MVPs of Horror: 'Dead Alive' star Timothy Balme talks zombie babies and blood-spewing lawnmowers 25 years later

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Timothy Balme in Braindead, aka  Dead Alive (Photo: Mary Evans/New Zealand Film Commission/Wingnut Films/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

These days, Peter Jackson is recognized on this earth (as well as Middle-earth) as a blockbuster filmmaker, having helmed both The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. Rewind the clock 25 years to 1992, however, and Jackson was just barely a household name in his native country of New Zealand. But he didn’t let his relative obscurity keep him from making movies: His first two films, 1987’s Bad Taste and 1989’s Meet the Feebles, were low on budget, but high on creativity … not to mention gore. And they served as his calling cards as he went about putting together his third — and, at that point, most ambitious — creature feature, a blood-soaked zombie picture called Braindead (aka Dead Alive). Speaking with Yahoo Entertainment, the star of that movie, Timothy Balme, admits he signed on knowing Jackson by reputation, but not having actually seen his previous work.

“Horror was not a genre I’d been familiar with,” remarks the now-50-year-old actor, who plays Braindead‘s hapless hero, Lionel — a reluctant mama’s boy who is then forced to kill his mother, along with a gazillion other zombies, after she’s bitten a plague-carrying Sumatran rat-monkey. “So after Peter cast me in the role, he sent me homework. He made me watch The Evil Dead and Dawn of the Dead and, of course, I watched Bad Taste and Feebles as part of that as well.” Asked whether either of those movies — particularly Feebles, a wickedly demented send-up of the Muppets — scared him off collaborating with Jackson, Balme chuckles good-naturedly. “No, I knew I was in good hands and that I was going to have fun. I mean, that’s the whole point!”

And as Balme tells it, a great deal of fun was had making Braindead, better known in this country as Dead Alive. Working with special effects guru Richard Taylor — who runs the world-renowned F/X house Weta Workshop — Jackson choreographed a cavalcade of cartoony carnage that led the film to be either trimmed, or banned outright, in countries around the world. But horror fans have been lapping up the film’s gonzo bloodshed for a quarter century and counting. We spoke with Balme about some of the sights and sounds he remembers from his Braindead days, including zombie babies and blood-spewing lawnmowers.

Yahoo Entertainment: One of the great things about Peter Jackson’s early movies is how tactile they are; he and his team are using so many homemade effects and props that have such great little details built into them.
Timothy Balme
: I was lucky to have been a part of that, because after Braindead — I mean, Dead Alive — he made Heavenly Creatures, which was the first time he started to get really involved in CGI. On Braindead, there were no effects that weren’t done the old-school way. There were also so many great camera tricks in that movie. I learned a lot, right out of the gate.

Balme snuggles a corpse in Braindead, aka  Dead Alive (Photo: Mary Evans/New Zealand Film Commission/Wingnut Films/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

You’ve been referring to the movie as both Braindead and Dead Alive. Do you have a preference between the two titles?
I didn’t understand why they changed it. At the time, I was told that in America there had been a film called Brain Dead a few years before, so they literally couldn’t use it. But we had just shot it and had been calling it Braindead, so it just became part of our subconscious. Having traveled around the world to various conventions over the years, it’s become more well known for people to say it like that. What do you think?

I like Braindead a lot more, personally. Dead Alive doesn’t really capture the comedy that’s part of the movie’s spirit.
That’s how I felt, yeah. The other thing, of course, is that I associate Dead Alive with the version that was released in the States, and there was quite a bit cut out. You guys had censorship issues, so we were always thinking of Braindead as the real movie, and Dead Alive as the kind of kids’ movie version. [Laughs] I don’t know if that still stands today. When I go to these conventions, the fans have their own version of the real movie that they’ve sourced from somewhere else. In Germany, I think was banned, which is probably why the German fans love it so much. My daughter is now 17 years old and she’s never seen it because I can’t get a copy! I had a VHS copy of the real thing, but it’s degraded over the years, so I actually don’t have a copy of the film, and I don’t want her to see the diluted one. I have to track that down sometime.

The scene that best encapsulates the film to me is the sequence in the park where you’re fighting the zombie baby. It’s got laughs, it’s got violence, and it’s got the crazy practical effects.
The interesting thing about that scene is it was shot after we wrapped. Peter wasn’t allowed to shoot it, because it was considered unnecessary and they’d run out of money. So we formed a little guerrilla crew and shot that after the film had officially wrapped. He was never not going to shoot it — he just had to find a way to do it after-hours. So I remember that scene vividly because it was shot off campus, so to speak, and it was fun. It was so much fun to do all that stuff.

Were all those extras in the scene actual passersby?
Oh, no, they were all crew members! The assistant editors and one of the production assistants was in there, and a guy from the art department played the old drunk guy. There’s one shot where I’m running towards the camera, and I’m hurdling bollard-type things. I hit one and fall over, and that was a real mistake. I messed up and whacked the s*** out of my knee. It was unbelievably painful. Peter said, “That’s great! That’s perfect! Cut! Excellent! Done!” We’d been shooting for, like, 14 weeks by then and I was tired, so I mucked up and was in absolute agony. Whenever I see that shot in the film, I relieve the pain.

You bring the physicality of a silent-film comedian to your performances. Were you thinking of actors like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton?
Buster Keaton, for sure. I probably didn’t realize going into the film how much we would need to reference that sort of stuff in terms of selling the story and the physicality, but it was something that I felt quite comfortable with. For that reason, I ended up doing pretty much all the stunts myself. There’s one stunt where my character falls through the ceiling. That was a stuntman, but then everything else, I did myself, I think, because the stuntman actually turned up at work the next day with a neck brace on. It was like, “Wow, he’s not going to be much good from here on in,” so I said to Peter, “I’ll do it.” And, of course, Peter was happy about that because it makes things easier anyway.

How did you complement your performance to fit Jackson’s directorial style? Those early films feature very rambunctious camerawork.
It was my first feature film, so I was reasonably inexperienced in terms of films. So from his point of view, I was probably quite useful in that I was just completely open to doing whatever was required. There was just so much to do, because for six weeks of the shoot we were filming the scene where the house gets trashed. That was shot in absolute continuity, because there was no way you could jump back and forth with that sort of destruction. So we shot it in sequence, but we also shot with two camera units, so while one unit was setting up a shot, I’d shoot with the other crew, and then run back to do the next one. It was just relentless, and having done a lot of stuff since, it was just the most fun because you’re so busy. I always say that, with most films and television, you get paid to wait and you act for free. But with Braindead, there was no time to feel that way. It was just wall-to-wall every day.

I have to ask about the infamous lawnmower scene. What are your memories of shooting amid all that blood and gore?
I have vivid memories of that, because the lawnmower was actually quite heavy and we did quite a lot of takes on it. That thing also squirted out an extraordinary amount of blood; it was something like 400 liters per minute or something like that. So my job was to wave this thing around in front of the zombie crowd in a desperate fashion. But as with the park scene where I injured myself, the shot that Peter uses at the end where Lionel is screaming that he can’t carry on was real. I couldn’t handle it anymore. I don’t remember how many takes we’d done of the scene, but I couldn’t handle it anymore. So that was my giving up, and Peter went “Great, we got it — yay!” [Laughs] I remember the place was just awash in blood. We’d be ankle-deep in the stuff, and they’d suck it up and repump it.

Did they have a special formula for the blood?
Braindead was a big showcase for Richard Taylor, who runs Weta now. I remember him coming to the set each day with all these cool new things we were going to do. So he came up with the blood, which, from my memory, was a large cart of maple syrup touched up with red food coloring and a secret ingredient that he reckoned was coffee. The thing I remember most was the smell of the maple syrup. Under the studio lights, that stuff started to cement, so when you had blood spread on the walls and stuff, you’d come to work in the morning and get this sweet smell of decay. Worse than that, I was wearing the same costume for six weeks, and at the at the end of each day, it would be drenched and sticky. Because we were shooting in continuity, I’d have to hang it up in the dressing room and overnight it would harden. It was like putting on cardboard the next day! The only way to change was for the costume woman to hose me down with cold water and then it would soften again. Twenty-five years later, maple syrup still reminds me of that, so I don’t tend to eat maple syrup. I usually choose something else. [Laughs]

Dead Alive didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. When did you realize that the film had acquired such a huge following?
Honestly, I had no idea. The film wasn’t even a great success in New Zealand, because we’re a very small country. So the amount of people here isn’t enough to make a cinema release a big hit. So it came and went, and we moved on to other things. It wasn’t until I went to a horror convention in Germany in the early 2000s, that I realized the film had this big life and that people really cared about it. I went to a few more conventions in Europe and the U.S. and realized that it has this huge cult fanbase. Funnily enough, it made me feel more responsible about the film too, because people genuinely care about it.

I’ve had several people write to me saying that changed their lives or even saved their lives. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. And hey, to each their own! If this film helps get you through, say, the divorces of your parents, well, great! You know, when we were making this film, we would do what felt like excess gore and excess blood. Peter always wanted to get one more shot that he hadn’t planned, and he would say, “This one’s for the fans.” He already knew who he was making this film for and it would seem that it has stood the test of time because he knew who he was making it for.

Diana Peñalver and Balme in Braindead, aka  Dead Alive (Photo: Mary Evans/New Zealand Film Commission/Wingnut Films/Ronald Grant/Everett Collection)

Could you ever imagine a scenario where you and Peter team up for a sequel?
Absolutely! I’d do it tomorrow if he called. I think it would be really fun to revisit. Originally, the film was supposed to be set in the ’70s, and it was a late decision to move it to the ’50s. So the obvious hook for a sequel is that you cut to Lionel in the ’70s and the zombie virus continued. We could do a pastiche of New Zealand in the era as well, that way. So there’s an obvious opportunity there, but Peter is one of the busiest men on the planet. After The Hobbit I heard that he really wanted to do something off the grid and simple again; it’s just whether he could afford the time. Having said that, the other side of the coin is that Braindead is still really great, so you always have that fear that you’d make something that isn’t nearly as good. That’s always a risk, and is it a risk you’d want to take? I’d take it, but that’s just because I’m game!

Dead Alive is (just barely) available on DVD.

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