Friday, June 10, 2011

Rabid (1977)

Marilyn Chambers as Rose, "Typhoid Mary" for a new strain of rabies
Everybody has that fear that affects them like no other.  Other thoughts might make you uneasy, might get your heart racing, but there's that one that has a special place in your nightmares, that twists your stomach into knots and robs you of sleep.  For me, it's always been physical corruption.  A maniac with a machete is nowhere near as scary to me as a killer inside, attacking and transforming your very cells and rotting you away from within.  It's no wonder, then, that the early films of David Cronenberg, those labeled as "body-horror," or sometimes "venereal horror," are among my very favorite horror films.

Rabid, Cronenberg's second feature, tells the story of Rose (Marilyn Chambers) a young woman involved in a terrible motorcycle accident.  When the ambulance comes to whisk her away, none of the bystanders question the fact that it arrives so soon with no phone calls having been made.  And so it is that she's taken, not to a state hospital, but to a private plastic surgery clinic nearby, where the chief of surgery is all too eager to try out a new experimental technique.  It seems he's developed a process whereby skin grafts can be transformed into something like embryo cells, able to match the structures of nearby tissue.  Although the technique has shown considerable promise, there's also the risk of rapid tumor development, and so Rose is kept under observation for 30 days in an induced coma.

Frank Moore as Hart, Rose's erstwhile lover
The hospital is the setting for several satirical moments that establish Cronenberg's themes long before things inevitably start to go badly.  The patients in the clinic talk casually among themselves about the multitude of times they've gone under the knife.  A man talks about the latest work being done on his eyes, as though routine plastic surgery was as essential as regular check-ups.  A young woman says she's back to have another nose-job; apparently, her daddy thought she still looked too much like him after the last one.  All these people seem at best dimly aware that their bodies are incredibly complicated organic systems; they all see their flesh as lumpy clay from which they might sculpt something more perfect than human.

If that is the goal, then Rose is the realization.  She awakens in the middle of the night as almost an entirely new kind of being.  She rips the IV from her arm; it seems she no longer has the need for traditional sustenance.  Instead, her biological imperative is now centered on a new "organ" grown from the experimental tissue grafted on to her.  Under her arm is a tiny, grotesque orifice from which extrudes, in moments of passion or bloodlust, a phallic "stinger" with which she feeds.

The sexual or venereal overtone to Rose's mutations in unmistakable
Rose's new feeding organ doesn't just provide her with sustenance, it also spreads an infection to her victims.  Once "pricked" men and women develop delirium, sweat profusely, foam at the mouth, and eventually lapse into fits of irrational violence.  Worse, they can spread the virus through their own saliva, so what begins as a handful of isolated incidents quickly becomes a plague sweeping across Montreal (a clear inspiration for the "rage virus" in Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.)

For all of the fantasy in its construction, Rabid is a remarkably prescient film.  The controversy which would erupt over the use of embryonic stem cells was still two decades away, and yet that is exactly the foundation of Rabid's transformational science.  Likewise, had it been release even a few years later, the sexual basis of this deadly plague would have made an AIDS allegory seem inevitable.

Montreal under martial law, as body disposal units drive by
The scope of this film is also stunning, given the miniscule budget Cronenberg had to work with.  Rabid was made largely with government grants; its final budget was less then one thirtieth of what he made The Fly with nine years later.  Yet, in an interview accompanying the film's DVD release, Cronenberg describes Rabid as his first "epic."  There are a tremendous number of characters here, with locations across Montreal and the surrounding countryside.  Most impressive of all are the scenes in the final act once Montreal is put under martial law.  Cronenberg uses well the resources at hand to depict a city caught between a deadly plague and an over-zealous and incompetent government response.

As the woman at the center of the plague, Marilyn Chambers does quite a good job depicting Rose's desperation to understand and to resist the new instincts driving her.  Although far from a world-class performance, there's a much-appreciated understatement to her take on the role that suggests she could have developed into an actress of reliable talent had she been given the chance.  It seems a real shame that the stigma attached to her participation in the adult film industry kept her from a legitimate acting career.

The rabies vaccine doesn't seem to be working
Rabid is not the best of Cronenberg's horror films; the 80's would bring genuine masterpieces seemingly every couple of years.  But as an early example of his favorite themes, it already clearly shows the talent that would make him, in the words of J. Hoberman, writing for the Village Voice, "film for film, the most audacious and challenging director in the English-speaking world."


  1. Yeah, this is one of Cronenberg's underrated early gems. It was downright prescient, scarily so. I agree, too, with your assessment of Marilyn Chambers. She could have been "an actress of reliable talent had she been given the chance." The stigma of that era certainly wouldn't allow such a transition. It could be just me, but doesn't sit seem we have the ironic opposite these days: legitimate young actors/actresses who want to be porn stars? Or, so it seems with everybody having a sex tape somewhere ;-). Thanks, Daniel.