New Zealand once again demonstrates how to do horror comedies right with Diagnosis: Death, a breezy, well-crafted effort further distinguished by cameos from comedy folk-pop group/sitcom stars Flight of the Concords. Diagnosed with terminal cancer, amoral schoolteacher Andre Chang (co-screenwriter Raybon Kan) signs up to test an experimental drug at an eerily isolated clinic where he meets bookish teenager Juliet Reid (Jessica Grace Smith). Although creepily efficient Nurse Margaret Bates (Suze Tye) informs the pair that side-effects of their drug therapy include hallucinations, a parade of nightmarish visions, ghostly intruders, and weird things going bump in the night convince them something else is going on. A talkative junior doctor (Bret McKenzie) reveals Juliet’s literary idol, Charlotte Mansfield (Shelley Venning) committed suicide in the same hospital years ago, and later Andre finds the author’s last manuscript hidden in an air vent. Could the hospital really be haunted?
Diagnosis: Death is admirable in much the same way Braindead (1992) is. Where so many indie horror-comedies are content to trot out cheap gore and sick laughs, this goes the extra mile by including likeable characters, subversive wit, and moments of genuine pathos and humanity. For while Raybon Kan and co-screenwriter/director Jason Stutter weave a nice line in black humour amidst the tense, if not especially complex mystery, what lingers most impressively is a wry portrait of how people deal with terminal illness. This is highlighted in poignant scenes where a diary reveals Juliet is planning her own funeral (“I just don’t want my mom to pick the songs.”) or later admits the spectral visitors provide a comforting suggestion there is life after death.
A snappy screenplay keeps sentimentality at bay via some riotous bad taste elements, such as Juliet’s most cherished childhood memory being masturbating with her “Tickle-Me Elmo” doll and a P.O.V. shot of a suppository being shoved up Andre’s arse. Flight of the Concords fans will cherish the cameos from Jemaine Clement as an irate parent out to bribe Andre and Rhys Darby as his hilariously blunt GP (“Imagine a satanic torture from which death is a merciful release… if you live any longer I’ll give you a refund on this appointment.”), with an atypically clean-shaven Bret McKenzie landing the most substantial role as oddball Dr. Cruise.
Ebullient performances all around with special kudos for Jessica Grace Smith as the sweet-natured literature student and Suzy Tye who brings icy malevolence to Nurse Bates. It’s low on gore compared to past classics of Kiwi carnage, but Stutter’s shocks are jarringly effective, including one scene with Juliet in the bathtub fantasizing about the drowning of Mansfield’s son (Cameron Stevens).
While the May-December romance that ensues between Andre and Juliet smacks of middle-aged wish-fulfilment to a certain degree, the inevitable sex scene scores points for going from tender to surreal (the couple rendered as skeletons making love), and horrific (Andre envisions Juliet as a hideous corpse) before settling on tender again. It’s offbeat, imaginative and squeezes in a big plot revelation partway through - a conventional scene turned on its head for a surprisingly multilayered set-piece. By contrast the climax is fairly straightforward, but capped by an amusing pre and post-credits coda with Bret McKenzie.
Revolver Entertainment’s DVD includes a director’s commentary, deleted scenes and a very engaging “Making Of” featurette where the likeable cast and crew seem like they're having a ball.