Dr Rex Martin (Bill Pullman) is a scientist specialising in the human brain, and at his office he has a large collection of specimens which are all labelled according to whatever was wrong with them. Actually, his collection has just been reduced by one when his assistant drops a jar, but he feels he can salvage some of the remains for more experiments. And experiments are on the mind of his old schoolfriend Jim Reston (Bill Paxton), now a executive at a research institute, who has a proposition for him: visit an ex-worker of theirs, the pioneering but now hopelessly paranoid Dr Halsey (Bud Cort)...
If you get confused over which is which out of Bill Pullman and Bill Paxton, then Brain Dead isn't really the film to see as it's deliberately befuddling from the first scene. It had an odd history, being taken from a script by one of Roger Corman's top writers and indeed one of the leaders in the field of fantasy writing, Charles Beaumont, a fine talent who had died tragically young from premature Alzheimer's back in 1967. Corman had held on to this script all these years and the project was eventually realised in 1990.
It was a noticeably low budget affair, and much of its disorienting effect lay with the swift cutting to different locations just when you think you have the plot pinned down. If anything, it resembles a Philip K. Dick story brought to the screen, especially in its use of paranoia as the main thrust of the action and adorned with science fiction trappings such as brain surgery of a kind we are unused to, and likely never to reach, unless you really can open up someone's head and place electrodes inside which can land them in a situation from their memories.
But is Dr Martin in Dr Halsey's memories? This is what we must ask if we are to make any sense of it, yet so playful is the script that it is reluctant to commit itself to any one reality. In truth, even at under an hour and a half it can become exhausting to keep up with a narrative which never settles down, but Pullman manages to bring off a character who is deeply exasperated, yet desperate to find his bearings. It all stems from his visit to Halsey in the sanatarium he is incarcerated in, and while he's patently mad, this insanity infects the whole film the longer Martin tries to cure it, or at least draw vital knowledge from it.
Of course, after a while the most vital knowledge for Martin is the true facts of his own identity, as after a hit and run outside the research corporation everything goes haywire for him, and he gets people reacting to him as if he were Halsey, even ending up in the sanatarium and tormented by a doctor (Nicholas Pryor) he has previously seen as hallucinations of a man in a bloodstained white suit. But is it Halsey who is the real villain? Or maybe Reston, who Martin suspects is having an affair with his wife (Patricia Charbonneau)? There are so many reveals and steps back to see a bigger picture, or a differing point of view anyway, that it's tempting to give up and allow the film to turn into a total, mindbending enigma - it ends with a shot that takes the "it was all a dream" cliché and reduces it to its basics. Music by Peter Rotter.