From the very start of Birth/Rebirth, you know you’re in for a wild ride.
Director Laura Moss’s maternity horror film begins by thrusting audiences into the point of view of a pregnant woman in distress. You can hear the sirens of the ambulance. Then, you can see the cluster of surgeons who flock around her on an operating table. Her quivering voice asks if she’ll be okay, but no one will answer her. They’re too focused on saving her baby. She seizes to death as they attend to her newborn child.
We’ve been reeling about that brutal yet unnervingly plausible opening sequence since Moss’s directorial debut feature premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, pregnant people across the United States of America face the harrowing reality that their personhood might be overshadowed by a fetus. Like the unseen mother in Birth/Rebirth‘s opening sequence, they may be valued more as a vessel than a human.
While this is a brilliantly blistering way to set up one of the most remarkable maternity horror films of the last decade, Moss takes this scene to an even darker place with a third-act reveal. Though this scene is the beginning of the movie, it’s not the beginning of its story.
What happens in Birth/Rebirth?
After this opening sequence, Birth/Rebirth shows us what happens to mother and child. In doing so, Moss not only illustrates society’s harrowing indifference to healthcare for pregnant people but also introduces her heroines. The mother’s corpse is being handled by stoic morgue technician Rose (The Boogeyman‘s Marin Ireland). The baby is being looked after by warm maternity nurse Celie (The Horrors of Dolores Roach‘s Judy Reyes).
The main thread of Birth/Rebirth follows how these very different women become bonded by caring for another child. When Celie’s young daughter Lila (A.J. Lister) unexpectedly dies, Rose steals the body for a resurrection experiment. Though they begin as strangers, when Rose’s resurrection works, both mothers become committed to doing whatever it takes to keep Lila alive. And that means harvesting “fetal tissue” to formulate Rose’s special life-sustaining serum.
Initially, Rose used her own genetic materials, getting pregnant then inducing miscarriages expressly for this purpose. However, an infection leads to complications that leave her unable to conceive again. That means time is running out for Lila unless they can get the materials another way. Their plan B becomes Emily (Breeda Wool), a pregnant patient who is a match for Lila’s blood type. First, Celie will forge “inconclusive” test results to allow her to repeatedly steal the tissue she needs. But fed up by the stress and tests, Emily switches care providers, leaving Celie with no means to get more materials from her.
What is the horrible secret in Birth/Rebirth‘s opening scene?
The mothers try to find alternative solutions for the serum, but Lila’s health begins to fade. Celie can’t face losing her again, so she’s ready to do whatever it takes to save her. That means visiting Emily at home. Well, more accurately, that means ambushing Emily, drugging her, and causing a seizure, which ultimately brings Emily’s corpse to Rose’s department.
That opening scene wasn’t some random pregnant person who hit bad luck and an uncaring healthcare system. It was Emily, a funny and spirited expectant mother who was strategically murdered by Celie to keep her own child alive. Moss shows us the opening scene again, this time revealing Emily’s face and the traitorous Celie riding along in the ambulance, silent and watchful.
But even with Emily’s whole placenta extracted from her corpse, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll need more. And this grim pact of parenthood is what hangs heavy over Birth/Rebirth‘s conclusion. Lila is fine. For now. But what won’t a mother do for her child?