If David Cronenberg were suffering from a severe case of the baby blues, he might have cooked up something like birth/rebirth, a queasily clinical horror debut from Laura Moss that explores the darker sides of child rearing, from birth to death and way beyond.
Not for the fainthearted, this twisted if not exactly terrifying feature takes some cues from Stuart Gordon’s 1985 cult flick Re-Animator, as well as from classics like Dracula and Frankenstein, in its grisly portrayal of two women resurrecting a little girl’s dead corpse in the name of science and love.
The Bottom Line
What to not expect when you’re expecting.
Loaded with placentas, fetuses and enough plasma to supply several blood banks, the film uses its ample gore less for shock value than to channel the invasive medical procedures and transformations female bodies undergo while procreating, as well as the loss that women can experience afterwards. In other words, birth/rebirth is one big creepy metaphor for motherhood.
Set between a dreary public hospital and housing project in the Bronx — the exteriors for the latter were shot in Co-op City — the film begins with an excruciating labor scene in which a midwife, Celie (Judy Reyes), does her best to coach a first-time mother through a painful and problematic birth. Alas, things don’t turn out well, and soon enough we’re down in the hospital’s basement with the obsessive and prickly pathologist, Rose (Marin Ireland), who’s been left to clean up some of the mess.
Rose is a woman who clearly prefers dissecting bodies over talking to actual living people, but there’s more to her than just her icy antisocial behavior. She’s up to some strange things down in the lab, taking home human tissue samples and other specimens, which she uses to concoct mixtures that she then injects into her pet pig.
Yes, Rose keeps a pig in her Bronx apartment, while her social life consists of brief forays to local bars where she picks up unassuming men and, well, gets specimens out of them also. As warped as that seems, director Moss and co-writer Brendan J. O’Brien infuse their film’s early scenes with a dark brand of humor, setting the tone for a story that gets progressively weirder when Rose takes her experiments to the next level.
This happens after Celie, a single mom trying her best to make ends meet, drops her sick 6-year-old daughter, Lila (A.J. Lister), at a neighbor’s before rushing back to work at the hospital. Little does she know that Lila has contracted a fatal case of bacterial meningitis that will kill her in a matter of hours. The poor girl soon winds up on Rose’s chopping block in the pathology lab, and faster than you can shout, “It’s alive!” becomes her next guinea pig in a deranged scheme to bring back the dead.
It sounds crazy, and gets crazier when the grieving Celie catches wind of what’s happening. But Moss makes the drama work by focusing less on the science than on the emotions Lila’s rebirth provokes in both women: the solitary Rose, who’s more attached to the living dead than to her fellow humans, and Celie, who prefers her daughter to be a comatose zombie than not to be there at all.
Things quickly get complicated when Rose needs to give Lila fresh infusions of placenta, plasma and other gunk to keep her going, first getting the said samples from her own tortured body and then requiring Celie to steal them while on the job. The Cronenbergian vibe takes over with plenty of gory details, including the introduction of a pregnant patient (Breeda Wool) whose records Celie manipulates so that she has to keep coming into the hospital for amniocentesis sessions.
Moss never shies away from the more gruesome aspects of pregnancy — kudos to the special makeup effects team for delivering all the credible flesh and blood — in a movie that emphasizes how the experience can leave women marked for life, whether they’re happy moms or not. And even if you don’t buy the film’s central premise about cell regeneration or whatever Rose’s special elixir does, the bond that it winds up creating between the two women and the walking dead Lila becomes strangely moving.
Rose and Celie are basically co-parenting a monster, and birth/rebirth contemplates if that’s really as bizarre as it seems. After all, there’s something altogether freaky about having another life form develop inside you, and many films featuring body horror, from Cronenberg’s recent Crimes of the Future to the entire Alien franchise, have explored the concept before. Moss tackles the idea from a more intimate and feminist perspective, questioning how far mothers are willing to go for their children, or simply to become mothers at all. If what happens in her movie seems altogether extreme, maybe it’s because the world we live in tends to push such women to extreme places.