‘Bad Taste’ (1987) Review

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“The bastards have landed!”

The thing I most remember about the first time I saw Bad Taste has nothing to do with the film itself, but rather with the presentation at the video store. The cover features an alien giving the middle finger to the camera – to anyone who looked at it, basically. That was unacceptable to our small town shop, so some creative clerk had photocopied the offending digit and duplicated it. The cover then had the two finger salute, which would only offend people from England who might wander in.

This tickled me way more than it should have and I think I rented the film purely out of a perverse sense of solidarity with a filmmaker who would create such a petty hassle. I was NOT prepared for the film itself. I had heard nothing about it and didn’t know what I was in for.

Which reminds me to include this little graphic I save for discussing films like this. We’re going to be taking a little trip down:

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(This means gory descriptions and images below.)

SO MUCH GORE. I was uncertain about the opening (in which a shadowy figure with multiple hand attachments calls in ‘The Boys’), the accents, the shoddy camerawork and acting. And then Barry shoots the top- uh, more like middle up – of a man’s head off and I was sold. It was terrible, but it was gloriously over the top terrible, from the spurting grue to the brains sliding down Barry’s pantleg. I knew no matter what happened next that I would be entertained. Anyone willing to start off with their film with this was capable of all kinds of crazy things. I was rewarded with much more in the way of blood, brains and even a bowl full of vomit that’s passed around like ceremonial drink.

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And that was my first experience with a Peter Jackson film.

In the time since of course he’s become a top tier director and producer. He’s won Oscars and founded a special effects company that rivals Industrial Light & Magic. Happily he’s never hidden from his low-budget roots and still speaks of his early films with fondness. As do I. Much as I’ve enjoyed his other films – from Dead Alive through The Frighteners to the Lord of the Rings trilogy – I still have a soft spot in my heart for Derek, The Boys, and those alien bastards from Crumbs Crunchy Delights.

The Medium
Streaming on Amazon Prime. I actually have an Anchor Bay DVD of Bad Taste, but I wanted to see if the Amazon stream was in HD – and it was! Peter Jackson has been ‘working on’ a restoration of his earliest films (Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles, Heavenly Creatures and Dead Alive) for several years now. If/when they come out I’ll be first in line, but for now this is the closest we get to a Blu-ray release.

The Movie
Bad Taste is the story of four men from a government agency trying to deal with an alien invasion of a small New Zealand town (Kaihoro – which is apparently a food pun in Maori). There’s not really a huge amount of plot in the film and it’s mostly a bunch of gore scenes strung together in a way that kinda sorta makes sense. Shot over the course of four years, mostly on weekends, it’s probably a miracle that it holds together at all.

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Barry (Pete O’Herne) and Derek (Peter Jackson) are the advance team – investigating the apparently empty town – while Frank (Mike Minnet) and Ozzy (Terry Potter) are the backup/paramilitary guys. The only people left in town are a group of denim clad men with limb control issues that Derek is just certain are actually aliens. While Barry tries to keep hidden from the men in town, Derek – high up on the cliffs above town – goes to interrogate their only captive, Robert.

Peter Jackson plays both Derek AND Robert, so there’s some creative editing and camerawork required to allow the two characters to interact. It’s done well enough that it was years before I realized they’re the same person. Jackson handled acting, writing, directing, cinematography, editing AND special effects for the film. (The masks for the aliens were even cured in his mom’s oven.)

Derek is ridiculous, but he’s my favorite character in the film. He’s bloodthirsty (his interrogation methods include pounding a bayonet into Robert’s heel while hanging him upside down off a cliff), clumsy, funny and a little too full of himself. He spends a good portion of the film on his own, but Jackson manages it. He’s got a good sense of physical comedy that comes in handy when Derek is dealing with a flap of skull that keeps allowing pieces of brain to fall out (a result of a fall of that cliff). Even today when faced with some situation I don’t want to face I’ll pull myself up straight and intone, “I’m a Derek. And Dereks don’t run.” Nobody laughs but me, but that’s okay.

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And he’s right – they’re all aliens. And the team is too late to help the townsfolk because they’ve all been chopped up as tasty tidbits for the galactic fast food market. There is a new victim, however – a charity collector named Giles (Craig Smith) who arrives at the worst possible time and ends up knocked unconscious. He wakes up in a barrel full of water and “secret herbs and spices.” The leader of the aliens informs him he’s to be the farewell feast when the aliens leave the next day.

Barry has seen Giles get taken, however, and he, Mike and Ozzy mount a rescue mission to the mansion the aliens are using as a home base. Things go well at first, but a late discovery means the team will have to shoot their way out.

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There’s so much gore before we get there, though. Derek’s head wound  (and the necessity of stuffing brain bits back in) is a standout, but there’s plenty of other minor and major stuff like Robert cutting his own throat accidentally, a nest full of crushed (but still twitching) seagulls, and neatnik Barry mopping up the brain and blood soaked kitchen. Ozzy tearing the head off of an alien and then kicking it out the window. “The ol’ magic is still there,” he says. Derek driving through an alien, tearing him in half and leaving a ropy thread of intestine stuck in the bumper. (I never thought of it before, but it reminds me of a similar sequence in Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror – which makes me wonder if Rodriguez has seen Bad Taste.)

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One of my favorite scenes involves Mike infiltrating an alien ‘staff meeting’ (by wearing denim, of course). At the conclusion of the leader’s speech – were we get the info dump about humans being a new taste sensation – they bring out Robert. And he proceeds to vomit a large amount of chunky, green fluid into a bowl. And then the aliens pass it around, each of them taking a big swig from the bowl. Poor Mike keeps moving down the line, but eventually there’s nowhere left to go and he’s forced to drink or be discovered. Turns out, it tastes pretty good!

Mike: “You guys will never guess what I just had to do!”
Ozzy: “Drink a bowl of chuck?”

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The inevitable gun battle goes on a bit too long and the gags are a little more tired during this sequence – like Mike shooting at a tree to take out a sniper and five or six aliens falling out – but the ending is worth the wait. We get rocket launchers, houses that roll up lawns before turning into spaceships, Derek arriving last minute with a chainsaw and yet another gory “born again” moment – a smaller version of a similar sequence at the end of Dead Alive.

The Bottom Line
Bad Taste is a gloriously gory entry in the ‘splatstick’ genre and a cult classic. You have to squint a bit to see inklings of the kind of films Peter Jackson would prove capable of later on, but they’re there in pacing, camerawork and sheer inventive energy. I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, but if you can deal with things like Peter Jackson eating brains out of the top of a man’s head, then this might just be the film for you.