Written and directed by: David Cronenberg
Produced by: John Dunning
Executive Producer: Ivan Reitman
Reviewed by: Brett H.
“Mindy, I don’t want it to be you…”
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 tell in an interview on the Rabid DVD. In a rare moment of intelligence, the CFDC invested in a film that was sure to make money and b-movie all in one. The backlash was old hat now, so a film more of the same is sure to kick up less fuss. Then, Ivan Reitman suggested porn queen, Marilyn Chambers, to play the lead. One scandal to another, could it go any other way with the artistic displays of early David Cronenberg?
Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and her boyfriend, Hart (Frank Moore) cruise down a Quebec highway on their motorcycle to destinations unknown. It’s never to be proven where they are headed because they never make it. An arguing family is lost on the highway and reluctantly the man of the house gives in and listens to his wife’s insistence that they missed their turn off quite a while ago. They stop and check the map, but when they try to fire their van up, it sputters. Travelling fast, Rose and Hart are stopped by the fender of the van and lose the battle, jettisoning them to the ground. Hart, the driver of the motorcycle, staves off serious injury, but Rose is another story. She’s in pretty bad shape and is in need of reconstruction surgery, pronto. Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) decides to use Rose as a human guinea pig… to disastrous results.
Dr. Keloid is trying to accomplish a technique that would allow skin and tissue to generate properly in the way it is intended to, similar to stem cell treatments. This way, flesh meant to be from the face could generate as the flesh from the face would and so on. Rose’s friend, Lloyd, happens to be in the hospital when she wakes up from her coma. She wakes up cold and begs him to hold her topless body and he reluctantly agrees. Suddenly Lloyd feels a sharp pain stabbing into his side and begins bleeding profusely. His body reacts to this strange occurrence and he turns into a mad, blood-craving zombie, spreading this virus quickly throughout Montreal. Rose came out of her coma a bit different; a terrifying side effect of the experiment. She now has a hunger for blood… and a new body part that allows her to suck the cherished substance quickly and easily. Is this the beginning of the end of Canada?
Quite possibly the most Canadian horror film ever made at the time of its release, Rabid is a unique and creepy spin on the undead with a prophetic touch regarding modern science and world issues. An amazing horror film, it’s also a rather tragic tale of a lovely young woman who is forced to drink human blood for survival, completely against her will. This would be touched later upon years later in Blood & Donuts with a less serious tone and more artistic feeling. Rabid proves to be somewhat of a prophecy, Rose’s craving for blood spawns a deadly disease that can be passed on to anyone who has open wounds come into contact with infected saliva; something hard to avoid when the insane zombie’s only thoughts are to eat you alive. This is eerily similar to the AIDS virus, an example of every day occurrences such as sexual contact and blood transfusions can have deadly results. On a more tongue and cheek note, the SARS scandal in Toronto is another similarity, except a virus is actually being spread in Rabid.
One of Cronenberg’s original titles for the film was “Mosquito”, a title I prefer to Rabid. The reason being is that I was entranced by the character of Rose and her sharp, phallic blood-slurping growth more so than the outbreak that really should be the obvious, most concerning plot element to the viewer. This is a testament to the wonderful performance by Marilyn Chambers, who is one of the few porn stars to cross over to the world of feature films and actually work just as good with her clothes on. Marilyn even gets a sort of role reversal, after she has enjoyed the blood of her victims, she holds them in her arms in a strong state of orgasmic bliss. Sissy Spacek was the actress of choice for the picture, but Cineplex had an issue with Sissy’s accent and little did they know how her career would skyrocket with Carrie (ironically, a poster of this film is featured in Rabid). Ivan Reitman suggested Chambers, who had quit the porn industry to try her hand at real film, and it turned out to be the best decision that could have been made. Marilyn Chambers had been cast in Behind the Green Door due to her girl next door attributes, bringing a trait generally uncharacteristic of adult films into that world of cinema. The same can be said for Rabid, Marilyn is a naturally innocent looking beauty with the most amazing eyes and such a sweet voice, she’d never be suspected as a vampiric murderess capable of such inhumane acts. You feel sorry for such a piece of saccharine being put through such anguish, while at the same time it’s refreshing to see such innocence be so deadly. Much like the character of Rose and real-life Marilyn, appearances deceive.
The infection aspect of the film, which was borrowed from heavily in 28 Days Later, is highly effective. The body count mounts high from either blood devouring or flesh munching. There’s shades of Dawn of the Dead as the frothing zombies terrorize a shopping mall, at Christmastime no less. It all amounts to an intense, claustrophobic feel in that the city of Montreal will be infested with these things in a short amount of time, and of course this would spread throughout Canada quickly as well. You find yourself feeling for the citizens and then after a bit it becomes very apocalyptic. A vaccine is developed, but a worldwide threat is very possible and it’s not easy to vaccinate billions. It goes without mention that the vaccine means little to the zombies who will kill anything in their way, regardless. This is the true terror of the film, underlying reality in the form of a deadly contagious disease wiping out millions rather than a supernatural force on a killing spree. Rabid could really happen, but not too many people are worried about Jason Voorhees winding up on their doorstep with an axe.
The idea of martial law being put into effect up North is nice to see, it’s certainly not something generally acquainted with the quiet country of Canada. What non-Canadians probably won’t realize is this is art somewhat reflecting the October Crisis of 1970 in which martial law actually was put into effect by legendary Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, in response to separatist terrorism. It’s great to see that the film makes no bones about its setting, Montreal and Quebec are referenced constantly. David Cronenberg proves his directorial excellence with wonderful cinematography and there should have been no doubt that success would come his way in the future with his rich and obscure ideas. From the opening credits, you appreciate the shots and care taken, especially on such a low budget film. The Somerville House DVD has a decent transfer that reveals quite a few flaws and the audio is clear, it’s nothing to write home about but nothing to cry about, either. Somerville House treats fans to an interesting interview and feature commentary with David Cronenberg as well as a trailer, biographies and still galleries; a wonderful package in the special features department, indeed. As realistic and tragic as it is haunting and gory, Rabid is not only a classic of Maple Leaf Macabre, but an iconic piece of horror cinema as well. Buy it!
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