The Brain that Wouldn’t Die (FrightFest 2020) review – a sci-fi horror that refuses to die

By Alix Turner
Published: October 22, 2020 (Last updated: February 13, 2024)


An affectionate and intelligent remake of the 1962 film with added humor. Looks great and works well, and the additional elements mean no fan of the original can entirely know what’s about to happen.

I must confess I hadn’t come across the 1960s sci-fi horror The Brain that Wouldn’t Die until I heard that a satirical homage-style remake was on its way. So I tracked down the original film to watch first. It was entertaining and almost quaint: a story of old-fashioned misogyny dressed up as ethics and madness from various angles.

Derek Carl’s remake acknowledges this, embraces it with energy and affection. At the start, it looked like an almost word-for-word copy of the earlier script. As soon as the first surgery started, and Dr. Cortner the younger was thoroughly sprayed in blood, I saw how elements had been tweaked and added to the source, just as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was edited and embellished from its.

Let me fill you in – or remind you – of the story. Dr. Bill Cortner and Dr. William Cortner, his father, are surgeons; the younger interested in transplant experimentation and the elder only into operating “by the book”. When Bill’s fiancée Jan is decapitated in a car accident, he is able to take his experiments to the next level: he keeps her head alive and turns his attention to finding a new (and suitably attractive) body for her. With clear overlaps into both Frankenstein and Re-animator stories, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is ludicrous and ripe for jokes (as evidenced by the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 treatment), especially as it presents its horror seriously, despite being full of holes.

This modern remake fills in some holes, extrapolates some of the plot, and makes beautifully retro digs at some of the melodrama and what would be politically incorrect to today’s audience. Carl is showing us how he would prefer to present the 1962 story, and at the same time giving the old film a friendly ribbing. The affection is clearly there, especially in the closing credits where equivalent images from both films are shown together, highlighting how closely the period styles and sets have been maintained.

There are differences in the plot, especially towards the end, and also in the way some of Bill’s target “bodies” refuse to play ball. But what’s noticeable from the start is the bright, joyful color, which makes everything sharp and exciting. The people have significantly more energy to them as well: Jan is played by Rachael Perrell Fosket (Midway) this time, much more expressive than the late Virginia Leath. Dr. Bill Cortner is played by Patrick D. Green (First Cow), who manages to emphasize the selfish alpha male personality with a simple look at times, and snappily dressed whether for an operating room or a burlesque hall.

In terms of the humor, well, in my opinion, The Brain that Wouldn’t Die is funnier than any Mel Brooks, more intelligent than Troma films, and more respectful of its audience than, say, Frankenhooker. I enjoyed the film – Carl’s first – immensely, and I hope everyone at the European premiere does too, at FrightFest, October 2020.

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