AVAILABLE ON DUAL FORMAT BLU-RAY AND STEELBOOK: NOW, from ARROW VIDEO
RUNNING TIME: 91 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Rose and her boyfriend Hart survive a motorbike crash. Hart has a broken hand, separated shoulder, and a concussion, but Rose, having been pinned under the vehicle, is more severely injured on her chest and abdomen. At the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery, Dr. Keloid recognizes that Rose needs immediate surgery and decides to perform a radical, untested procedure on her that would allow skin and tissue to generate properly in the way it is intended to. However, this causes a mutation in her body, and now the only thing she can subsist on is human blood. To help her attain it, a bizarre new organ has developed in Rose’s armpit; through a small sphincter opening, a large red phallic spike emerges to pierce her victims and draw blood like a syringe. Rose periodically leaves the clinic to feed….
Rabid is really a companion piece to director David Cronenberg’s previous work Shivers. Once again, dodgy medical science accidently creates a terrible epidemic, and the same metaphors can be deduced, like that of AIDS before its time. It seems that David Cronenberg decided to partially remake the earlier film taking advantage of a slightly bigger budget and increased film-making skill, though I don’t think it quite reaches its level. It’s a good, pacy horror film with a considerable amount of tension, has some very memorable scenes, can definitely be said to be better made than Shivers, and is perhaps more fun, but in the end it doesn’t have the raw power of Shivers and sometimes seems to be holding back, while many scenes just don’t fulfil their potential. There’s a rushed feel to some bits of the film, as if portions of scenes are missing, and in the end the budget isn’t really big enough to convincingly depict a plague which is considerably further reaching than the tower block of Shivers. I often wonder why this film hasn’t been remade, since it has its considerable merits but isn’t quite as strong as it could be, but then I should be careful what I wish for! I’ll never forget watching Cronenberg’s The Brood [his next film after Rabid and one of his masterpieces] and finding out that very day there were plans to remake it! In any case, Rabid was a clear influence on 28 Days Later, Species, and others.
Despite being blasted by many, Shivers made money and was a rare international success for the Canadian film industry. Cronenberg therefore decided to make more of the same, and didn’t have much trouble getting funds this time, some of it coming from the Canadian government, though of a “surreptitious” kind, as Cronenberg would say. He pulled out an earlier treatment of a story called Butterfly which had influenced the Shivers screenplay, and expanded it, with a bit of influence coming from, it seems, by The Crazies, though at one point he thought his tale was so ridiculous his producer had to convince him to soldier on with the film. Cronenberg wanted Sissy Spacek as the lead [this was just before Carrie], but the studio didn’t like her accent or freckles. Co-producer Ivan Reitman suggested porn star Marilyn Chambers, who was looking for a mainstream role. Despite getting good notices for Rabid, Chambers afterwards returned to hard and softcore pornography. Many Canadians saw the film’s depiction of martial law reflective of what actually did occur in Canada in 1970 due to separatist terrorism, though Cronenberg denied this. Rabid did decent business and like Shivers was rarely censored, though some DVD versions are missing differing small portions of footage, probably because of print damage. The UK DVD, for instance, cuts part of a conversation between the two male leads and a policeman in a parking lot, though this footage was in the TV copy I used to have and it’s present and correct in the new Blu-ray.
The links with Shivers are obvious right from the offset with Joe Silver playing a virtually identical doctor character, though the film-making skills of Cronenberg and his crew have clearly got better with a stunningly shot and edited opening motorbike crash. The script doesn’t really go into detail about the procedure that is tried out on Rose [is her name a metaphor?] – something about grafts of her own skin used to patch the injured tissues in and on her chest and abdomen, and said treated skin being able to form new tissue of whatever type it is grafted to, but possibly also leading to cancer. Sometimes it’s best if the pseudoscience is minimal as it can become laughable. In any case, it isn’t long before the supposedly comatose Rose is pulling out her I.V. drip tube and feeding on blood through the phallic growth under her arm in a perverse twist on vampirism. It does sound a bit ridiculous, but the handling, on the surface serious but clearly aware of the blackly humorous aspects, plus the rather convincing special effects, negate most laughter. What doesn’t work so well is a refusal to explore the transformed Rose’s character. She just wonders around in a trance-like state, taking blood from everyone she meets [including a cow whom she strokes in an oddly affecting moment], and the film is rather repetitive at times, as if Cronenberg isn’t sure of how to develop the premise, while some of the seduction/ feeding scenes don’t have the charge they probably should. The most horrifying scene in the film is when a character goes in to his home to find his new born baby has been devoured by his wife. You don’t see the details, but you see enough!
Rose’s rampage results in a plague of rabid killers, and the film resolves itself into a series of set-pieces where someone foams at the mouth and goes wild. There are memorable moments in a diner, an operating room, on a train, and even in a shopping mall where you get to witness a site that should warm the cockles of anyone who tires of Christmas – Santa getting accidently machine-gunned by some cops. There’s also a cracking car crash that, along with certain bits in Scanners and A History Of Violence, makes it a shame that Cronenberg has never done a full-on action movie [unless you count his drag racing drama Fast Company], because he’d be very good at it. The idea of a nationwide epidemic never quite seems properly realised though. The film is an impressive achievement considering its budget to be sure, but said budget just wasn’t really high enough for a successful realisation of its story. Cronenberg doesn’t entirely seem sure on how to close his tale too. The George Romero-esque [right down to freeze frames] down beat finish is appropriate, but scenes like the final one between Rose and the boyfriend who has been following her all over the place don’t really hit the mark the way they should. Having characters not seeming to really spelling out what they want to say doesn’t always work, though I suppose it does match the cold, distant film-making manner, with the camera often as a dispassionate observer. Cronenberg is clearly refining his directorial style here.
As usual for a Cronenberg film, Rabid can be seen in different ways. A cautionary tale about the dangers of unprotected sex. A warning against altering the human body, and one that prefigures the craze for plastic surgery, Cronenberg showing a prophetic ability to not only predict the outbreak of venereal diseases. A sub-feminist fight back against pornography, considering its star, a star of a genre that is largely aimed at men and well known for exploiting women, plays a character who develops a penis-like device which she uses to impale men [and one woman, though she seems to be fighting against her instincts to kill the other female], men who usually show a sexual interest in her. Chambers really is very good in the role. She combines a girl-next-door sweetness and almost child-like innocence with an undercurrent of unbridled sexuality that makes it no surprise that she became a huge porno star on the back of only a few films. For Rabid, she has a slightly spaced-out quality that is entirely appropriate for the role, though the part is really thinly sketched out which prevents any attempts at deep characterisation. Compare her though to, say, Natasha Henstridge’s weak enacting of a similar role decades later, and Chambers comes off really well. Sadly Frank Moore is rather shoddy as her boyfriend, though overall the acting is of a higher standard than that in Shivers. Rabid is also a more attractive film to look at, cinematographer Rene Verzier providing some great night-time shots of Montreal, and this the first Cronenberg movie to use winter to enhance the chilly effect he’s after.
Again Ivan Reitman is credited as ‘music supervisor’, which means that he basically took a load of library music [Romero often did this] and put it on the film, but the soundtrack for Rabid works quite well as an actual score, with a few pieces of varying moods well placed throughout the picture. The plot of the film doesn’t appear to have been entirely thought through, though Cronenberg often seems more interested in its metaphorical and thematic aspects anyway, and there’s also a nice line in irony throughout, like Rose only seeming to be aware that she caused the rabid plague right at the end. Rabid may be one of its creator’s thinner films, but it still has that Cronenberg compulsiveness and is perhaps more unashamedly entertaining than some of his deeper, richer masterworks. Typically for Arrow, the company has come up with what must be the definitive edition of a film. The print shows some dirt in the opening scene, but is quite simply excellent afterwards while still looking like it’s a film made in the 1970’s, and the selection of extras old and new is very comprehensive. Cronenberg, perhaps unsurprisingly, is fascinating to listen to in his commentary.
*New High Definition Digital Transfer
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation of the feature
*Original mono audio (uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio Commentary with writer-director David Cronenberg
*Audio Commentary with William Beard, author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg
*Archive interview with David Cronenberg
*Brand new interview with executive producer Ivan Reitman
*Brand new interview with co-producer Don Carmody
*Make-up Memories: Joe Blasco Remembers Rabid – A short featurette in which Blasco recalls how the film’s various gruesome effects were achieved
*Raw, Rough and Rabid: The Lacerating Legacy of Cinépix – Featurette looking back at the early years of the celebrated Canadian production company, including interviews with author Kier-La Janisse and special makeup artist Joe Blasco
*The Directors: David Cronenberg – A 1999 documentary on the filmmaker, containing interviews with Cronenberg, Marilyn Chambers, Deborah Harry, Michael Ironside, Peter Weller and others
*Original Theatrical Trailer
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Nat Marsh
*Collector’s Booklet featuring new writing on the film by Kier-La Janisse, reprinted excerpts of Cronenberg on Cronenberg and more, illustrated with original archive stills and posters.