David Cronenberg, 1977
Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan
A young woman, Rose, is riding a motorcycle in the Quebec countryside with her boyfriend Hart. They get into a bad accident when a lost family in a van attempts to turn around in the middle of the highway. Hart is left with some injuries, but Rose nearly dies. The inhabitants of a nearby plastic surgery hospital witness the accident and Rose is brought in to Dr. Keloid, the head of the hospital, for emergency treatment.
As with the doctor in Shivers, Dr. Keloid is experimenting with a new technique that will change the application of skin grafts and the use of stem cells. He uses this on Rose without her knowledge or consent, arguing to another doctor that she’s dying and they have no other choice. Rose is in a coma for over a month, but as soon as she wakes, she is nearly paralyzed with a new hunger. She unknowingly attacks several people around the hospital, hugging them close to her while a sharp proboscis in her armpit punctures their skin and feeds on their blood. Believing she has recovered, she hitchhikes back to Montreal, in search of Hart, feeding as she goes, unaware that her bite leaves behind a disease that turns the inhabitants rabid and highly contagious…
Rabid and David Cronenberg's earlier Shivers are interesting examinations of contagious, devastating sexually transmitted diseases just before the AIDS epidemic began. Rose’s need to feed (and the method) is a new take on vampirism, while her victims are a new take on the zombie. Gone are the Romero-esque shufflers of Shivers; instead, Rose’s victims do become somewhat rabid and froth at the mouth, racing at high speeds towards human targets. While Rose spreads the virus by sucking blood, the victims spread it through biting and saliva. The sexual undertones of both the film and Rose’s method of feeding are more subtle and more effective than Shivers. The fact that Rose uses her sexual attractiveness to feed upon men is sleazy, if not downright creepy, and the images of her stalking the Montreal scenes in a huge fur coat are some of the most memorable of the film. In one of my favorite scenes, Cronenberg puts her in a porn theater, where she turns the tables on a would-be victimizer.
One of the ways that Rabid improves upon Shivers is the cinematography. While Shivers was set inside one building, Rabid explores urban Montreal, Canadian highways, and the cold, sterile medical clinic. There’s some lovely cinematographer from Rene Verzier, who captures the city, mall, and underground particularly well. Joe Blasco, who did the effects work on Shivers, returned for this film and created the vaginal/anal-looking orifice in Chambers’ armpit and the phallic proboscis that emerges from it.
There are some other good performances, including Joe Silver, returning to a very similar role from Shivers. Frank Moore (The Long Kiss Goodnight) is the anxious boyfriend Hart, adding a love story plot into the mix, and Susan Roman (Heavy Metal) is sympathetic as Rose’s concerned roommate.
Former porn star Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door) is excellent in Rabid and it’s a shame her career didn’t develop further after the film. Her obvious sexual appear and girl-next-door type beauty is perfect for the role where she is essentially an unwitting predator. Another way Rabid improved upon Shivers is through Rose’s character. Though the camera doesn’t stick with her for the entire film, the charismatic, sympathetic central protagonist — something absent in Shivers — begins to appear here. Rose is genuinely likable and becomes yet more sympathetic because of her ties to her roommate and boyfriend.
There are more horror set pieces here than in Shivers, including a particularly disturbing one when an infected doctor loses control of himself in the middle of surgery and turns his scalpel on his colleagues. Rabid also has elements of Cronenberg’s much later Crash, with two very detailed crash scenes. The first involves Rose’s life-changing motorcycle crash and the second is a lovingly shot, almost fetishistic car crash.
My only major complaint with Rabid is that the second half of the film is less impressive than the first as it moves away from Rose and focuses more on her victims. There’s an attack scene in a mall (similar to Dawn of the Dead) and another in the subway. Though these help to emphasis the spreading threat, they take unnecessary time away from Rose’s character and her worsening plight. Her seclusion in the hospital is quite effective, as is her time alone in the city, where her affliction presents itself very much like drug addiction.
Rabid is available on DVD and comes highly recommended. Though this may not quite have the style, gusto, or sheerly imaginative quality of some of Cronenberg’s ‘80s films, it is a worthy entry in his early career and a solid horror film in its own right.