Year of Release: 1977
Director: David Cronenberg
Length: 91 mins
Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan
Before Scanners, Videodrome, and the 1986 remake of The Fly made Canadian writer and director David Cronenberg a household name, came this comparatively little-known cult classic. Despite the implications of the title, Rabid has nothing to do with sick animals, and everything to do with a woman who undergoes experimental surgery and spontaneously develops a strange penis-shaped appendage under her armpit. This instrument, though, isn’t for fun, it’s for sucking blood and spreading disease. Hence the ‘rabid’ of the title. Okay, I guess some more information is required.
Rose, played by porn star Marilyn Chambers in her first attempt at a ‘serious’ role, is riding pillion on a motorcycle driven, not very well, by her boyfriend Hart (Moore), when they take a nasty tumble. They both survive, but find themselves in a clandestine plastic surgery clinic overseen by the slightly creepy Dr Dan Keloid (Ryshpan) who decides to perform radical new surgery on the comatose Rose, who is the more badly injured. When Rose finally awakens from her coma, she inadvertently injures a fellow patient. It is then revealed that Dr Keloid’s experimental procedures have caused a mutation in Rose’s body, leaving her able to subsist only on human blood. Furthermore, anyone she takes blood from soon morphs into deranged, murderous zombie-like creatures, which isn’t really ideal for anyone. Understandably freaking out, Rose discharges herself from the hospital (but not before causing some more mayhem) and sets off on a cross-country hitchhiking trip whilst the police and medical fraternity try desperately to apprehend her in the face of a swelling epidemic. With the situation now out of control, a state of martial law is declared in Montreal whilst an array of scientists and doctors work feverishly to develop a cure.
Sure, as many films of this era were, Rabid is camp as hell in places and it takes a while to get going, but there is a lot to admire here. Not least the performance of Chambers, who plays the role of Rose with clarity and impressive depth. Her transition to mainstream movies, however, ultimately failed and she was back in the porn industry several years later amid claims she’d been ‘blackballed’ by Hollywood. Tragically, on 12th April 2009 she was found dead by her 17-year old daughter the cause of death determined to be a cerebral haemorrhage and aneurysm linked to heart disease. She was 56. In hindsight, it’s highly likely that Cronenberg cast her largely because of her porn background, rather than in spite of it. There is a raw sexuality bubbling beneath the surface throughout, from the penis thing growing out of Rose’s armpit to the almost orgasmic reaction she has when she feeds. Some of the special effects aren’t so special, but Rabid benefits from a cohesive narrative and a solid plot, something missing from a few more lauded Cronenberg movies. The bleak ending also sticks in the mind, which I won’t spoil for you here. When it was released, most of the Western world was being swept away on a tide of spit, vehemence and punk music, and some of that attitude bleeds through into the movie which when viewed in retrospect seems to portray Rose as a vulnerable, even unwilling, catalyst for change.
Rabid is seen by many Cronenberg aficionados to be inexorably linked with his 1975 offering Shivers and true, the two films do share many similarities. The Den of Geek website points out that if Shivers represented Cronenberg’s brief foray into zombie territory, Rabid can be seen as a tentative exploration of the vampire genre, if only for the blood sucking. There has been no shortage of discussion about Rabid in the forty-something years since its release, with the overriding opinion being that whilst it fades into mediocrity when compared to some of his later work, it marks an important junction in the then-fledgling writer/director’s career. A largely-faithful remake directed and co-written by Jen and Silvia Soska and starring Laura Vandervoort premiered at the London Frightfest Festival on August 26th 2019.
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Cronenberg has stated that he originally wanted the sassy Sissy Spacek to play the lead, but the studio vetoed his choice because of her accent. Okay, then. Interestingly, Carrie, Spacek’s tour de force, was released during the production of Rabid, and a poster can be seen when Marilyn Chambers, Spacek’s eventual replacement for this role, walks past a movie theatre.