It’s wages day at a pharmaceutical company’s offices, and true to movie form, a masked gang lies in wait intending to make off with the cash. The getaway driver and the petrol tank are riddled with bullets during the ensuing shoot-out, and surviving criminals ‘Doc’, ‘Blade’, and ‘32’ (as in ‘centimetres’ – work it out!) have some quick thinking to do. Grabbing a female hostage, they hold up an innocent motorist who, inconveniently, is driving a sick little boy to hospital, and force him to chauffeur them along a main toll highway and around rural back-roads in an attempt to evade the pursuing police.
At face value, this is Mario Bava’s least typical movie, set on a stifling, sweltering summer day, dealing with realistic themes, and featuring a central child character who, far from orchestrating the terrors around him, remains unconscious throughout. Following over 20 years of legal wrangles, Rabid Dogs finally attained a posthumous release on a now-scarce limited edition DVD and was revealed to be years ahead of its time, infused with a nihilistic, ruthless tone which made its eventual post-Tarantino appearance seem utterly contemporary. Despite the lack of obvious Bava touches, Rabid Dogs is immersed in greed and selfishness (as Troy Howarth’s study of the director has pointed out, themes common to most of his films) and almost stands as a flip-side riposte to his thrilling comic-strip adventure Danger: Diabolik. Compare the scene of Diabolik and Eva making love beneath a pile of banknotes to the depiction of ill-gotten riches here – the less-than-impressive haul is shown to us as being no more than a few bundles of cash in a battered old case, and various events during the getaway see much of the loot being frittered away on ephemera; an angry motorist requests payment over the odds for his broken tail-light, a wary garage owner initially refuses to fill the hijacked vehicle’s empty tank, and an irate farmer demands 50,000 lire for a bunch of grapes. Everyone’s a crook.
A la Stephen King’s later novel ‘Cujo’, and Eric Red’s superb, overlooked 1989 thriller Cohen And Tate, Rabid Dogs is ingeniously set within the claustrophobic confines of the car for virtually its entire length, with Bava’s skilled editing and clever use of close-ups and two-shots managing to keep the film lively. Stelvio Cipriani’s insistent, repetitive score, maintained almost non-stop throughout, helps to drive proceedings along, and the repellent, grotesque performances of the fine cast lend an amoral quality equally suited to a Leone western, say, or perhaps Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left which is echoed during one particularly unpleasant scene of psychological and physical humiliation. The majority of the film’s many killings are performed offscreen, yet edited with such punch and impact that you’d swear that you witnessed every knife-slash and bullet hit. As one last grim gag, the film fades out on a twist ending which leaves the despairing viewer gasping at the state of mankind and recalling the apparently baffling, seemingly unconnected opening shot which accompanied the credits some 96 minutes earlier and which all, suddenly, shudders into shocking focus.
Italian director/writer/cinematographer and one of the few Italian genre film-makers who influenced, rather than imitated. Worked as a cinematographer until the late 1950s, during which time he gained a reputation as a hugely talented director of photography, particularly in the use of optical effects.
Bava made his feature debut in 1960 with Black Sunday/The Mask of Satan, a richly-shot black and white Gothic gem. From then on Bava worked in various genres – spaghetti western, sci-fi, action, peplum, sex – but it was in the horror genre that Bava made his legacy. His sumptuously filmed, tightly plotted giallo thrillers (Blood and Black Lace, Hatchet for the Honeymoon, Bay of Blood) and supernatural horrors (Lisa and the Devil, Baron Blood, Kill, Baby...Kill!) influenced an entire generation of Italian film-makers (and beyond) – never had horror looked so good. Bava’s penultimate picture was the harrowing thriller Rabid Dogs, while his last film, Shock, was one his very scariest. Died of a heart attack in 1980.