Peter Jackson's Early Horror Films Were Funded By A Back-Door Government Deal

Most directors come from humble beginnings. Peter Jackson came up from the bowels of underground horror filmmaking in New Zealand. Actually, he was pretty much the only kid with a camera spraying blood and guts across the countryside long before it would be known as the home of Middle-earth. It's been said before, but the fact that the director of what is perhaps the goriest film of all time, "Dead Alive" aka "Braindead," went on to create the greatest fantasy epic of the new millennium with the "Lord of the Rings" franchise, is nothing short of miraculous.

It's almost as if an alien from outer space beamed into Jackson's body and somehow transformed him into one of our greatest living filmmakers. To be fair, when you look back on Jackson's gore opus "Dead Alive" and his heroin-soaked sendup of the Muppets called "Meet the Feebles," the sparks of an ingenious creative force are absolutely there. Jackson, of course, wasn't taken over by an alien, but his first film, 1987's "Bad Taste," sees a group of gluttonous extraterrestrials invade a small New Zealand town in order to harvest human flesh for their interstellar fast-food chain. So, mix Douglas Adams's novel "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe" with "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and Larry Cohen's "The Stuff," and you've got the gist.

Constantly evolving into a larger project that seemingly took on a life of its own, "Bad Taste" took over four years to make. The kickoff to a truly improbable directing career would have never happened in the first place if it weren't for a clever workaround that allowed Jackson to essentially borrow (ok, steal) $5,000 from The New Zealand Commission — a still fairly new initiative at the time — in order to finish the film.

How to scam The New Zealand Film Commission and live

Turning "Bad Taste" from an ordinary short film into a full-fledged feature filled with monstrous special effects became Jackson's default do-it-yourself film school. Back then, New Zealand didn't really have an official film institute to enroll in. "I wouldn't have wanted to go to one even if we did because I'd just get impatient," Jackson told Film Threat in a 1992 interview. "I don't want to sit there being told what to do, I'd rather just go out and do it, and make my own mistakes."

Jackson grew up inspired by the anti-establishment antics of Monty Python and, as such, "Bad Taste" was originally more of a parody that just happened to get gorier over time. It's possible that part of the reason Jackson got the money to finish the film was because the Film Commission didn't get the chance to see just how gross it was going to be. Jackson showed what he had, telling Film Threat:

"I screened it for one guy in particular, Jim Booth, now my producer, who was then the Commission's executive director. He liked it, but knew he was going to have a tough job trying to convince the others on the board to back the film. However, he, as the director, did have the ability to approve small amounts for script developments, like $5,000. So he organized it behind the backs of his colleagues, but we eventually got [to] the point where we needed the money for post-production and had to go to the Commission with the film."

In retrospect, the 26-year-old filmmaker probably could have risked playing the film for the entire Commission. They eventually approved "Bad Taste" which went on to become "their most financially successful film," according to Jackson. 

A brief history of the New Zealand Film Commission

As alluded to earlier, The New Zealand Film Commission had not even been in existence for more than ten years when Peter Jackson came knocking on the door with his future cult classic. Parliament set up the Commission in 1978 and empowered the new project to champion and encourage New Zealand filmmakers. In recent years, the financial success of genre films at home and abroad (as a valuable export to sickos like me) have actually helped to support local films that have "socially redeeming values."

Cohorts of Jackson have even gone on to direct horror movies that were partially funded by the Commission. Danny Mulheron, for example, was recruited by Jackson as a writer on "Meet the Feebles" and went on to helm the delightful horror comedy "Fresh Meat" starring Temuera Morrison ("The Book of Boba Fett") as the head of a family of cannibals who suddenly experience a home invasion by a group of ignorant criminals. Mulheron was also on the Board at one time.

Nowadays, the Commission even has members like horror producer and director Ant Timpson ("Turbo Kid," "Come to Daddy") who helped create the movie-making competition Make My Horror Movie contest that awarded $200,000 to the winner. In the first iteration, New Zealand FX artist Jason Lei Howden won based on this compelling horror movie pitch:

"With some of the most inventive and shocking gore ever captured, 'Deathgasm' will gush bodily fluids, rain limbs and tickle your funny bone, before tearing it out and giving you a stiff beating with it."

What self-respecting moviegoer wouldn't want to see "Deathgasm" after hearing that? Jackson's first horror films remain some of the most successful films in New Zealand history, and the now harmonious relationship between the director and the New Zealand Film Commission continues to this day.