If Cronenberg’s first commercial feature Shivers was a venereal take on the zombie genre, his follow-up, 1977’s Rabid, applies the same preoccupations of sexuality and disease to the vampire movie.
In fact, Rabid is remarkably similar to Shivers in several ways. A scientific breakthrough goes awry, turning a young woman into a crazed, blood-sucking killer. Her victims, in turn, are infected with the same bloodlust, and the disease gradually spreads throughout Montreal.
The reasons for this narrative similarity are probably because Cronenberg began to make Rabid so close to the completion of his first film. With Shivers proving unexpectedly successful for exploitation specialists, Cinepix (propelled as it was by no small amount of controversy), the company immediately asked the director if he had another ideas. Rabid originally began as something called Mosquito, which he developed with the assistance of Cinepix’s boss, John Dunning.
Rabid also saw a couple of familiar faces return from Shivers; Joe Silver, who came to a seriously sticky end in that film, plays a similar role in Rabid, and Ivan Reitman, who would later go on to enjoy a hugely successful career in Hollywood, is again a producer and musical supervisor.
The story begins with Rose, who’s left in a critical condition after a motorbike accident. Ending up in the care of Doctor Dan Keloid, she’s subjected to a new-fangled procedure that saves her life but has an unexpected side effect: a phallic appendage growing out of her armpit with an insatiable appetite for blood.
Where the events of Shivers were confined almost exclusively to a single high-rise building, Rabid sees Cronenberg stretch out narratively, with the film moving through several, increasingly populous locations as the spread of disease escalates. Beginning in the Canadian countryside, where Rose is involved in her motorcycle crash, the film moves from a remote clinic, via a roll in the hay in a barn, and onto the mean streets of Montreal.
Considering the film’s budget, these latter scenes, as people go crazy and the army moves in, are quite impressive. It’s the sign, perhaps, of a young director increasing in confidence – those underground sequences, as salivating, screaming citizens claw at one another in the confines of a subway car, are particularly well-staged, and among the most striking in the movie.
“It’s painted on a bigger canvas than Shivers,” Cronenberg said in an interview recorded for Channel 4, and included on the DVD re-release of Rabid put out by Metrodome in 2002. “There are many similarities, because it also deals with a disease which spreads from person to person, and it made the people it infected quite deranged.”
This infected horde bears more than a passing resemblance to the fast, ‘rage’ infected creatures of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, and it’s interesting, too, that Rage was one of the alternate names for Rabid when first released. Whether Boyle or writer Alex Garland were influenced by Cronenberg’s movie isn’t clear – it’s conceivable that Boyle and Garland were, like Cronenberg, influenced by George A Romero’s The Crazies (1973), which also sees energetic disease carriers running around, and concludes on an equally sour note.
Although sex was a central theme in Shivers, there’s a really sleazy air around Rabid, and not just because its lead actress, Marilyn Chambers, was formerly a porn actress (Cronenberg really wanted Sissy Spacek, but Cinepix wouldn’t allow it due to her Texas accent and freckles, of all things). Its story is more schlocky and less overtly satirical than Shivers, I’d argue, and its larger scale makes for a less cohesive, satisfying film overall than Cronenberg’s debut, even though its acting and production values are superior.
Once again, though, it’s full of the kind of mesmerising imagery that Cronenberg excels at producing. An early scene where an infected surgeon injures a colleague with a scalpel and attempts to drink their blood in the middle of an operation is far more unsettling than it sounds. And once again, there’s a queasy depiction of sex and nudity in Rabid; a sense that we’re watching animals in a documentary rather than human beings.
It’s this latter talent, perhaps, that immediately marked Cronenberg out as being something more than a typical horror director, even at this early stage in his career. Where the more extreme examples of horror from the 70s and 80s often felt as though they were the work of a madman, the captain of a ship gleefully sailing into stormy, murky waters, Cronenberg’s films felt more like the work of a scientist, coldly dissecting a specimen and laying all of its inner workings bare for us to see. The results are bizarre and sometimes stomach churning, but there’s always the impression that there’s a keen intelligence behind it all.
I wouldn’t place Rabid particularly highly in the rankings of Cronenberg’s great movies, but as is always the case, it’s filled with enough crazy images and unsettling moments to make it worth watching, and like many of the director’s earlier films, it’s more purely entertaining than some of his more perplexing later films, such as Naked Lunch. There are some great lines in Cronenberg’s script, too, including the opening, “I sure as hell don’t want to become the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery.”
Rabid also features one or two vintage Cronenbergian character names, which was something he’d toyed with in his early short films – Crimes Of The Future featured a character called Adrian Tripod, for example. Rabid’s Doctor Dan Keloid possessed one of the coolest names in the Cronenberg canon to date – that is, until he was dethroned by the one-two punch of Professor Brian O’Blivion and Barry Convex in 1983’s Videodrome.
Next, we’ll be taking a look back at Cronenberg’s Fast Company. You can read our Shivers retrospective here.