(director/writer: Adam Simon; screenwriter: from a Charles Beaumont story; cinematographer: Ron Schmidt; editor: Carol Oblath; cast: Bill Pullman (Dr. Rex Martin), Bill Paxton (Jim Reston), Patricia Charbonneau (Dana Martin), Bud Cort (Jack Halsey), George Kennedy (Vance), Nicholas Pryor (Conklin/Ramsen), David Sinaiko (Berkovitch); Runtime: 85; Concorde Pictures; 1990)

“I felt cheated by its wearisome ploy of not decifering what was a dream and what was reality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Brain Dead is adapted from an intelligent story by Charles Beaumont, a former writer for the “Twilight Zone” series, who died in 1967. This chilling tale became one of style over substance. I felt cheated by its wearisome ploy of not deciphering what was a dream and what was reality, feeling more like I was being manipulated than treated to something special.

In a positive vein this low-budget film kept moving at a swift pace and the story was conceivable to a point. The film managed to hold my interest until about the halfway point, when too much of the same interplay between dreams and reality was never made clear, at which point I pulled the life support on this flick.

The story opens with a brain research scientist (he is also a brain surgeon), Dr. Rex Martin (Pullman), and his assistant Berkovitch, experimenting in their science lab on dead brains, where they keep jars of them stored in shelves along the wall. Pullman’s old friend and college competitor, a slippery marketer for the large Eunice corporation, Jim Reston (Paxton), visits his office and presents him with an opportunity to make a name for himself in science and become rich. Reston is aware that Martin developed a technology to alter personalities and to re-sculpture memory, by fiddling with one’s reality. Reston’s idea is that they can sell this to the public as a product and open up clinical salons, with people able to change their personalities. The slogan for the product would be: ‘The new you from Eunice.’

Reston also tells him he has a fresh brain available for him to use his ideas on, to see if they actually work. The person he is talking about is Dr. Halsey (Cort), a one-time genius mathematician who worked for the Eunice corporation (or he could be an accountant in Conklin’s mattress firm). Halsey is a paranoid psychopath who killed his wife and two children and three lab assistants for apparently no reason, and pleaded insanity. Halsey’s now in a private mental institution, Lakeside, where he denies everything. But he holds some invaluable numbers that he was working on for Eunice, that Reston says is classified information. It is further explained to Martin, that these are numbers we do not want to get into anyone else’s hands. The proposition is that we get you a meeting with him and you get to do brain surgery on him, and if you can manipulate Halsey’s thought process so we get the three numbers we need, fine. But if he should go brain dead, that’s fine too. Eunice’s corporate head (Kennedy) agrees to this plan. This is the most sense this loopy story will make, because everything gets more confusing from here on after Martin visits the harmless mental patient Halsey in Lakeside.

When Martin leaves the sanitarium he is walking in the street with a jar that has a brain in it and a homeless man attacks him, claiming that’s his brain. In the course of the struggle for the brain, a car runs over Martin. Martin falls into a world of nightmares, madness, and paranoia, where rationality is lost sight of. It plays like an episode derived from the “Twilight Zone,” as Dr. Martin’s technology is now being experimented on him.

Martin’s dreams include: seeing Jim making love to his lovely wife (Charbonneau) in the nude; that he is really Halsey; that the doctor who is treating him, Dr. Ramsen (Pryor), is from Lakeside and gives him shock treatments and the same surgery procedure he used on Halsey; and, that his life is completely disorientated, at one moment he is Martin at another he is Halsey. The nightmare keeps changing every ten minutes or so, so that not only is he confused but so is the viewer. There are also dreams within the dreams adding more confusion until the film ends on a dull conventional note, after all the expectations of something weird happening.

The payoff seemed too little. But the dream sequences were scary and the film had an intelligent approach to its horror rather than the usual exploitative one…if only it made more sense! Pullman seemed believable as someone losing his sense of reality, while Paxton was robotic in his role. All the other performances were as forgettable as the film.