If David Cronenberg’s Shivers infected an apartment complex full of rich yuppies who probably deserved it, Rabid goes a step further and passes the disease to larger Montreal. This 1977 picture contends with many of the same concerns found in Shivers, with science, sex and slaughter at the core. And it is still deeply satirical, sending up sexuality and the zombie mythos in one decidedly Canadian pass.
Experimentation gone wrong is integral to Rabid’s bite, but it’s impossible to ignore the significance of Cronenberg’s casting of Marilyn Chambers as the lead. Using the former adult film star was the brainchild of producer Ivan Reitman, who heard Chambers wanted to make a non-pornographic picture.
Chambers is Rose and Frank Moore stars as her boyfriend Hart. They’re involved in a motorcycle accident and Rose is sent to the Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery. Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) wants to perform a radical new procedure. He uses a process called “morphogenesis” to graft neutral flesh to theoretically replace damaged skin and organs.
Naturally, the process goes awry. Rose awakens from her coma and doesn’t know what’s going on, but she does know she has a hunger for human blood she can’t sate. What’s more, she’s got a mutation that emerges from an orifice in one of her armpits and assists in her blood-feasting endeavours. Madness ensues.
Cronenberg’s considerations of new flesh came to bear in Shivers with a parasitic presence establishing itself inside the body. Here, the manifestations are external and subsequently more vampiric. The flesh opens to divulge a stinger, a decidedly phallic protrusion in some shots, and that stinger becomes the proverbial weapon for Rose’s penchants.
Once again, the notion of one’s biological hunger comes into play. Rose doesn’t like who she is and she doesn’t even seem to recognize that she’s the cause of so much trouble. Her refusal to accept reality is par for the course in a world where scientific experimentation tests human restrictions.
Rabid’s interest in the confluence of the biological and the behavioural is pervasive, from the casting of Chambers to the use of sexuality to the phallic stinger to the meta-collision of the cinematic and real worlds. One crucial scene takes place as Chambers’ Rose is watching an adult film and is hit on by a ogling man. He gets his and she gets hers.
Rabid doesn’t play its victims as sex-crazed zombies, though, and that changes things. Those bitten by Rose’s stinger skitter around society like rage-filled freaks, kind of like something out of Romero’s The Crazies only with a badass dose of Canadian rabies.
There are some subtle and not-so-subtle deconstructions in Rabid, like when Cronenberg has martial law declared in Montreal and the police open fire on anything resembling an infected person. There’s also a moment at a shopping mall, where the film joyfully stakes its claim as a Christmas movie.
Chambers’ performance in Rabid has taken a lot of flack, but she’s adept at displaying involuntary sexuality. She’s unaware of the destruction in her wake. She’s sequestered from the violence, the bloodshed, the panic. And when the heat faces her, she’s so unprepared that she flings herself headlong into deadly denial.
The degree of disorder in Rabid makes it a big picture for Cronenberg and his interests in imposing biological torment on an oblivious populace makes for ecstatic, sleazy fun. The movie also contains the embryo of car-crash fetishism, something that would come to fruition in about nine years, and at last lets the foaming hordes loose on “polite” society.