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Modern-day science helps two women reanimate the dead but is it worth forgoing the natural progression of life just to maintain what they both hold dear? This is the premise of birth/rebirth (stylistically lowercase title) which premiered at Sundance this week. 

Pet Sematary meets modern science in this disturbing film from director Laura Moss. Let’s throw in a soupçon of Frankenstein too, just to drive home how motivated the main characters are in this film. That’s important because instead of gravedigging and stealing brains in jars birth/rebirth’s reanimated corpses require fresh unborn fetuses and pregnant women. 

Like a hospital procedural, we are introduced to Rose (Marin Ireland) a pathologist who oddly finds comfort in working on fresh corpses in the morgue. We also meet maternity nurse, Celie (Judy Reese) who, although overworked, manages to spend what little quality time she has with her adoring six-year-old daughter Lila. 

Rose and Celie meet through tragedy when little Lila becomes ill and dies. Celie is frantic but level-headed even when her daughter’s corpse goes missing. This leads her to Rose’s apartment where she finds Lila, who, although not conscious, is alive. 

In an info dump, Rose explains that she is able to scientifically reanimate the dead using cells from a developing fetus and its placenta. In fact, her experiment is already a success in the form of a pet pig Rose keeps and treats at her house all the while keeping meticulous records. 

You’d expect Celie to be horrified at the sight of her dead daughter’s reanimated but catatonic body in a stranger’s apartment. But one of her first questions to Rose isn’t “why?” It’s how many times Lila has been turned to avoid lividity and atrophy. 

Thus we embark on a bloody journey with these two women as they try to complete their shopping list of harvesting human ingredients in order to progress the experiment. It’s unclear what will happen because Rose hasn’t ever taken it this far. Lila is beginning to respond to stimuli and attempting to speak, but is this just zombie muscle memory, or is the little girl accessing free thought? 

There is a lesson contained somewhere in birth/rebirth. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it was about going mad while playing God. Here the two women appear sane even though what they do is crazy. At one point Rose sifts through her own aborted viscera to gather what she needs. 

The obvious plot line motivation for Celie is how far she will go to “save” her child? But she isn’t saving her, and unlike Pet Sematary, this isn’t supernatural. This is science, not miracles. 

Director Moss pushes this story quickly through the lens. She doesn’t want you to think too much about the politics until after it’s over. In the meantime, her focus is on the two leads.

Rose is a by-the-books pathologist with nary a facade of empathy. Her brain works primarily to solve scientific puzzles. She is the type of person who won’t leave a clue unanswered in a crossword even if she has to cheat to get it. 

Celia acts like her henchman who literally has skin in the game. Reese plays the role with staggering empathy but with a serrated edge. If there is a possibility to bring her daughter back she’s willing to do anything for the chance and apologize later. 

It isn’t like birth/rebirth is going into untapped horror territory. There are a lot of ideas inspired by other works at play. This film has a subdued uneasiness that gradually builds until it has nowhere else to go: they either succeed or don’t. 

Gory but intelligent birth/rebirth is a sharp and thought-provoking nightmare with a tragedy at its core. It comes with a giant wink to horror fans who may snicker at some of its devices only to recoil when the body horror doubles down. 

Unlike the steady overflow of mindless slashers that dominate our favorite entertainment mediums these days, birth/rebirth, spends most of its time cultivating a dark premise in hopes it will blow your mind later. 

Shudder owns birth/rebirth, so be sure to keep an eye out for it on the streaming service.

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