David Cronenberg’s 1977 Rabid was only the director’s second full length theatrical release, yet it remains one of his most memorably bizarre plots, and one of his most uncompromisingly bleak visions. He’d already blended elements of sex and horror in his previous film Shivers, in which residents of an isolated apartment community gradually all succumb to a gruesome slug-like parasite that turns its hosts into mindless sexually compulsive zombies. Rabid covers similar territory, although with a few new twists to make it even more uncomfortable.
Adult film star Marilyn Chambers made a sensation with her appearance in 1972 breakthrough porn film Behind The Green Door, but Rabid was the first non-porn film that she did afterwards. Green Door is considered to be one of the finer examples of the artistic possibilities for adult films, but Chambers had no speaking lines in it, and it still remained to be seen if she could pull off the necessary acting required for the lead character in Rabid. It turns out that even though the character she’s playing is nearly as thin as one from an adult movie, Chambers is authentic and convincing in the role of Rose, a young woman who is in a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend, Hart. The accident happens in a rural area, with only a plastic surgery clinic nearby for Rose to get the medical attention she needs.
At the clinic, Dr. Keloid performs emergency surgery on Rose, employing an experimental technique he has been developing using treated skin grafts. The grafts are intended to adapt to the body wherever they are applied, but instead they cause a strange mutation to develop in Rose’s body. After lying in a coma for many weeks at the Keloid clinic, Rose awakens and instinctively attacks another patient using a new organ that has grown inside her body. It emerges from a sphincter in her armpit, revealing itself to be a phallic-looking tube with a stinger on the end that Rose uses to puncture her victims and withdraw their blood. Although Rose attempts to feed on a cow, she vomits and realizes the blood she consumes must be human. Her victims, although usually not killed by the experience, are infected with an unknown disease similar to rabies that Rose is carrying, and the disease quickly turns them into murderous zombies who infect others by biting them. Rose herself is immune, but she creates another carrier each time she feeds, and soon there is chaos and mayhem in the streets of Montreal as martial law takes over and authorities begin gunning down infected citizens.
Chambers has an odd screen persona in this film, perhaps a directorial choice or simply due to her delivery, which is sometimes very detached and cold. If she doesn’t seem quite at home being the lead in a film, it doesn’t hurt by any means, and in fact it adds to the otherwordly nature of the plot. Although Cronenberg features Marilyn Chambers topless in several scenes, she has no sex scenes, and the nudity is very clinical and desexualized. Once she is seen topless lying in a hospital bed with monitors attached to her unconscious body, and another time she strips to her bare necessities in a bathroom, but she is writhing in pain at the time. It’s an interesting way to feature an actress who had previously appeared in films where the audience was encouraged to sexualize her. Even in the scenes where Rose uses her sexuality to attract victims, as a character she exudes menace more than anything else, smiling in an innocent way that’s actually chilling.
The most effective part of Marilyn Chambers’ performance is how good she is at communicating Rose’s own bewilderment with this unwelcome change in her body. From her own viewpoint, she just woke up one day after a violent accident and her body had already been damned to crave human blood. It’s fascinating how each time she attacks, she has a different level of awareness about what she is actually doing. When she feeds for the first time, it is on a patient to comes into her room when he hears her screaming. Rose embraces him and doesn’t seem to be fully aware of what her new organ is doing, acting purely on instinct. Next is when she attempts to feed on a cow, eventually attacking a wino who catches her in the act and tries to rape her. Later she is forced to use her cunning in order to select and attack her “donors”, although we don’t usually get the impression that she wants to hurt anyone. There is one victim, however, that Rose makes a conscious choice to corner and kill, a young guest at the clinic relaxing in a hot tub. Rose assumes this persona that is both childlike and sexual, slowly advancing on the woman and getting into the hot tub without even removing her clothing. Betraying the brutal nature that Rose’s hunger brings out in her, this woman’s body is later discovered callously stashed in a freezer.
Her murderous instinct is portrayed in the film as a crisis for her rather than something she enjoys, as Rose keeps trying to be a normal person and to resume eating food instead of drinking blood, but she can’t keep anything down, and her need for blood drives her to become manipulative and deceitful. It is a corruption brought on her unwillingly, by a doctor who is selling the idea of a perfect body to clients who are panic-stricken about the fact that their own bodies are changing and aging.
Chambers does a great job bringing the character to life, despite the fact that her part is noticeably vague; we know almost nothing about Rose, we meet her just before she has her accident, and she doesn’t even have any lines in the film until she wakes up in the clinic–it’s only about 12 minutes into the film, but so much has happened already. Since Rose is a cipher to us, we don’t have much of a sense of loss about the destruction of her humanity. I found myself wondering where her family was, and if they were at all concerned about the fact that she was lying in a coma for a month in a clinic in the middle of nowhere. Still, it’s easy enough to see her learning about herself and her “new” body as she tries to navigate the difficult existence of seeking out human blood for nourishment.
Cronenberg uses this abbreviated approach to the other characters in the film as well, which keeps Rabid moving along at a decent pace, and ultimately that’s one of its greatest strengths. The things he does show you about his characters are revealing enough to communicate who they really are, such as when Joe Silver sits up watching TV with his infant son, or when we see Frank Moore (who plays Hart) tinkering around in his garage, working on his motorcycle.
Just as terrifying as Rose’s personal odyssey is the realistic way that Cronenberg depicts the outbreak of the disease. It becomes clear that once a person is infected, death is a certainty, but not before the victim goes homicidal and dies in agony. In response to this, citizens are shot down in cold blood once signs of the disease begin to manifest themselves–in one scene, a sniper on a rooftop shoots an infected man who climbs onto Joe Silver’s car, after which guardsmen in hazmat suits remove the body and spray the car with disinfectant before casually motioning for Silver to be on his way. An even more disturbing moment occurs when an infected man attacks a patron inside a shopping mall, prompting a guard to open fire; unfortunately he takes down a few innocent bystanders as well, including a department store Santa taking photos with children. It’s a bizarre but effective moment, and Cronenberg seems to be pointing out that comforts such as Christmas would be casualties if civilized society breaks down. It must be said that although George Romero did, in both Night of the Living Dead and The Crazies, fine tune the idea of a contaminated mob attacking and infecting normals, Rabid delivers a few shockingly violent scenes in bright color, such as a moment when a rabid police officer is shot dead in a precinct by a fellow officer in gory detail. Cronenberg doesn’t go as far over the top with the gore as Romero did later in Dawn of the Dead, but it’s still got a lot of hideous defilement of the human body in it, as well as the balls to suggest the death of a baby. The nihilistic image of sanitation workers casually finding a main character’s body and dropping it into the back of a garbage truck evokes a sense of despair that goes beyond blood and gore.
One of the most disturbing aspects of Rabid has got to be the way Roses’s new freak-of-nature organ is depicted. Although it is phallic looking when it’s fully extended, it emerges from an opening in her armpit that is distinctly vaginal, blurring the lines of gender just a little; Rose may be a sexually appealing woman, but her partners are unprepared for the kind of organ that she intends to use to penetrate them, and even though her ultimate goal is to consume human blood, her attacks are sexual in nature. For this kind of change to come over the body of a character played by an adult film star is a brilliant way to get under the skin of the audience by exploiting their own expectations. The fact that Rose develops this mutation after receiving tissue grafts meant to stimulate growth suggests that the human body is capable of changing in hideous ways if it’s nudged in the right direction. It’s this concept that has fueled some of David Cronenberg’s most enduring work, and most nightmarish images.
A few months ago, Scream Factory brought Rabid back to home video in the best representation of it that I’ve seen, with a great looking 2K scan that brings out the colors and composition in ways that the previous home versions I’ve seen have been lacking.