Canada | 1977 | Directed by David Cronenberg
Logline: Following experimental surgery a young woman becomes bloodthirsty, infecting her victims, and creating an epidemic.
Rabid was Cronenberg’s fourth feature after his two experimental Dystopian efforts Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970) and his apocalyptic nightmare Shivers (1975). It was low budget at only $530k, but this was significantly higher than the $179 grand he made Shivers on. He was able to expand the plague-like horror scenario of Shivers with a larger cast, and more elaborate production values.
Following a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend, Hart (Frank Moore), a young woman, Rose (Marilyn Chambers), is given plastic surgery, but contracts a kind of supernatural virus; a monstrous form of rabies. Rose becomes a very dangerous woman, with a worm-like parasite living inside her armpit (!) When she attacks the worm viciously penetrates its victims like a moray eel springing from its cave. There’s something outlandishly, ferociously sexual about it.
Like Dario Argento’s oeuvre, Cronenberg’s movies - especially his early features - are an acquired taste. Putting aside the trappings and limitations; cheap production values and often ropey performances, there is something undeniably intellectual and truly disturbing. Rabid and Shivers (they are two sides of a diseased coin) are possessed with a virulent atmosphere and heavy tone. What they lack in convincing special effects (although the work in Shivers is pretty good considering) and the mostly wooden and obvious acting they excel in creating a palpable nightmare fabric. They spell doom by attacking the most fundamental elements of human survival: copulation and reproduction.
Rabid thrusts forward as s a psychosexual thriller just like Shivers. They are rogue players in a deadly game of mutation. Cronenberg is fascinated with what makes us tick as humans, our physical fragility and our psychological obsessions. We are contradictions; bent on contact, prone to infection. Cronenberg loves to twist our desires and fears, melding them perversely. These ideas – and Rabid and Shivers are similarly rich in the concepts and themes of disease, infection, addiction, mutation – he lets loose in his early movies, are further developed, experimented on, refined, and torn apart in his later more sophisticated features such as The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1982), The Fly (1986) and also Naked Lunch (1991), Crash (1996), and eXistenZ (1999).
With Shivers and Rabid Cronenberg was dubbed the King of Venereal Horror, but as his career progressed be become more (in)famously known as the Baron of Body Horror.
Sissy Spacek was Cronenberg’s first choice to play Rose, but the producer didn’t like her Southern accent and her abundance of freckles. They needed a name to sell the picture, but it had to be a name they cold afford. Ivan Reitman, who was executive producing, suggested Marilyn Chambers, as she was one of the most in-demand porn stars at the time, was keen to do a straight movie, and she was affordable. Curiously, Carrie (1976) was released whilst they were shooting and the poster can be seen in the background in a scene where Rose has exited a porn cinema and walks past another one that is screening Carrie (no doubt Cronenberg’s little in-joke dig at his producer). Chambers is actually not bad as the anxiety-stricken protagonist/antagonist, but she never pursued a straight career instead returning to the porn fold.
With its downbeat ending Rabid’s fate as an apocalyptic nightmare is sealed, and most satisfyingly so, but was that the hint of dark comedy rearing its head from time to time?!
NB: The Canadian Soskia Twins (American Mary) are soon to start production on a remake.