Although The Brain That Wouldn’t Die is often lumped in with z-grade schlock and was even amusingly mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000, it is an underrated horror/sci-fi gem. The argument can be made that the film was actually influential in terms of its use of gore and sexuality. Additionally, there are interesting themes such as morality and the potential of science.
The picture centers around a surgeon named Dr. Bill Cortner (Herb Evers) who has developed a new serum in order to make organ and limb transplantation possible. The serum is supposed to prevent tissue rejection; this obstacle has plagued Dr. Cortner’s previous attempts. Dr. Cortner gets the chance to use his new serum when his girlfriend Jan Compton (Virginia Leith) is killed in a car crash. After the crash, Dr. Cortner saves her severed head and attempts to find her a beautiful body in order to perform a transplant. Jan would rather die than have this transplantation performed by her unethical boyfriend.
Although the plot may sound a little ridiculous it is somewhat grounded in science (aside from a severed head being able to talk). The movie was filmed in 1959, just five years after the first successful kidney transplant. It would be nearly another decade before the first successful heart transplant and not until 1998 for the first successful limb transplant (there was one in 1964, but it rejected after two weeks). Aside from the then contemporary issue of organ transplantation, the concept of tissue rejection is examined. Although the issue may have appeared to be “sci-fi” at the time, it remains a pertinent scientific issue plaguing doctors to this day.
Despite being a cheaply made B-movie, The Brain That Wouldn’t Die explores sophisticated concepts such as the role that science and medicine play in our lives, as well as ethical dilemmas involved in science. Dr. Cortner is essentially “playing God” in the sense that he is willing to take the life of an innocent woman in order to prevent the death of his girlfriend.
With that being said, this is still a cheaply produced flick which features cardboard sets, some obvious discontinuity and so-so acting. If the viewer is willing to look past this, or better yet, embrace it; the film is undeniably entertaining. Herb Ever’s performance as the leading man is decent enough and Virginia Leith is effective in her role as the severed head. Lee Daniels who plays Dr. Cortner’s assistant overacts a bit, but it is not overly distracting.
The writing is decent for a movie of this ilk. One might expect a multitude of cringe-worthy lines to be sputtered about due to the film’s budget, but there are none really to be found. Even though the concept is a little outlandish the writers (Rex Carlton and Joseph Green) have obviously done a little scientific research which makes the dialogue somewhat grounded in reality. Additionally, the two writers must have also been familiar with H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Re-Animator” short story.
Unlike other sc-fi/horror film in late 1950s and early 1960s, “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die” features a couple gory scenes as well as some overt sexuality. Both gore scenes involve a deformed monster who is essentially Dr. Cortner’s guinea pig. *Spoiler Alert* The first scene involves the monster (Eddie Carmel) ripping off the arm of Dr. Cortner’s assistant Kurt (Lee Daniels). The second involves the monster taking a bite out of Dr. Cortner’s neck. Both sequences showcase a good amount of blood which was usually not evident in films from this era. The release of the film was actually delayed due to its gore content and when it was finally released it was censored.
Furthermore, the use of sexuality in the film is risqué for its time. There is a scene in which Dr. Cortner peruses a burlesque club in search of a body for his experiment and a scene in which two strippers engage in a cat fight. Near the end of the film Cortner makes one last attempt at securing a body by visiting a model’s lingerie photo shoot. The scenes may appear tame by today’s standards but these scantily clad women must have raised a few eyebrows upon the film’s initial release. The film’s “seedy” scenes are accompanied by equally sleazy sounding music. The sax-heavy jazz music nicely compliments the “body shopping” scenes and makes Dr. Cortner’s intentions appear to be all the more seamy.
The aforementioned qualities do not justify the film as a classic, but it does merit it as an underrated gem. I dare anyone to watch the film and not find it at least mildly entertaining. Not to mention that it’s was ahead of its time in terms of the future of medicine and science. After nearly fifty years since its release it is time that this film receives its just due as an entertaining early sci-fi/horror flick.