The Fly: 96 minutes of grotesque, vomit-soaked bedlam – and David Cronenberg’s best film

Throw a rock at David Cronenberg’s back catalogue and you’re going to hit something dark, nauseating and probably a bit deviant. His latest movie, Crimes of the Future, is just the same, arriving in Australian cinemas almost exactly 36 years after the release of his icky body horror classic The Fly.

Proving itself an exception to the commonly held belief that all remakes are inferior, The Fly is a tight 96 minutes of vomit-soaked bedlam, as Jeff Goldblum inadvertently mutates himself into an ill-tempered insect. On its deeper level, you might want to ponder The Fly as a disease allegory, or perhaps a stern warning against scientific hubris – or maybe you’re just a sick puppy who wants to see a bloke’s hand dissolve in acidic fly puke. They’re all fine reasons to revisit the film which, for my money, is Cronenberg’s best.

The film takes inspiration from the 1958 original starring Vincent Price (and in turn, George Langelaan’s short story), rather than remaking it, and quickly diverges from its source in everything but concept.

Ronnie (Geena Davis), a journalist for a scientific magazine, is sent to cover the work of reclusive scientist Seth Brundle (Goldblum). Brundle is working on teleportation and has proven success transporting inanimate objects. But the results of his experiments with living creatures are disappointing – ranging from the bloody, screaming mess of a turned-inside-out baboon, to a subpar breakfast omelette.

Related: From The Fly to A History of Violence: our writers pick their favourite Cronenberg movies

As Ronnie and Brundle embark on a romantic relationship, Brundle volunteers as his own guinea pig. But he fails to notice a stowaway housefly inside the teleportation device and accidentally splices them together at a molecular level. Fly life is great at first, as Brundle develops superhuman strength, increased virility and an impressive gymnastics routine. But before long he’s eating too much sugar, constantly jonesing for sex, and watching his body fall apart like cheap cake. Meanwhile, Ronnie wrestles with an eternal dilemma: at what stage of insect metamorphosis is it acceptable to leave your partner?

There are few directors as synonymous with body horror as Cronenberg; he even has his own adjective, Cronenbergian. But from Rabid to Scanners to Videodrome, if there’s one thing you can rely on, it’s that people in his movies are gonna get messed up. Body horror, in a nutshell: the exploration of the fragility and corruptibility of the human body, in grossly imaginative worst-case scenarios. At its best, body horror’s appeal lays in its liberal use of transgressive imagery, combined with an underlying deeper meaning: Brian Yuzna tackled class inequality in Society, Frank Henenlotter addressed drug addiction in Brain Damage and, in the case of The Fly, we’re watching a man deteriorate due to disease.

Related: Crimes of the Future review – Cronenberg’s post-pain, post-sex body horror sensation

Cronenberg has said The Fly is about illness in a more general sense, but the movie is often regarded as an allegory for the Aids epidemic. It’s interesting that two other (excellent) body horror remakes from the 80s – John Carpenter’s The Thing and Chuck Russell’s The Blob – also invite similar readings. Body horror, it seems, was an ideal vehicle for helping the world come to terms with the real-life horrors of the emerging epidemic. And, in a weird way, The Fly’s grotesque imagery sugarcoats the viewing experience. If Brundle’s genetic splice were substituted for cancer – which Davis has suggested was in mind during production – the resultant movie would not be a fun experience. But keep us at arm’s length with snapped ulna, wiggly maggot babies and gallons of vomit and we can think about mortality without thinking about our own mortality.

Although Goldblum turns in a terrific performance as the twitchy, oddball Brundle and Davis is no less impressive in the subtler, more grounded reality of Ronnie, the real star of the show – and the reason The Fly remains so memorable – is Chris Walas’ and Stephan Dupuis’ Oscar-winning makeup effects. All of their gloopy, feculent imagination is up there on screen as Brundle’s confluence with the fly causes his body to degenerate in a succession of disgustingly enjoyable set pieces. Walas, incidentally, went on to direct the unfairly maligned sequel, The Fly 2.

The Fly came along at just the right time to leave an indelible six-legged footprint on my adolescent brain. Cronenberg’s delirious blend of horror, gore and science fiction makes it a rightful horror classic. The Fly is just as much fun now, and just as revolting, as when I saw it for the first time.