Body Melt (1993) Retrospective

SUMMARY
The film is about the residents of Pebbles Court in the Melbourne suburb of Homesville who are the unknowing test subjects for a new variety of “Vimuville” dietary supplement pills that arrive for free in their mailboxes. The pills are designed to produce the ultimate healthy human, but have unexpected side effects including hallucinations and mutations. Despite the attempts made to warn the townsfolk from a previous test subject, who is now undergoing rapid cellular decay, he arrives too late, and crashes his car and is killed by tentacles growing out of his throat. The pills are consumed by the residents, and produce liquefying flesh, elongated tongues, exploding stomachs, exploding penises, imploding heads, monstrous births, tentacles growing out of the face, living mucus, sentient placentas, and other gruesome mutations. Ultimately more and more of the residents of the Pebbles Court mutate or die horrific deaths, until almost every character has been dispatched.

DEVELOPMENT/PRODUCTION
Body Melt, a serious attempt to produce a film that might be written in slime when recorded in the annals of cinematic history, has allowed him to add mucous marshalling, puke preparation, penis-popping and slime sluicing to their repertoire.

Philip Brophy and Rod Bishop sees Body Melt as a definite film for the Nineties, documenting and pushing to new extremes the absolutely modern phenomenon of the complete lifestyle obsession with “improving” the human body. “Over the past 15 years what’s come to the forefront is the question of how you can transform a body, whether it be through steroids, psychic healing, or any drugs you care to mention. Generally everyone’s become greatly obsessed with the living body. That’s what’s so great about horror movies of the last decade. Whilst many present spectacular explosions of death, what they’re really about is what the body actually does when it’s living. It might die afterwards but it’s how a body moves, pulls itself together, turns itself inside out. They’re the kind of ideas I’m thinking of with Body Melt. It’ll be good to see what a body could do,” says Brophy with obvious enthusiasm.

Pressed for further horrific highlights Brophy offers the following: “One idea, which I think is a bit more common, is where a muscular body builder is having sex. He exerts himself, the pressure gets too much, and his dick explodes! The muscles in his back are stretched so much that his skin rips open and the exposed musculature is seen throbbing away. I think lots of people wonder about that when they see these body builders. They often look like they’re about to pop. It’s just like I’ve been dreaming to see some of this stuff happen.” Brophy goes on to admit that the exploding dick does occur off screen but provides this detail. “The actor is wearing pajama trousers and a special rig that produces this big erection in his boxer shorts. He totally freaks out as his member grows bigger than it ever has before and we cut the scene just as he comes…to grief! I don’t discriminate over any area or part of the body, it’s all fruit for decay, and fodder to be used in some way.”

Further mayhem includes rib removal without anesthetic, an autopsy scene with a $26,000 fake corpse likely to distress more than the Italian authorities, a creeping ball of phlegm, a roller blade smack-’em-up, a snot explosion, tongue vomiting and kangaroo cannibalism! To enact this crazed early Cronenberg-like pic, Brophy and Bishop enlisted a cast that includes a motley crew of soap actors who all die horribly along with Mad Max veteran Vince Gill. Gill plays a former partner of Carrera who now presides over a family of semi-domesticated mutants.

“Generally, everyone has become much more obsessed with the living body. That’s what’s so great about modern horror movies of the last decade or so. Whilst many present spectacular explosions of death, what they’re really about is what the body actually does when it’s living. It might die afterwards, but it’s about how a body moves, pulls itself together and turns itself inside out. They’re the kinds of ideas I’m thinking of with Body Melt, picturing suppositions like, ‘What would happen if someone’s Adam’s apple split open and stretched apart so their vocal chords came out and strangled them?’”

Minutes later, we’re standing inside a university morgue that is just one of the several real-world settings utilized by the Body Melt team. While shooting entirely on location creates as many logistic problems as it lessens economic ones, the only real trouble this morning is entailed in getting to eyeball the amazing $26,000 Skinflex corpse created by Bob McCarron. Necks are craned and all eyes are directed towards the slab in this overcrowded room, upon which lies a naked, autopsied male body with the contents of its chest cavity and part of its stomach on display for all to see. This is the first victim of Body Melt; he has large, ugly, gill-like slits on his neck. In death he appears so realistic that many of the onlookers decline 1st assistant director Euan Keddie’s gleeful invitation to cop a feel of the neatly placed but entirely synthetic intestines. Filming then proceeds smoothly as two sweeping close-ups are made of the corpse: one with a towel strategically covering the body and another not so encumbered for the uncut version. Italian filmmakers have been taken to court for less gruesome scenes than this.

Soon we’re on the road to Nowhere, Body Melt’s little piece of outback. Nowhere is basically a private gas station-cum-diner situated on a farm that has been redressed in roadside debris by art director Maria Kozic, and rechristened as the tiny town abode of a family of murderous, fringe-dwelling mutants. Led by veteran Australian actor Vince Gil, who once unforgettably zoomed over nearby blacktop as the maniacal Nightrider in the original Mad Max, the “family” engages in such mayhem as terrorizing tourists, violating health codes and stoning kangaroos (to gobble their glands). As it turns out, they also play a major role in the film’s narrative.

Along the way, Rod Bishop, the congenial co-writer, co-producer and 2nd-unit director of Body Melt, fills in some more plot details. “The story revolves around a doctor (played by Aussie soap opera star Ian Smith) who’s been experimenting with ways to create what we call a ‘new you. The medicine he’s feeding people is meant to give the recipients’ bodies some sort of superhuman capacity. For various reasons, his experiments go wrong when he targets a few houses in a suburban cul-de-sac. The people who unwittingly ingest this particular substance begin to notice very strange things happening to them.”

Bishop goes on to describe the suburban court where much of Body Melt is set. “It’s a place where Spielberg wouldn’t film E.T. 2,” he says. “It’s so new that there are no trees. The houses look like they’ve just popped up out of the ground, and the lawns are all meticulously manicured. They all look identical. In fact, while I was shooting 2nd unit, Philip got us to go out and get some identical shots of courts so he could cut them together into a montage. We did so, only to discover a camera problem later on-and when we went back, we didn’t have a clue as to which particuar court we’d shot at!”

As we arrive in Nowhere, Bishop, who describes Body Melt as “police procedural horror, with the police always one or two steps behind,” briefly enlightens on his partnership with Brophy, with whom he worked previously on the shocking 1987 short feature Salt, Saliva, Sperm and Sweat. “I’ve done scriptwriting in the past, and worked with Philip on his last film. where I was more of a script editor than anything,” he says. “Both of our experiences are in teaching film and media. Philip’s film background is very broad, and he can be as eloquent about a movie by Jean Marie-Straub as he can be on the latest Sam Raimi flick. But when it comes to sitting at home at night in front of a hot VCR, you can bet that he’ll be taking in the latter.”

Nowhere, which in reality is only a short drive from the appropriately-named Pebbles Court, is seething with activity when we get there. Cast and crew are all working feverishly to avoid Melbourne’s notorious four-seasons-in-one-day-type weather and achieve today’s objective: getting a mauled marsupial in the can.

Besides the fast-fading rays, everything hinges on Neil Foley, wearing a tuft of hair and not much else as Bab, completing his mini-kangaroo feast by chomping down on a certain body part. When the shot is safely on its way to the lab, the opportunity arises to further question Brophy about Body Melt’s nasty highlights, which include—among other scenes—the severe self-mutilation and death of a young rollerblader, a bodybuilder dying of burst boxer shorts during sex and a man drowning in his own runny nose.

“What I’m after, and what I’ve asked Bob McCarron to set out to achieve,” says Brophy, “is for the audience to really feel like it’s their own body on the screen. That’s why, although we didn’t really go for realism, we also didn’t go for a totally over-the-top, theatrical, fake, highly stylized approach either. The bottom line was always the question of how someone in the audience was going to respond to an image of a body doing something. And that was the center, the focus of every transformation scene. Not how realistic it looks, or how gross it is, but how an audience member is going to feel while they’re watching it.”

While Brophy hopes Body Melt is afforded the chance to reach the widest audience possible, Americanization of the project has not been a consideration. “I’ve watched a lot of American movies; now you can watch at least one Australian film,” he laughs. Rephrasing that statement a tad more diplomatically, he states, “I hope that Americans can enjoy an Australian movie as much as I’ve enjoyed many American movies.”

On a wider but not unrelated note, Brophy also realizes that Body Melt is something of a test case in relation to his own future and the financing of other Australian genre projects. Before heading off to begin work on what is sure to be a unique horror soundtrack, Brophy relates an anecdote from what he otherwise describes as a controlled and efficient shoot. “We had one scene that required this actress to do this really vile thing with a huge tongue she had to vomit out,” he recalls. “There were actually four different tongues that Bob had specially made. She had to do this scene with goop and slime and all sorts of shit all over her. When she performed it, she really looked like she was choking on the tongue.

“Now remember, we’re talking about an actress who, like nearly all her fellow cast members, is a straight performer and wouldn’t even contemplate watching any sort of horror film in her spare time,” he continues. “Yet here she was, doing something grotesque with ease, and very convincingly. Then we had to place some fake phlegm around her nose, and she caught sight of herself in a reflection on the glass that was shielding the camera from any splatter, and she just freaked. She could handle this giant tongue and all this other shit, but this little bit of snot completely unsettled her.” Get set to be equally unnerved when Body Melt arrives in the U.S. sometime this year.

Interview with Director Philip Brophy

Director Philip Brophy

How do you feel about Body Melt?
Philip Brophy: Hard to tell, because I haven’t watched it in over 15 years! No, unfortunately. But the film did go over great at its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival; can you talk about that?
Philip Brophy: That MIFF screening is my only positive memory of the movie, where the response was genuinely connected to it and people got the sense of humor; they got what was fucked up about it. There was nothing perplexing to them in terms of the storyline being too complicated who is the central character, or why is that guy suddenly drinking detergent? The audience just rolled with the film’s energy and rhythm. On that night, there was a queue around the block for the sold out screening at the Astor—at the time almost unheard of for an Australian film, even premiering at its home festival. Usually, Australian films got a poor reception locally, but that was mostly because the audience for them in the ’90s was composed of the people who made the movie.

People just saw Body Melt for what it was and laughed and had a good time, and got the gore and horror aspects. Our thesis all along-well, particularly mine was that Body Melt should be playing at suburban multiplexes rather than innercity art-houses. I knew those audiences wouldn’t get it. As it transpired, it seemed a bit delusional to think the film could get into those environments where it would have been received with less bias. The way film distribution worked then, and still does today, is that distributors deem movies that are too quirky, too difficult or just plain non-commercial to be outside that small art-house niche. In many respects, that is true; there are lots of dreadful, utopian, well-meaning, politically correct films that subscribe to whatever conditions our culture kind of imposes on so many people involved in the industry, but there needs to be some kind of slack given to movies that don’t go down that dominant path.

How did you feel about shooting Body Melt in outer suburbia?
Philip Brophy: I remember freaking out, because when we shot it in Hopper’s Crossing, this place boasted the latest in design techniques that put all the wiring underground, and there were no footpaths. It was like, as a kid, you weren’t even allowed to walk around. If you wanted to go somewhere, you had to get your mum and dad in the station wagon to drop you wherever you wanted to go. It was an oppressive environment, and I found it quite strange. But the intention of the movie was to present this. It’s kind of like, Body Melt isn’t really horror; instead, its genre is just “fucked up.” What kind of character is that person? Well, he’s just a fuckup. There’s a kind of humor in that, but I also believe it reflects an attitude toward life and describes how a lot of people are just getting on with their shit.

That comes from my perspective of growing up in the northern suburb of Reservoir. And that alone goes against the grain of a whole history of Australian cinema, which chooses to picture the suburbs in a truly patronizing way, really belittling them. It’s a bourgeois concept to send up those who live in the suburbs; clearly, when someone does that, they never came from there. I’m happy that Body Melt doesn’t have that style of lampooning and parodying people in very broad ways.

Can you talk about Body Melt’s sound design?
Philip Brophy: That was based on having several different worlds or environments. There are the pleasantries of outside life, whether it be birds twittering or the general sounds of life around these houses, and then this much more cacophonous, immersive, head-fucking audioscape whenever a body is trying to erupt. That’s where the sound trips out and goes into these strange noise worlds. The idea was to make the distinction very clear between those two kinds of environments. When there’s no bad shit happening, it just sounds completely normal. There are no brooding electronic glitches to give the sense of pushing into psychological darkness.

Body Melt is not a psychological horror movie; it’s a body-horror movie. It’s not about the mind in any way; it goes past that. It just looks at people whose bodies are in fucked-up situations. It’s not about what they’re thinking when they go through this; it’s more like, “Dude, your body is just fucking up!” There’s no room for your mind to be even concerned about these things. I wanted the sound to be exactly like a typical soap-opera sort of thing that suddenly bursts into madness.

That’s a very different choice, instead of starting from the outset to create this brooding atmosphere where you know you’re in that (genre] realm. It was never meant to look like a horror movie; the horror is that it’s just another banal Australian drama that goes crazy. The sound design is the key to comprehending that.

The music also operates in a very nontraditional way. I composed it with no sense at all of what the theme or mood was, or what emotions were being expressed in a particular scene. The soundtrack is based on what the characters might be listening to, so the kids are playing this bad Eurodisco, the mutant family have a prog-rock amalgam of sounds, there’s a couple of muzak-style tracks for the Noble family and the DJ played by William McInnes gets soft-rock backing. That’s also a deliberately disorienting thing about Body Melt. It’s meant to instill normality in the characters, like, here’s this person and here’s their music. It’s all about creating those hyper-banal environments and then exploding them from within through these people’s bodies.

Why haven’t you put out a soundtrack album?
Philip Brophy: Well, at the moment, no music is selling, and back then, the film wasn’t received all that well in ways that would have allowed it to grow a bit. It got into the London Film Festival, but we didn’t get into Toronto or any of the French or other European fests. We did get into Sitges, but it didn’t have the legs to travel or gain enough good word of mouth at the time. It did get a very wide video and laserdisc release around 1994, but Rod [Bishop, co-writer/producer), Daniel (Scharf, producer] and I felt it was a modest movie that could have received a more than modest reception.

That made it so bizarre when, in what felt like a millennium later, Quentin Tarantino started talking about it. I didn’t think the movie was groundbreaking, and I wasn’t claiming to revolutionize the genre or anything; it was just another twist or contribution to it. So what I regard as a misjudgment of the film at the time was a bit deflating, but God bless Tarantino, because with very simple words, he stated why he felt Body Melt was a good film, based on him being able to properly discern what it was doing. He could clearly read that, and since then people have been more readily able to grapple with it. People still send me links to hilarious IMDb reviews that say, “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen. What’s going on with this movie?”

Can you see any Body Melt influence out there in other Australian films?
Philip Brophy: Not really. Very simply, Body Melt pretends to be a normal Australian movie, but then gets fucked up. It’s almost like a Twilight Zone episode or something, where someone goes into a cinema and thinks they’re watching Home and Away, and then, “Oh my God, someone just exploded!” That resulted from some playful, perverse distancing of myself as the filmmaker from what I was doing, but in the end, if you can sync in with the movie, you can get the feeling of what it’s actually doing

If you think of something like The Cabin in the Woods, for example, that has a mindfucking aspect, but it is also utterly rational in explaining itself, because there’s that room with all those people operating the equipment. With Body Melt, there is no explanation. That’s what I get out of good horror movies; there’s so much that doesn’t make sense rationally, and instead I’m now thinking in all sorts of fantastical ways. That’s why I’ve always liked horror movies more than any other genre, because they seem to be the best at doing that. As to how that’s been perceived by people who have gone on to making films of their own, I’m not sure whether I’ve seen that yet.

SPECIAL EFFECTS
Bob McCarron and his team provide over 50 prosthetic make-up effects. “Everything I do in this film is like horror mag front cover material,” says McCarron, proudly surveying some of his team’s prosthetic handiwork before it runs off to maul a marsupial. “Being called Body Melt, most people do melt. But they do so from within. So far we’ve gone through three 40 gallon drums of phlegm. This pours out of their ears, nose and mouth. We have one guy that ends up with a constant stream from his nose. We’ve got a prosthetic nose for him that is connected to tubes allowing us to simply let the mucous run free. Needless to say, he ends up dying underneath it all.”

Twelve weeks of Body Melt pre-production permitted McCarron the luxury to thoroughly engineer all the brain snapping effects called for by director and mega-media-maniac Philip Brophy, many of which were rendered low-tech by the budget. To that end, most are covered in thick layers of ultra-slime. And truly amazing is a gravity defying snot shot in a basin. “It was something we talked about each day,” continues McCarron, in between bouts of laughter. “What Phil wanted was to have this phlegm fall into a sink and then slide up the wall. The most ideal way was to have a sink unit made of plastic and then put a magnet inside the fake piece of phlegm – a piece of clear Silastic with slime on top. That worked really well when we tested it, you could make it go anywhere. The only trouble was that the budget couldn’t be made to cover the cost of the sink. It came down to a very basic thing of having a piece of fishing line on a wad of foam covered in slime and Silastic which keeps the whole attached to the sink. That worked, but it was only able to travel in certain directions.”

He adds, “At one stage, we had Robert Simper (playing Ryan) on a car bonnet with tendrils coming out of his mouth. These tentacles were made of foam and then dipped in maple syrup and ultra-slime. We’re talking really slimy. Ultra-slime is something you can’t get rid of. You can’t even wash your hands properly – it just stays there! It’s like touching a garden slug. Then I suggested that it could look nice with those tendrils going up his nose. Robert agreed, so then he had to spend time with ultra-slime up his nose as well.”

Despite the constant fortitude testing conditions, the cast remained continually cool when put in close contact with the slime of Body Melt. McCarron relates, “We had no trouble at all with the actors. They took it as fun and looked on it as a good experience. Most of them had never worked on such a film before. They all had a good time right down to the young kid playing the roller-blader who gets his face sheared off on a skateboard ramp, which we filmed in darkness and in rain. Jillian Murray (playing Angelica Noble) did have a bit of a problem with the scene where her tongue expands. But I guess putting something soft, wet and squelchy in your mouth does affect your willpower not to throw up.”

Mention of the tongue effect elicits a response that adds a new spin on the phrase “putting yourself into your work”, and also highlights the type of personal co-operation sometimes required between cast and crew. “The tongues themselves were foam latex. I sculpted several but the very first one is my own. I simply mixed some algenate, poured it into a cup, stuck my tongue out and put it in. We made five tongues for the expansion scene. Jillian first got my copy and went though all the bigger versions until finishing off with one about 18 inches long.”

Compared to Dead Alive (1993), which McCarron worked on, Body Melt is a lot sharper. He continues, “It’s not as crazy or over the top but it certainly has funny parts. Generally though, it’s far more serious in tone and we kill about a dozen folk in it. There’s quite a few gut-wrenching moments even though they’re done on the cheaper side. We’ve kept away from films like Reanimator, and even Dead Alive, because we’ve gone for more realism in a sense, the heavy Exorcist peagreen type. I think audiences will have their stomachs churned but they won’t laugh as much as they did in Dead Alive Anything to do with bodily fluids though, and especially that flowing from the region of the nasal passage puts most people off.”

In general, the making of Body Melt is a great step forward for the Australian Film Industry according to McCarron. “Whether it was financed by the government or not, it will be a good seller worldwide and should quickly recoup its production cost. It also shows the global industry, whether they like horror/black comedy or not, that these sort of films can be made here and that there is the expertise. Hopefully then, Body Melt will also spark interest from international producers.” In fact, it already seems to have, as McCarron is currently working on the new Gale Anne Hurd production Penal Colony. He says, “It’s a grade A, $26 million film. The technology is identical to that used in Body Melt but there’s more money to be spent on the FX and they’re being done in a more precise way. Put a false nose on someone in Body Melt and you’ll probably end up disguising it with slime, blood or phlegm. In Penal Colony, the prosthetic will have to look 100% real. There’s also a couple of head removals, plus lots of wounds and scars. Some characters are wearing heavy prosthetics and there’s the stunt side of things to contend with too. It’s about an island that caters for the most violent prisoners from around the world who misbehave to the worst degree and end up doing battle. Our hero is wrongly sent there and ends up in the middle of this war.”

SCORE/SOUNDTRACK

CAST/CREW
Directed
Philip Brophy

Produced
Rod Bishop
Daniel Scharf

Written
Rod Bishop
Philip Brophy

Gerard Kennedy as Det. Sam Phillips
Andrew Daddo as Johnno
Ian Smith as Dr. Carrera
Regina Gaigalas as Shaan
Vincent Gil as Pud
Neil Foley as Bab
Anthea Davis as Slab
Matthew Newton as Bronto
Lesley Baker as Mack
Amy Grove-Rogers as Old Woman
Adrian Wright as Thompson Noble
Jillian Murray as Angelica Noble

Special Effects by
Peter Armstrong … special effects
Philip Brophy … testicles
Jan Crockett … special effects
Jeff Little … special effects
Angelo Sahin … special effects crew
Sonja Smuk … special effects makeup artist
Peter Stubbs … special effects
Kevin Turner … special effects

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Real Time – No.2, Sydney, 1994
Fangoria#131
Gorezone#26
Gorezone#35
SHIVERS#04

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