After his 1975 feature directorial debut involving parasites infecting and taking over the tenants of an apartment complex, Shivers, was a relative hit in the Canadian film industry, David Cronenberg had a most interesting act to follow. Funding wouldn’t be easy as Shivers was critically blasted by many important people in the industry and the Canadian government wasn’t exactly predisposed to being interested in genre films. In pure Cronenberg fashion, he stuck to his guns and released a similar film in 1977, Rabid, which Cronenberg considers a “companion piece” to Shivers, rather than a sequel. $560 000 was the amount of money Cronenberg had to spend to birth another violent opus, $200 000 of which coming from the Canadian government through “surreptitious” funding, as Cronenberg would later put it.
In short, Rabid is an unconventional vampire film that showcases its director’s distinct aesthetic signature, which includes disturbing, highly memorable visuals that depict deformed human flesh, body transformation and/or mutation, bodily fluids, disease and a plethora of symbolic sexual imagery. The strength of Cronenberg’s sophomore effort lies in his ability to use these unnerving visuals to not only frighten his audience, but to also express deeper themes and ideas within the story. Largely, he accomplishes this through the film’s protagonist.
The movie begins with a shot of an unnamed couple boarding a motorcycle and heading off into the wintry Quebec landscape. Also on the open road is a bickering family in need of a vacation, piled together in their clunky Winnebago. Navigating to a nearby farm, the couple realize they missed an important turnoff. Given the lack of traffic on rural Canadian roads, the family doesn’t think twice about doing a U-turn, unwittingly blocking the way for the oncoming cycle. The couple, clearly speeding, attempt to avoid the van but end up crashing in a sea of violent flames. The male gets out virtually unscathed, but his girlfriend Rose (porn queen Marilyn Chambers), is badly burned.
Rose is rushed to nearest hospital where Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) proposes the use of a new experimental surgical technique to save her. Skin grafting, as the procedure is known, involves taking skin fragments from undamaged areas of the body and grafting them upon the burned skin areas. Although the technique remains relatively unstudied, Keloid feels that Rose is the perfect guinea pig for his medical breakthrough.
Rose is given the treatment, and after months in a coma, she finally comes to healed and agile. Her newly transplanted skin radiates with an Ivory girl sheen, but there was one minor setback to the otherwise successful grafting. Protruding out of her left armpit is a strange, fleshy stub – every Rose has its thorn, as it were. Like in all Cronenberg movies, problems compound beneath the surface, and Rose develops a deadly lust for blood. She hugs her victims and pokes them with her phallic armpit, turning them into rabid, blood-thirsty creatures who proceed to infect others, which ultimately turns into a city-wide epidemic.
When discussing Cronenberg’s greatest movies, Rabid, perhaps, shouldn’t be placed particularly high, but as is always the case, it’s filled with enough crazy images and unsettling moments to make it worth watching, and like many of the director’s earlier films, it’s more purely entertaining than some of his more perplexing later films, such as Naked Lunch. There are some great lines in Cronenberg’s script, too, including the opening, “I sure as hell don’t want to become the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery.”
Rabid also features one or two vintage Cronenbergian character names, which was something he’d toyed with in his early short films – Crimes Of The Future featured a character called Adrian Tripod, for example. Rabid’s Doctor Dan Keloid possessed one of the coolest names in the Cronenberg canon to date – that is, until he was dethroned by the one-two punch of Professor Brian O’Blivion and Barry Convex in 1983’s Videodrome.
Overall, Rabid is a mixed bag. Cronenberg’s handling of story and character is subpar, but his visuals and his ideas hold up quite well, making Rabid not just scary, but deeper and more intelligent than a typical vampire film. Fans of his work should check it out, as it provides a look into Cronenberg’s oeuvre before he helmed more sophisticated horror projects later down the road. It’s also for anyone that likes thought-provoking horror films that offer more than just gore and terror. Recommended.
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