The best film in “2001: A New Zealand Film Odyssey” is nothing new. The short Kitchen Sink, which played the festival circuit in 1989, was Jesus’ Son director Alison Maclean’s distinctively freaky calling card, in which a young woman pulls what appears to be a nasty clog of hair and dirt from her drain only for it to mutate into an embryonic amphibious creature and, later, a temporary, approximately human housemate; the film is a distaff Eraserhead with shades of Cronenberg and Jeanne Dielman.
The rest of the series is hard going. Geoff Murphy’s Utu was the first film from New Zealand to compete at Cannes (in 1983), but his intermittently gruesome both-sides-now battle epic, distinguished by equally unsympathetic portrayals of British colonialists and Maori warriors, hasn’t aged well. Harry Sinclair’s strident, scattershot ensemble farce Topless Women Talk About Their Lives doesn’t bode well for his new cows-and-courtship romantic comedy The Price of Milk (opening February 14), while Scarfies, Robert Sarkies’s tale of college kids who stumble into mass-market pot dealing, is mostly indistinguishable from any given Hollywood quickie with cute collegiate stars and a reactionary agenda.
Guided by no agenda apart from gross-out delirium, Braindead is a blood-squirting, flesh-rotting symphony of zombie havoc directed by Peter Jackson, who’s currently providing a big boost to the New Zealand economy by shooting his Lord of the Rings trilogy in locations around the country. Something of a cult classic, Braindead certainly gives George Romero a run for his money, but Jackson far better deployed his gifts for lurid black comedy in Heavenly Creatures.