Grade: 78 (B+)
Shivers was controversial, hated by many, and highly successful for a low-budget Canadian horror film, so David Cronenberg’s next effort had a larger budget and less hesitancy from Canadian studio Cinepix. 1977’s Rabid shows a continuation and expansion of many of the key obsessions of Cronenberg’s filmography. That it’s ultimately less successful and memorable than Shivers is not dishonorable- that’s a rather high standard to live up to for your second professional film- and Rabid is still an essential early work in Cronenberg’s oeuvre.
Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is in a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend; he’s mostly fine, but she’s horrifically injured. She’s too far away from a hospital to risk a trip, so she’s taken to a plastic surgery clinic run by Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan), where she receives extensive skin grafts. Months later, Rose awakes, but she’s developed a vaginal orifice under her armpit which contains a phallic stinger. Rose develops a vampiric need to feed off the blood of others with the stinger, which transforms the victims into zombie-like creatures with behavior resembles those of animals with rabies, causing the city to fall into mass chaos.
Rabid shares a lot in common with Shivers: similar concepts (sexual transformation), similar influences (Burroughs, Nabakov, Romero), and a similarly chilly air. That said, it does show Cronenberg’s advances as a filmmaker. Where Shivers was occasionally slightly awkward and filled with moments of hesitancy, Rabid shows a director who’s much more confident in what he’s doing. He expands in scope- where Shivers was a claustrophobic film largely contained in one large building, the events of Rabid take place over a sprawling Canadian city. His compositions are richer and more dynamic- one scene in a porno theatre between Chambers and an unnamed patron is particularly effective. Rabid also shows an even greater command of suspense and of all-out horror- where everything already seemed slightly off at the beginning of Shivers (purposefully, that is), Rabid’s opening on Rose’s motorcycle ride with her boyfriend feels almost idyllic at first. We know something terrible is about to happen, but there’s a slight sense of security until the accident does happen. And as for the viscerally shocking moments: just watch the operating table scene.
Rabid also features the first Cronenberg character worth caring about. Shivers didn’t particularly call for a strong protagonist, but the presence of one in Rabid gives it a stronger emotional core. Rose isn’t a particularly deep character, but her emotional vulnerability gives her a draw that previous characters didn’t have. Marilyn Chambers is most famous for her career in 1970s pornography, most famously the crossover hit Behind the Green Door, but she shows some chops as a girl-next-door whose innocence has been subverted into a sexually aggressive character. This also provides a better defined psychological portrait of one of Cronenberg’s conflicted protagonists- one whose extreme impulses overpower their reluctance to go through with them. Sure, it would’ve been nice to see Cronenberg get a chance to work with Sissy Spacek as he had originally wanted, but Chambers plays that confusion and conflict very well, which is what keeps Rabid from being just a gussied-up version of Shivers.
Because while Rabid does give Cronenberg another chance to throw around his body horror/disease interests, Rabid doesn’t have the same thematic strength of Shivers. There’s more than a few nice touches: Cronenberg’s reimagining of the vampire as a more biologically sexual, internal creature is fascinating, and he gets a lot of mileage out of the government’s ineffective and often catastrophic reaction to the problem (they shoot a mall Santa, for Christ’s sake!). But Chambers’ relative strength as a character highlights how thin everyone else is, and many of the supporting roles aren’t active enough. And while Rabid shares Shivers’ conceptual brilliance, it does not share the earlier film’s conceptual clarity. Where Shivers’ satirical edge was sharp as a razor, Rabid’s isn’t particularly well-defined, the plastic surgery bits mostly being a means to an end. Sure, the idea of a new take on a vampire/zombie movie is already pretty terrific in its own right, but the film doesn’t have the same lasting significance as Cronenberg’s professional debut.
Still, a good movie is a good movie, and Rabid is still an important film for Cronenberg. It’s the first with a strong character, it shows more assurance behind the camera, and its devastating final shot is every bit as tragic as Shivers’ was chilling.
But don't take my word for it. Rabid is available on YouTube.
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