In a 1999 interview packaged with this handsome reissue of Rabid (1977), David Cronenberg describes his second film several times as “sort of unique”. Indeed it is, but only sort of. With its muddy green palate, its antiseptic urbanism, its sense of a military-industrial complex complacently dreaming up new types of violence, Rabid fits well with the paranoid conspiracy thrillers of the 70s. In its claustrophobia, however, and in its focus on disease and mutation where there should only be progress, Rabid anticipates much of the horror cinema of the 80s. It’s a striking transitional work: unique, but only sort of.
The film begins with a motorcycle crash. The driver Hart (Frank Moore) is injured but his girlfriend and passenger Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is left near death. Rose is taken to a private clinic for experimental treatment: her intact body tissue is sampled and made morphologically neutral – which is to say, it could belong to anyone. This tissue is applied to the damaged parts of her body in the hope that the cells will differentiate and regrow both her skin and damaged organs.
Rose leaves the clinic looking like a million dollars, but there’s one wrinkle. It’s a literal wrinkle: a puckered wound in her armpit that refuses to heal. Inside the wound is a parasite; inside the parasite is a stinger. Whenever Rose gets close to anyone from this point on (as she seems almost vampirically inclined to do), the parasite reveals itself and begins to drain the blood of the person Rose is with. These people then go on to develop symptoms of zombie-like rabidity. Pretty soon all of Montreal is in lockdown and the troops are closing in.
We are never told how this parasite lands inside Rose’s body. Cronenberg, a methodical man even at his most fantastic, apparently included an explanation in his rough cut but took it out, feeling it broke the flow of the film. This was probably the right decision – a horror film shouldn’t explain too much – but the absence of a central cause does muffle the film’s early momentum. And when all hell breaks loose past the film’s middle stretch, what follows can seem merely like derangement for its own sake rather than a plot or theme being consciously explored to its limits.
Perhaps this is what it actually feels like to be inside an epidemic, though, or in an occupied city as the looting ramps up before the military arrives. Part of Cronenberg’s point is that chaos is never very far away, so in one sense it doesn’t matter what brings civilisation down. In this reading, the unexplained parasite in Rose’s body is a metaphor for all the things we don’t know about ourselves and that we have to suppress to keep society going.
Balanced against that reading, however, is the lavish specificity of the parasite itself: it is, basically, a fang inside a penis inside an anus inside an armpit. The horrible novelty of this critter has its own Freudian suggestiveness, but it feels like it comes from a different and less cerebral film – specifically, it feels like a holdover from Cronenberg’s feature debut of a few years prior, Shivers (1975).
This is the other sense in which the work is transitional. The mix of Olympian social comment and Stygian physical perversion that Cronenberg would bring to near-perfection in Videodrome (1982) is here in a raw and very ambitious form. But the two elements seem to talk past each other – Cronenberg the philosopher is indulged only so far by Cronenberg the B-movie fan, with the latter getting all the best lines.
And maybe that’s for the best. Rabid is a technical improvement on Shivers in almost every respect, but neither the direction nor the acting could carry the film if there weren’t some baser pleasures on offer. The goring and savagery is repetitive at times, but the camera’s clinical interest in every strike and every wound has its own quickening effect. It certainly beats listening to the characters talk. Rabid isn’t free of witty or interesting lines, but the affectless playing that Cronenberg has always seemed to favour doesn’t work quite so well when your cast have to rouse themselves to even get to affectless. As Rose, Marilyn Chambers isn’t half bad – considering that her most famous prior role (a 1972 porno Behind The Green Door) didn’t involve a single line of dialogue. Her stolid adequacy sets a performance bar that the rest of the cast fails to clear.
Arrow’s reissue of Rabid is the cleanest and most watchable version of the film available and features a grab-bag of additional Cronenbergiana, some bits of it more relevant than others. In addition to cast and crew interviews, there’s an hour-long 1999 documentary about Cronenberg’s career to that point. Perhaps best of all, Cronenberg provides his own audio commentary to the film. He does so in the slightly reserved tone of a professor commenting on an especially troubling student essay. He can discuss every aspect in frightening detail, but seems slightly mystified at the end result – almost as if he had nothing to do with it. But then Rabid is that kind of film: if it never quite comes into focus, the view along the way is almost better for the distortions.
Rabid is released on DVD and BluRay on February 16.