Rabid (1977)
By: Mr Intolerance on February 7, 2010  | 
Somerville House (USA). Region 1, NTSC. 1.85:1 (16:9 enhanced). English DD 2.0, French DD 2.0. 91 minutes
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: David Cronenberg
Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan, Patricia Gage, Susan Roman, Frank Moore
Screenplay: David Cronenberg
Country: Canada
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The main criticism you read of David Cronenberg's sophomore directorial effort, Rabid, is that it's a little too close in theme and content to his previous film, Shivers. To me, that'd be like criticising George A Romero for saying that Dawn of the Dead was a little too much like Night of the Living Dead. Sure, there are some similarities, but as films they're a long, long way from being identical.

The other thing we should get out of the way is that the leading lady of Rabid is porno star Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door, Insatiable). Cronenberg initially wanted Sissy Spacek for the lead role, but the producers knew that Chambers wanted to break into "legit" films and would certainly be a draw card for the curious public – serious marquee value. A lot was made of Cronenberg's hiring of Chambers in the role of Rose, the film's "heroine" (it ain't the right term, but "protagonist" sounds so bland), not the least by Cronenberg's landlady, who evicted the director once she heard he was making a film with "that woman". Certainly it was a controversial choice, but also an astute one both from an artistic as well as a commercial view – when all's said and done, Chambers is quite good in the role, especially when you consider it was a her first serious role, and a reasonably dialogue-heavy one. From the perspective of the shallow male, she's also hot, which certainly doesn't hurt the viewing experience. It's odd to think, after watching Rabid, that Chambers had previously turned down roles in both Magnum Force and The Man With The Golden Gun because of the violence those films contained.

Rose is a young woman with a problem. A few of them, in fact. Firstly, she's been in a motorcycle accident which has disfigured and nearly killed her, while only slightly injuring her boyfriend. Secondly, and more importantly, after surgery and a skin graft at plastic surgery centre, The Keloid Clinic (Cronenberg should never be allowed to name people or places in his films – the symbolism nearly always comes across as heavy-handed; keloid is scar tissue), something very strange has happened to her indeed.

Even at this early stage of the movie, it's pretty easy to see that this is a much more assured, more professionally made film than Shivers, Cronenberg's feature film debut. Not just in the use of the camera, but also in terms of the script, and the performances Cronenberg gets out of his actors. Some of his thematic whipping boys from the first film are still the same – medical science and sexuality – but the treatment of them is in finer detail, less raw and more refined while still retaining his trademark visceral wallop. Cronenberg's eye is unflinching at the best of times, and the things he shows us are gritty and grotesque, but never simply for the exploitative or prurient interest, although I guess that some people could take that away from a film like Rabid, although I think it'd be missing the point a little. To me it'd be like watching Scanners solely to see the exploding head.

Rose has developed a strange kind of organ in her armpit, a penetrative phallic organ emerging from a sphincter-like opening that, in tune with her newly heightened sex drive has her become a predatory creature, and one who infects those she comes into close contact with – if it doesn't kill them outright, that is. And Rose doesn't discriminate in terms of who she pursues, either, completely losing control of herself in the moment. If Shivers is Cronenberg's essay at a zombie film, then Rabid seems more like a vampire film, just with more overtly sexual imagery. The infected become savage, insatiable monsters craving immediate gratification – but unable to feed naturally, they crave only blood. Rose retains her equanimity more than most, kind of like Typhoid Mary, although still falling prey to her appetites. As the infection spreads through the clinic (a memorable scene includes a doctor cutting off a nurse's finger and sucking blood from its stump) and its environs, the government claim that the problem is rabies; with the infected's animalistic behaviour and foaming at the mouth, it's easy to see why – but they are, of course, wrong.

As Rose escapes from the clinic and hitches her way home, the contagion spreads, gradually building up to epidemic proportions. One thing that's kind of interesting is that the infected attack solely for feeding, whereas Rose's sickness (and given Cronenberg's penchant for symbolic names in his early films, I'm assuming she's been named for William Blake's poem "The Sick Rose", an early cautionary tale about venereal disease – "O Rose, thou art sick" indeed) has a very strong sexual element to it. In some regards the differences between Rose and her victims (and the victims' victims, and so on) is kind of like the differences between the vampire Barlow and his victims in Stephen King's novel Salem's Lot (forget the film, it's a different character altogether) – the originator can still deal with regular folks, is eloquent, generally in control of their bloodlust, but the victims are inhuman appetites on legs with little or no restraint, possessed of only the most basic of reasoning skills. Before you take me to task for extending the vampire metaphor, we are told via doctors and the media that the infected here have one urge only – to bite other humans. Plus, as we see with Rose, when they try eat regular food, vomiting ensues (remember Caleb trying to eat the candy bar after being vampirised in Near Dark?). Blood appears to be their only goal.

Rose gets back to civilisation and promptly heads to an adult cinema to get the fix she's been jonesing for. And so the contagion spreads further, and the news media spreads the unhappy news that the best way to deal with the infected is to shoot them down. Montreal becomes little better than a warzone as the military move in to take control. An interesting moment features Rose coming into contact with one of her "children" – the look of disgust on her face is apparent, and kind of incongruous given her own proclivities. If you look at the film as being a metaphor for addiction it kind of makes sense, however – if you're a drinking person, think about times when you've seen people who've rendered themselves a mess in public and the disgust you've felt at seeing them as such, despite the fact you've done the same thing yourself.

The military crackdown becomes even harsher as the film moves into its final act, and that's where the synopsis ends, as the numbers of the infected rise drastically, and stronger measures have to be taken to curb the rising bodycount, and Rose's tale reaches its almost inevitable conclusion. Cronenberg's usual existential themes are present throughout the film – the idea that nobody can ever really know another person, and would barely be capable of knowing themselves at best, the family unit doesn't really exist, we're only one step away from our primitive roots – civilisation being only that thinnest of veneers – it's not really what you'd call happy viewing in that regard, but then, you don't sit down to watch a film called Rabid thinking you're going to walk away whistling the theme song, do you?

The tone of the film starts off pretty darned bleak, but by the last act has become almost totally black. I guess you could draw comparisons with George A Romero's The Crazies in that regard. Both films deal with the notion of infection, and neither has the directors' usual mordant humour, both also end on an apocalyptic note with an ultimate sense of waste, and foster a healthy distrust of authority. Nevertheless, I suppose that Cronenberg's cold view of humanity and its inherent worth (he's not a director who's particularly sympathetic to the ultimate fates of his various characters – minor characters particularly should beware) probably would render Rabid not exactly a film for everyone.
The picture is presented in 1.85:1, anamorphically enhanced, and has obviously had some time and effort spent on digitally remastering it. The result is a glitch-free picture that's only slightly soft, but I guess that's mainly due to the film's age. I don't think it'll look any better on DVD than this.
You get the option of watching the film in French or English – it was shot in English, so that's the version I watched. Also, I don't speak French, so it would've been a bit pointless if I'd watched that track. Both are in Dolby Digital Stereo, and certainly the English track is up to the task – nothing outstanding, but certainly more than adequate.
Extra Features
A modest enough package of Extras, but some goodness does wait for the patient viewer. First and foremost there's a twenty minute interview with writer/director/God among mortal men David Cronenberg about the production of the film – definitely worth your time and effort, if you're a fan of the film, which of course you should be. There's also a feature-length director commentary with Cronenberg – these are always worth listening to, as Cronenberg is always an interesting speaker, intellectual without being pretentious, and always totally honest. There's a four-page booklet with a brief, two-page essay on the film, a photo gallery, the original theatrical trailer and some text biographies for David Cronenberg and Marilyn Chambers. I still don't know that it deserves the appellation "Special Edition" which is on the front cover, however.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
Rabid is a bold film from a director who never shies away from making controversial art. It's not too much of a departure from the themes and issues Cronenberg has dealt with throughout his earlier works, but it's certainly a more polished one than his earlier Shivers, and is certainly a more taut affair than either that film or some of the slightly more sprawling, although still highly accomplished, films that came afterwards. At times uncomfortable to watch, and certainly an almost relentlessly downbeat tale unleavened with much of Cronenberg's trademark black humour, Rabid is nevertheless a classic of the genre, and a film I really can't recommend highly enough. You need to own this film.

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