A lingering unease radiates from director-screenwriter Laura Moss’s unnerving Birth/Rebirth which sits on the Sundance Film Festival 2023’s Midnight slate. Taking the concept of reanimation and breathing a grim realism into it, Moss and actors Marin Ireland and Judy Reyes present a bold, uncomfortable and sharply amusing horror.
Co-written with Brendan J. O’Brien, Moss’s Birth/Rebirth centres on pathologist Rose (Ireland) who has a fascination with reanimating the dead. Her world collides with that of maternity nurse Celie (Reyes) after an accident involving her six year old daughters prompts, an uncomfortable partnership with Rose.
Reanimation is a familiar concept in the genre as seen in features such as Flatliners, Reanimator, or The Lazarus Effect but it is hard to think of a feature that does it with such a bloody, grimy realism as Moss’s. Opening with an ominous whirling score from Ariel Marx and scenes of gory, intricate medical procedures, Birth/Rebirth launches into its themes of the complex lines between life and death and the parties that decide which side we fall on. In the case of Marin Ireland’s Rose, she’s an uncomfortable steely presence who approaches her relationships with the same coldness with which she attaches to her scientific procedures – introducing themes of the unease of someone with such a icy demeanour making the most human of decisions.
Where Rose is the cut-throat medical pioneer who utilises a tragedy that befalls Lila (AJ Lister), the six year old daughter, of a nurse from the same hospital, Celie, the latter is the mother begging for a second chance for her child. Sloppy disposal of Lila’s body and lax rules from the morgue leads to Celie tracking Rose down Lila to the home of Rose, which is part domestic dwelling, part playground of medical experimentation (even down to a domestic pig used in Rose’s research). What follows is a curious partnership, where both women navigate the uncertain world of reanimation for their own respective needs.
Murky grey colour palettes from cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj mirror the steely coldness and clinical feel in aesthetic decisions from the drably modern hospital to icy morgue interiors. Despite this sense of darkness that fills the narrative, Birth/Rebirth allows for an uneasy pitch black humour to permeate throughout – Rose’s “seduction” of a grubby barfly complete with rubber gloves and a sample cup.
The narrative of Birth/Rebirth finds further conflict in the unnatural side-effects of reanimation with Lila’s behaviour growing increasingly stranger as she is maintained by the experimental treatment. Further unease comes in the stress of stem-cell supplies running low and it becoming an increasing struggle to prolong Lila’s treatment.
Birth/Rebirth presents an unflinchingly grim take on the reanimation horror, investing us in its richly crafted characters and presenting a brutally realistic and fresh spin on a familiar genre concept.