By Sam Inglis @24fpsuk
David Cronenberg used to have a lot of nicknames; Dave Deprave, the Baron of Blood, the King of Venereal Horror. These have been used less and less as his work has, especially in the last two decades, become more outwardly cerebral, but even in his goriest work Cronenberg was always a thoughtful filmmaker, and that’s certainly something you can see in Rabid.
As the film opens Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) are involved in a motorcycle accident. Hart is largely unhurt, but Rose is badly injured. The accident happens to take place down the road from the Keloid plastic surgery clinic, and Rose is taken there. To save her life, Dr Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) uses experimental techniques, taking skin cells and modifying them so they can become any type of cell. When Rose wakes up something has gone wrong. She now has a vampiric barb under her arm and can only feed on blood. Unwittingly, Rose begins to cause an epidemic, as her victims become violent and transmit the disease when they feed on others.
Rabid deals in a lot of themes that would become defining elements of Cronenberg’s cinema; sexuality, contagion, the competing survival needs of people and diseases. All of these themes were also there in Cronenberg’s first feature Shivers, but for me Rabid is a better developed and more complete film. The sexuality is less upfront than in Shivers, as the disease is not passed sexually, but there is an inescapable sexual overtone to the vampiric barb, which has qualities that are both phallic and yonic and to both the casting and the frequent nudity of Marilyn Chambers, most famous as the star of porno chic classic Behind the Green Door.
The theme of contagion is the one that drives the film. While it continues to follow Rose and Hart’s efforts to track her down after she walks out of the clinic, having attacked Dr Keloid (his name, amusingly, is a type of scar tissue), the film also tracks the infection as it spreads geometrically from Rose’s few victims to potentially overtake the entire population. Cronenberg may have a wild imagination, but he’s also always been careful to ground his films in a reality and while he does take some glee in transgressive moments like a department store Santa being killed in the crossfire when an infected person is gunned down, the depiction of martial law is serious and credible. For some time, Cronenberg considered becoming biologist and this has led to the science fiction of Rabid becoming, in one key aspect, science fact. The cells that Keloid creates for Rose’s operation are essentially stem cells, and this new credibility has only made the film scarier in the 38 years since it was released. That said, I don’t think stem cells can yet create a barb that zombifies its victims.
The performances are solid all round, but Marilyn Chambers deserves to be singled out. It’s a pity that she never made much effort to continue her mainstream career, 1983’s Angel of H.E.A.T. was her only other notable non-hardcore effort, but on this evidence she deserved better. There is something quite raw and unaffected about her acting, and she is able to shift gears from drawing in victims with her beauty to fighting against the urge to feed very effectively. It would be interesting to know what Cronenberg’s first choice, Sissy Spacek, might have done with the part, but Chambers is a fine substitute.
Rabid, perhaps due to its low budget, is less stylised than many of Cronenberg’s later films, but his hand is still much in evidence. He creates an offbeat and, until Rose arrives, apparently hermetically sealed, world inside the Keloid clinic, as well as, through the virus, putting a personal spin on both the vampire and zombie mythos. Perhaps the most Cronenbergian touch, aside from the look of the barb, comes in the film’s ending. Like Shivers, the film implies that if humanity does escape the contagion in Rabid it will be a long and bloody process, but while that film ends in an orgy of blood, this is a quiet apocalypse in which we simply, thoughtlessly, toss away one thing that might help save us.
It’s perfectly easy, and fun, to watch Rabid simply as a vintage piece of gory, somewhat grindhouse horror, but like Cronenberg’s other work, it benefits from having layers peeled off and inspected as you go.
Another triumph for Arrow Video. The print is a bit dirty in the opening sequence, but the restoration is otherwise excellent; full of detail but retaining a film like grain. Also typically for Arrow there is a bumper crop of extras, with the standouts being an old commentary from the forthright and fascinating Cronenberg and a short, fun, documentary on Canadian production company Cinepix. If you enjoy the film then this is a rich package.
Out on Monday 16th February