Watching Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste (1987) again was a potent reminder of how much fun his early films were before he made the transition to respectable Hollywood filmmaker after the critically-acclaimed art house hit Heavenly Creatures (1994). His early efforts playfully give the finger to respectable cinema as they revel in cheesy gore and silly humor. Bad Taste is a 90-minute "splatstick" spoof of alien invasion movies as Jackson became New Zealand's answer to Sam Raimi. Shot on weekends over three years for only $11,000, Jackson's film utilized a small, but dedicated cast and crew with all the rough-around-the-edges charm of a low budget horror movie.
Jackson’s tongue is firmly embedded in cheek right from the get-go as the opening scene, with its shadowy government operative, takes the piss out of the James Bond movies. A small-town has been overrun by a nasty bunch of "astro bastards," alien beings bent on harvesting the Earth's population for their own greedy consumption. Fearing that they're being visited by, as Derek (Peter Jackson) puts it, "a planet full of Charlie Mansons," it's up to the brave men of the Astro Investigation and Defense Service (or AIDS for short - as one character says, "I wish we'd change that name.") to stop these "intergalactic wankers" from taking over the world.
We meet Barry (Pete O’Herne) as he encounters a shambling man with an ax. He says to Derek over the radio, “Geez, he could be Ministry of Works or something,” to which his buddy replies, “Nah, he’s moving too fast.” Barry pulls out a gun and blasts away, blowing the top of the man’s head off. Jackson makes sure to show a close-up of the brain matter complete with squishy sounds. The ongoing exchange between Barry and Derek is quite funny as the former laments, “Why can’t aliens be friendly?” while the latter replies, “There’s no glowing fingers on these bastards.” Barry and Derek are hilariously inept in dispatching the aliens while their cohorts, Frank (Mike Minett) and Ozzy (Terry Potter) drive in a muscle car and are rather adept at killing these otherworldly invaders.
Derek is the most hapless of the bunch, surviving on a seemingly endless supply of dumb luck as he spills all kinds of alien blood that splashes all over him before suffering a nasty injury of his own. Jackson gets a lot of mileage out of his very expressive face whether it is the goofy looks he gives as Derek of the even goofier ones as Robert (an alien also played by Jackson) and yet still finds amusing variations on each character.
Bad Taste is one of those movies that has a ridiculous, irrepressible charm all its own. The amateurish acting, the non-existent production values, and crude, yet effective special effects actually work in favor of the film much in the same way as Raimi's first two Evil Dead movies. There is some pretty inventive gore, like one alien getting a hammer in his head when another alien is shot by Derek who then proceeds to shoot its arm off. We then get an image of an alien with a hammer in his head and the arm still attached to it! What Jackson and company lack in budget and flashy special effects they more than make up for with hilariously memorable dialogue ("I’m a Derek and Dereks don’t run!") and plenty of local humor, complete with regional slang and references to Kiwi culture.
For such a low budget feature it is impressive just how stylish it is with Jackson’s creative camerawork that swoops by aliens and tracks along with our heroes. At one point, he pays homage to and manages to surpass the lunacy of Bruce Campbell fighting himself in Evil Dead 2 (1987) by playing two different roles, Derek and an alien named Robert, with the former torturing the latter. Through some clever editing, Jackson ends up fighting himself in an exciting battle atop a cliff.
In 1983, Peter Jackson planned to shoot a 10-15 minute film for the Wellington Film Festival. Originally entitled, Roast of the Day, it would eventually evolve into Bad Taste. Childhood friend Ken Hammon was enlisted to co-write the screenplay with Jackson and said, “The original idea was a guy who was collecting for a charity to fight starvation. He goes to a small town where these strange hillbilly people eat him.” At some point, they decided that the hillbillies were aliens in disguise. Jackson funded the entire production with $17,000 from working as a photo engraver at The Evening Post, Wellington’s largest newspaper. His parents loaned him $2,500 to buy a 16mm bolex camera with a sync speed motor and built all the other equipment himself, including dolly tracks, a crane and a steadicam. His crew consisted of himself and Hammon who spent hours shooting and carrying Jackson’s equipment over several locations on cold, sometimes wet Sundays for months. For the cast, he enlisted work colleagues who ended up spending years shooting the film on that particular day because everyone worked six-day weeks.
After a year, Jackson took a week off to edit the footage he had shot and assembled a 60-minute rough cut but realized that he didn’t have an ending. He wrote one and started shooting again, deciding to make it gorier when he felt that the rough cut was boring: “The film was vastly improved at this point, and much more entertaining.” Eventually, Jackson ran out of money and screened the footage for the New Zealand Film Commission’s executive director Jim Booth who liked it and had the ability to approve small amounts of money for script development. Booth gave him $30,000 in $5,000 checks over time, which allowed Jackson to quit his day job and buy costumes and sets. The Commission gave him $200,000 to finish post-production, which included blowing it up to 35mm, hiring a composer, doing a sound mix, and color timing among other things. Bad Taste had its world premiere at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival where Jackson sold it for a tidy sum of money and the film went onto have its New Zealand debut at the Wellington Film Festival.
Bad Taste not only skewers staples of the science fiction and horror genre, like E.T. (1982) and The Shining (1980), but isn't afraid to poke fun at itself with numerous in-jokes about New Zealand. This is a wonderful introduction into Peter Jackson's low budget roots, especially for people who only know him as the director of The Lord of the Rings films. This cult film gleefully trashes many of the sacred cows of the horror and science fiction genre while celebrating the low budget, no-holds-barred aesthetic of classics like Night of the Living Dead (1968) and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974).
Botes, Costa. “Peter Jackson: Made in New Zealand.” NZEDGE.com. May 30, 2002.
De Semlyen, Nick. “The Making of Peter Jackson’s Bad Taste.” Empire. January 2015.
Ihaka, James. “From Splatterfest to Epic Tale: The Price of Building an Empire.” The New Zealand Herald. November 26, 2012.
“Lord of the Cinema: Sir Peter Jackson Interview.” Academy of Achievement. June 3, 2006.
Williams, David E. “Braindead: An Interview with Peter Jackson.” Film Threat. February 17, 1992.