TIFF’s From Within – The Films of David Cronenberg Review: Rabid (1977)
When a young woman named Rose is horribly injured during a motorcycle accident, she is rushed to a nearby cosmetic surgery clinic where she receives life saving care. In the days and weeks that follow, it becomes clear how radically the accident has changed her. Healed and anxious to leave the clinic so she might be reunited with her boyfriend, she is also filled with a new, insatiable craving for blood.
Rabid is the 1977 horror film directed by David Cronenberg starring Marilyn Chambers as Rose, Frank Moore as Hart, Joe Silver as Murray, and Howard Ryshpan as Dr Keloid.
In the beginning, David Cronenberg shocked audiences with startling and often disturbing images of people’s bodies gone horribly awry. Such is the case with what would be his fourth feature film, in which he takes the beautiful adult film star Marilyn Chambers and mutilates her body with a phallic stinger that protrudes from an orifice newly formed in her armpit. Gross, right?
Actually, it’s kind of cool, especially from a special effects standpoint…if you’re into that kind of thing.
One of the main reasons I originally found myself drawn to the work of Cronenberg was that, as a much younger version of myself, I was morbidly curious about the grotesque and unusual. As a teenager, wrought with a gaggle of my own female body issues, the subject matter often portrayed in Cronenberg’s work reflected and preyed upon that self-loathing and fear I felt toward my changing body. I was particularly drawn to his work because he had a fearless tenacity in how he framed abnormality.
With Rabid, we get all of the apocalyptic mayhem of a modern day zombie film but with an origin story unlike anything you may have seen before. When Rose is critically injured in a rather ridiculous looking motorcycle accident, surgeons at a cutting edge (pun intended) cosmetic surgery clinic utilize radical skin graft treatments to save her life. The upside is she wakes up, healed and as beautiful as ever. The downside? Well, an armpit vagina for one.
And for two? A phallic stinger that hungers for blood. Worse still, Rose is now filled with an unquenchable hunger for blood – blood that she can only obtain through close proximity to another human being.
Once stung, her victims become infected and eventually turn into zombies, hungry for blood in their own right. The infection caused by her feeding spreads at a near-catastrophic rate until the country is on high alert and barricades are being thrown up in hopes of containing the infection. It’s a mash of foul deliciousness – one part vampire vixen, two parts zombie outbreak, and all campy horror fun.
With Rabid, we get all of the apocalyptic mayhem of a modern day zombie film but with an origin story unlike anything you may have seen before.
What I enjoy about Cronenberg’s Rabid is that it seems to be an early exploration into subject matter that he will visit in films to follow including The Brood, Videodrome, and The Fly – all of which expand on the director’s appetite for making his audiences confront the unsavory, the uncomfortable, and the abnormal while presenting unusual stories populated with (sometimes fatally) flawed characters.
With Rabid I also find it delightful that Cronenberg, who provided the film’s screenplay, has seen fit to equip his female protagonist with a means by which to penetrate and feed off of members of either sex. He takes it a step further and demands that, in order to survive, Rose must violate others in an act that is at once sexual and violent.
Talk about a script flip. The protagonist is also the antagonist. She is a beautiful vampire-esque woman who spreads a zombification infection. My God! As a horror fan, what’s not to love?
While Cronenberg is often credited with being among the masters of body horror, the whole body-violation-as-threat concept is used with some frequency in the milieu of horror. It preys on a primal collection of various psychological fears, shared by men and women alike, young and old. This makes the film’s subject matter ripe breeding grounds for horror.
The approach worked well in the 1979 sci-fi masterpiece, Alien, in which screenwriters Dan O’Bannon, David Giler, and Walter Hill preyed on the audience’s fear of being violated by creating a creature who, in order to propagate, must plant its seed deep within a human host where it gestates. Filmed years after Cronenberg’s Rabid, you may find yourself asking who did it better?
Rabid has been called distasteful and lacking in energy, and to that I say “meh.” As a horror film, Rabid is self-possessed and demands attention. I say “demands” not “commands.” and I do so for a reason. Many films from this period suffer from the same issue when compared to modern films – they feel too slow, or maybe the editing is too abrupt, or maybe you can’t get past the clothes and hairstyles. Get over that, if you can. To enjoy Rabid, you have to go into it with a willingness to embrace the plot pace. And while it’s true that, even at just over 90 minutes, Rabid can feel a bit long in the tooth, on the whole, it warrants a view. Fans of the body horror genre, or those who are just discovering the work of David Cronenberg, are sure to find something to enjoy about Rabid.