David Cronenberg has long established himself to be a maverick in the world of film since his humble beginnings in the 1970s. From a career perspective, his filmography output took a different direction during the early to mid 80s. Cronenberg attached himself to more commercial projects compared to his smaller film roots. His adaptation of Stephen King’s novel The Dead Zone was a preliminary warm-up to his remake of the 1958 science fiction horror film The Fly. Much like what he accomplished with The Dead Zone, Cronenberg’s direction on The Fly was always in service of merging pre-existing material with his distinctive vision. It is a vision steeped in the dark underbelly of humanity that wasn’t afraid to throw audiences into the perversely disturbing corners of the human condition. Thirty years later, The Fly stands atop the upper echelon of both horror films and remakes in general.
Compared to the majority of Cronenberg’s filmography, The Fly is one of his most accessible films. Granted, this is with the caveat of possessing the disposition necessary to stomach his trademark “body horror.” Amidst the horrifying imagery and sometimes repulsive repercussions of scientific breakthroughs lies a very human story at the core. The Fly is a film of fusion. The fusion of man and fly, the fusion of romance and body horror, and the fusion of man struggling against the loss of his own humanity. The Fly is simultaneously one of the most visceral monster movies out there but also one of the most tragic romances of the 1980s. It’s these mixtures that make the film work so effectively.
The early section of the film (which acts almost solely as a romance) is used to make us care about Seth Brundle. It’s an effective romance thanks to the chemistry between the two leads (Goldblum and Davis were real life lovers at the time). Without the groundwork established during the first act, Brundle’s transformation wouldn’t be as compelling or as tragic. While Brundle’s gradual deterioration is ultimately a tragedy, it’s also terrifying. Many view the film as an allegory for the AIDS epidemic but an argument could be made that it’s a metaphor for any disease. Watching someone you love slowly wither away can be heartbreaking and Cronenberg takes that idea to its fullest extent.
While fantastical horror can be disturbing in its own right, The Fly mixes body horror with timeless intrinsic fears. Above all else is the inevitable fear of death. Seth Brundle is going to die, and what makes his death all the more scary is how disgusting and unstoppable it is. He can’t do anything despite his best efforts. As he becomes more desperate (as demonstrated by the infamous “Monkey Cat” deleted scene), Brundle inches closer to his eventual demise. It acts as a reminder that we will all die someday, and there is nothing we can do to stop it.
Death is also a reminder of how we want our legacy to live on. Many feel that they survive through their children, which is also touched on during the film. Veronica fears that the unborn baby inside of her is infected with fly DNA, which leads to her decision to undergo an abortion. Her apprehension also stems from a disturbing dream where she gives birth to a large maggot. “BrundleFly” rejects this notion, claiming that their child could be the sole remnant of his untainted humanity. Like The Exorcist, the emotional weight of the character decisions hit harder than anything supernatural.
By the time we reach this point in the film, Brundle’s transformation has nearly reached its end. This is one of the ways Cronenberg differentiates his film from its predecessor. In the original, the scientist is already a fly hybrid the moment his experiment goes haywire. Through some still remarkable make-up work by Chris Walas, Jeff Goldblum gradually becomes a monster. When he finally reaches his apex of devolution, the film subverts a trope from traditional monster movies. The character who goes to save Veronica has been pre-established as an unsympathetic stalker. However, he has to become the gun wielding hero to save the woman from the monster. His actions don’t completely redeem him but he does pay a form of penance for his transgressions.
While Cronenberg spends much of the film creating his own stamp on the monster film, the final moments of the film harken back to a classic Universal Monster. “Brundlefly” has much in common with The Wolf Man, who was always portrayed as the most sympathetic figure of the monsters. In The Fly, Cronenberg pays tribute to the tragic demise from The Wolf Man but takes it to an emotional peak. A horrified shotgun holding Veronica watches what’s left of her lover crawl towards her. To signal a mercy killing, he gets hold of the end of the barrel and positions it between his own fly eyes. Veronica, despite being emotionally conflicted, pulls the trigger and breaks out in tears. It’s a chilling spectacle and Cronenberg made the smart decision to remove an alternate ending.
The Fly is everything that a great remake should be. Thirty years later, it still holds up as well as any horror film released today. While the make-up and performances go a long way in helping the film, Cronenberg’s ability to generate pathos in an unlikely genre makes the film as compelling as it is. Along with John Carpenter’s The Thing and Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Fly is among the trifecta of definitive horror film remakes.