David Cronenberg made his name as a filmmaker by helping create what is often referred to as the “body horror” subgenre. His films garner a lot of their horror from the primal fear of having your body degenerate, or having your body take over your mind, causing you to do things which are beyond your control. In 1975, Cronenberg explored this theme in his feature-film directorial debut, Shivers, which has been described as a “venereal disease remake of Night of the Living Dead“. The storyline involves the residents of a high-rise apartment building being infected by a strain of parasites, which are transmitted through sexual contact. This parasite will plant uncontrollable sexual desire within its host and turn them into a mindless, sex-crazed zombie whose only goal is to infect others. This storyline made for quite an interesting precursor to the AIDS epidemic and in spite of its low budget and amateurish production values, Shivers made quite a vivid impression on horror audiences and showed that Cronenberg might be a pretty ambitious auteur and not just your run-of-the-mill exploitation filmmaker. Shivers wound up being the most profitable Canadian film ever made at that point, but of course, its subject matter generated a lot of controversy from repulsed critics and made it difficult for Cronenberg to obtain funding for more features. For his follow-up project, Cronenberg was forced to return to this familiar territory by directing Rabid, which is almost a semi-remake of Shivers on a much larger scale, but is still a very inventive, visually striking piece of horror.
As Rabid opens, a young woman named Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is riding through the Canadian countryside on a motorcycle with her boyfriend, Hart (Frank Moore), when they suddenly get into a terrible accident. Rose is critically injured and suffers terrible burns on her body, but the accident conveniently takes place near a plastic surgery clinic run by the ambitious Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan). Keloid does some experimental skin grafts on Rose, which involves removing skin tissue from her thigh and placing it on the damaged areas of her body which were affected by the crash. Rose remains in a coma for a month and when she suddenly wakes up one night, we discover that the surgery has caused her to develop an orifice under her armpit, which hides a phallic-shaped stinger. Rose uses the stinger to stab unsuspecting victims and feed on their blood. Afterward, the victim will have no memory of this attack, but they will eventually morph into a rabid zombie-like creature who feels the uncontrollable urge to bite other people and spread their disease. After Rose escapes from the clinic, she uses her stinger to infect some more victims and, of course, once they become rabid, they start infecting their own victims. It isn t too long before this disease spreads out of control. Many residents of Montreal wind up becoming infected, and the city eventually has to be quarantined in order to contain the outbreak. Of course, no one knows that Rose is the host of this disease and will keep going around infecting people until she is stopped.
Even though neither of these words are uttered in the film, Rabid is quite a unique mix of the vampire and zombie genres. Rose s surgery has turned her into a vampire who is motivated by an uncontrollable thirst for blood and this wind winds up causing a zombie epidemic. Of course, the premise here is pretty absurd as the movie never really explains why experimental skin grafts would cause someone to develop a phallic-shaped stinger under their armpit. Yet somehow, the whole thing seems to work, as Cronenberg supplies his silly story with a lot of vivid and memorable imagery. In Shivers, Cronenberg dealt with his low budget by setting most of the action in one location. Even though his budget here wasn’t much higher, Cronenberg shows surprising ambition by chronicling a dangerous outbreak in a major city. A decision like that could have easily backfired. A few years earlier, George Romero’s horror film, The Crazies, tried to tell the story of a deadly epidemic in a small town, but he lacked the budget and resources to make it work. Of course, the execution in Rabid isn’t perfect, as the story structure is often sloppy and episodic, but Cronenberg does deliver some striking set pieces. He even provides some satire about the authorities’ inability to handle the outbreak, particularly during a sequence where they try to shoot an infected victim and accidentally wind up massacring a mall Santa Claus. Like Shivers, the epidemic on display here is a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases. It’s amusing to note that many of the victims that Rose infects turn out to be perverts who receive their disease as a form of punishment, such as in this sequence where Rose deals with a creeper in a porn theater.
Surprisingly, much of Rabid s success is due to a strong lead performance from Marilyn Chambers. Of course, Chambers had established herself as one of the top porn stars of the 1970s after her memorable performance in Behind the Green Door. The first actor that Cronenberg had in mind to play the role of Rose was Sissy Spacek, who was rejected by the producers because of her Texas accent. Instead, Spacek wound up playing the title role in Carrie and garnered an Academy Award nomination for it, so this obviously turned out to be the best career move for her. By this point, Chambers was trying to leave the adult film industry behind and start a mainstream acting career. She does very solid work in Rabid and actually helps the viewer become more emotionally invested than you’d expect. Rose is not portrayed as the villain of the piece, but an unsuspecting victim who just cannot control her thirst for blood. In fact, she does not even realize until the very end that she has turned her victims into rabid zombies and is responsible for the mass epidemic in Montreal. Chambers’ mainstream career really didn’t go anywhere after Rabid and she wound up returning to porn, but she could have built a successful career as a legitimate actress if opportunity had allowed it. Anyway, Rabid turned out to be a decent-sized hit for Cronenberg, paving the way for him to direct such acclaimed horror films as The Dead Zone and The Fly, and eventually garnering him mainstream respectability. It goes without saying that Cronenberg’s later works are a lot more polished than the likes of Shivers or Rabid, yet both of them still remain amongst my favourite Cronenberg films. In spite of its flaws, Rabid still has a gritty, low-budget charm to it, and is a great showcase for how the horror genre can be an effective vehicle for ambitious filmmakers to express their ideas.