Like many Australians of a certain age, my first memories of Philip Brophy’s infamous 1993 horror-comedy are related to its memorably bizarre VHS cover, which I saw repeatedly when I experienced horror films mostly as reveries inspired by browsing their cover artwork at the local video store. This one – likely designed with little fuss – depicts a giant, gorily detached eyeball hovering above a row of perfectly matching suburban houses. A cast list appears at the bottom, including some relatively big names from Aussie TV (Lisa McCune, Andrew Daddo, Ian Smith), whose faces are curiously absent from the cover itself. At the very top, the film’s tagline appears: “the first phase is glandular… the second phase is hallucinogenic… the third phase is…” Then the title below – each word emblazoned in garish orange and blue typefaces, respectively – completes the sentence.
This image of a depopulated, soulless suburban landscape beneath a giant, eviscerated eye – positioned like some disgusting panopticon – was at once queasy, apocalyptic and threatening, and, as I would learn a few years later upon finally seeing the film itself, entirely apropos. Body Melt’s main setting is the fictional Pebbles Court, Homesville; a sterile gated community located in a cul-de-sac street somewhere outside of Melbourne, and introduced with a smooth tracking shot that makes the area look computer-generated. The residents are soon to be the guinea pigs of the new dietary supplement pill “Vimuville” (revealed in one of the film’s funniest gags as an acronym for “VIsceral MUscular VItalization of Latent Libidinal Energy”), delivered to their mailboxes from a shady pharmaceutical company of the same name, and which turns out to have gruesome side effects. The exceptions to the intake of this drug include two young men, who, in a Hills Have Eyes-like sub-plot, end up taking a horny road trip before becoming prey for a inbred rural family.
The latter digression initially feels unnecessarily elongated, but eventually reveals itself as a great shaggy-dog joke: positing that whatever nightmares Australian suburbanites can conjure about the ‘uncivilised’ outback are nothing on the horror of their own mediocre, aspirational, health-and-fitness-obsessed, bourgeois lifestyles. Without a main character, and only a barebones plot, Body Melt finally becomes a free-floating exercise in spectacularly gross makeup effects, subjecting its variety of caricatures (from expectant mums to helium-voiced bodybuilders to drug company nutjobs) to an assortment of fatal mutations, in which bodily organs revolt against their abusers (tongues swell to anaconda-size, penises explodes, placenta kills a soon-to-be father). As a piece of social commentary, it’s never particularly nuanced, but its gut-level, punk revulsion toward consumer culture is always matched by it’s artfully manic incoherence.
"A free-floating exercise in spectacularly gross makeup effects"
Indeed, Brophy (who as early as 18 was a member of the Melbourne avant-garde music group known as → ↑ → and who’s straddled art and academia since) actively and pointedly rejects demands of tidy storytelling or characters to identify with. His previous film was the experimental mini-feature Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat (1988), which presented a few days in the life of a corporate drone, accentuating all the metabolic detail of his daily routine – through expressionist camerawork and sound design – to the point of surrealism. Body Melt is as much of an expansion on that film as it is a successor of Peter Jackson’s early splatter-comedies like Bad Taste (1987) and Braindead (1992), albeit more hostile in tone than Jackson's relatively childlike work. The influences of Body Melt are broad-ranging – J.G. Ballard, Jean-Luc Godard, DEVO, Ozploitation, as well as informercials, TV soaps, porn, and music videos – befitting Brophy’s multi-disciplinary background. The manner it combines these reference points is graceless by design; the whole film feels like it’s been assembled by a frustrated viewer’s channel-surfing, adding up to a work that’s against everything including itself (the infectious techno theme song, composed by Brophy himself, includes a sample of the words “healthy, wealthy, wise”, turning the title of the Channel 10 staple into a sneering, sinister mantra.)
The most prominent template for Body Melt’s premise is David Cronenberg’s 1975 debut feature Shivers, in which the repressed, middle-class tenants of an anonymous high rise building become the victims of a mysterious sex-epidemic. Both films are equally unpolished and inventive, but while Shivers established Cronenberg as an exciting new talent, and laid the path for his long, diverse career in feature filmmaking, the reception to Body Melt killed any chance of Brophy making the same impact. “Ten years ago, I thought it would be really fun to get the then 'Coles girl' (Lisa McCune) to drop her placenta one month prior to child birth, then have the placenta force it's way down her husband's (Brett Climo) throat while her womb explodes”, wrote Brophy, reflecting on the film in a 2004 piece titled ‘My Dreadful Failure as an Australian Filmmaker’, which echoes the caustic, despairing humour of the film itself. “I also thought it would be a barrel of monkeys to kill a whole lot of soapie stars in a feature film. I also thought people would like it. Here in Australia, they sure didn't.”
Even with little surviving evidence of its general critical and commercial failure, it’s not hard to see why – Body Melt is as nihilistic as horror-comedies get, sledgehammer-subtle as a satire, with a narrative that’s desultory and nonsensical even by the standards of the genre. And yet, as a gleeful decimation of Australia’s middle class, it has a rare gusto that has lost none of its bloody and snotty power.
Watch 'Body Melt' at SBS on Demand now
Genre: Horror, Comedy
Director: Philip Brophy
Starring: Gerard Kennedy, Andrew Daddo, Ian Smith, Regina Caigalas, Vincent Gil
What's it about?
Residents of peaceful Pebbles Court, Homesville, are being used unknowingly as test experiments for a new 'Body Drug' that causes rapid body decomposition (melting skin etc.) and painful death.
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