, hoping to determine their extraterrestrial flesh eating motives. An accident puts the mission in jeopardy, and when a charitable collector named Giles comes to town, he is kidnapped by the fiends. Turns out, aliens have indeed landed, and they intend to use Earth for some nefarious culinary aims. It is up to our foursome to put a stop to the plot, to save Giles, and keep the rest of the universe from experiencing the Bad Taste of Crumb's Crunchy (Human) Delights.
Revisiting this film after almost two decades reveals something very interesting - not only about what Jackson managed to accomplish, but with regards to that other rarified element, selective cinematic memory. Fans fondly remember Bad Taste as being an over the top splatter fest loaded with blood, bile, and body parts. In the windmills of one's ever mottled mind, it was an action packed farce, denim clothed zombies carving up the community while oddball government agents pass ironic judgment on the entire proceedings. With a last act that loses sight of the sluice and a gonzo gross out sense of humor, it was the first real film dork delight…
…except, none of this is really true. Like most myths, the legend of Bad Taste has been expanded (and exploited) to fit the gore lovers revisionist nostalgic needs. Compared to Jackson's brilliant Braindead (known to most as Dead Alive), this first film is relatively sedate. The arterial spray is evident, but slyly spaced out over the longish 90 minute running time. Similarly, the Kiwi genius has been funnier. Bad Taste is not as clever or cutting as Meet the Feebles, and lacks the consistency of his lauded later works. Finally, the film is not as frightening as one recalls. The final fifteen minutes is taken up with an extended gun battle which grows redundant after a while. Indeed, much of the movie plays exactly like what it is/was - a weekend workout among a bunch of schlock supporting fanatics.
It's a situation that stands repeating - Bad Taste is not a classic. It's not even the best example of this kind of cracked carnage. Instead, like most first efforts, it's the foundation for a filmic type, the natural extension of Sam Raimi's Evil Dead dementia filtered through a legitimate horror fan's fancy. Jackson is a noted student of the scary, able to wax wonderfully about everything from early Universal frights to the most obscure foreign fear factors. Bad Taste relishes that referencing. Rumor has it that Jackson fashioned it as a tribute to Tom Savini and you can see other noted homages throughout. Again, this doesn't make the movie a milestone, just a smart, sometimes special experience.
It's fun to watch Jackson in the unusual mode of actor, and a clean shaven one at that. As Derek, the head of Astro Investigation and Defense Service, he is almost unrecognizable. Talking in a high pitched accent that gives his entire demeanor a wimpified gloss, he's hilarious and hopeless at the same time. When he puts on the familiar facial hair to play tongue tied alien Robert, it's back to the human hobbit we know and love. The rest of the cast, made up of mates, chums, and other local well wishers, offer nothing more than glorified line readings, if that. Only a couple went on to pursue a career in film after Bad Taste. So this is clearly a homemade effort, a combination of desire and unbridled gumption given over to frequent fits of brilliance and, sadly, boredom. Viewed within the confined of contemporary splatter, Jackson's jaunt is almost inert.
In fact it's hard to champion long sequences of walking and worrying, the amazing New Zealand landscape providing the only real interest. Even more frustrating is the lack of continuous action. We don't expect a film from 1987 to be Shoot 'Em Up, but the lack of unbroken energy does undermine things. Once we get into the alien stronghold, things pick up immensely, and there's no denying the effectiveness of Jackson's handcrafted F/X (he even baked his monster masks in this mother's oven). But then the guns come out and Bad Taste shifts into creative cruise control. Watching extras flail wildly as they are riddled with squibs is one thing. Seeing it for several similar minutes feels like padding.
As a way of looking at Peter Jackson Version 1.0, the man who would later evolve into a myth, Bad Taste is a telling template. It offers up many of the things he would later explore in his creative canon, while suggesting that something happened along the way to significantly amplify his game. Watching any number of his recent films - from Heavenly Creatures to Return of the King - argues for Taste's treatment as a fluke. It's as if Chris Seaver went from making Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker to The Dark Knight in the span of a decade. When legend slams head on into the truth, the pile up is never pretty. Luckily, Bad Taste is better than such a collision suggests. It's also rather underwhelming.