After she is badly hurt in a motorcycle crash, Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is rushed in a coma to the nearest medical facility, a plastic surgery clinic. The chief doctor decides to perform a skin graft to Rose’s side, treating the grafted flesh with a pioneering tissue-growth technique. Unfortunately, the treatment causes a parasitic barb to form in Rose’s armpit, creating an uncontrollable urge to draw blood from others. This in turn passes on a new, incredibly contagious form of rabies, transforming her victims – and their victims – into crazed, foaming killers.
David Cronenberg’s second full-length film continued the themes he explored in his 1976 debut Shivers – contagion, mutation – but widens its canvas. While that earlier film was set entirely in a high-rise luxury apartment block, Rabid is about the effects of it upon an entire populace. And while the claustrophobia of Shivers’ self-contained horror is reduced, the sense of increasing chaos as the virus spreads throughout Montreal and the city becomes a militarilised zone is well realised on a low budget.
Marilyn Chambers – at that time one of America’s best known porn stars – proves to be a pretty decent actress with her clothes (mostly) on, and while the acting elsewhere is of a variable quality, there are also decent performances from Joe Silver as Rose’s concerned doctor and Frank Moore as her boyfriend.
But it’s that strange bloodsucking organ that inexplicably develops in Rose’s armpit for which Rabid is best remembered, and the sight of her desperately clinging to her victims as the barb drinks from them is deeply unsettling. There is a drug analogy – in the sense that traditional vampirism can also be considered an addiction – but really Rose provides the human face to Cronenberg’s wider concern, namely the terrifying speed with which disease can spread throughout modern society. And the great irony is that Rose never suspects that she is the cause of the virus.
Rabid isn’t as sharply paced as much of the director’s later work, but the topicality of its themes and the skill with which Cronenberg combines the intellectual and the visceral always impresses.
Highly regarded Canadian writer/director who frequently combines intellectual concerns with genre subjects. Began directing in the late-70s with a series of gruesome but socially aware horror thrillers, such as Shivers, Rabid and The Brood. 1981's Scanners was Cronenberg's commercial breakthrough, and if the hallucinatory Videodrome was box office flop, it remains one of the finest films of his career. The sombre Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone and the hugely successful remake of The Fly followed.
The disturbing Dead Ringers (1988) was a watershed film, based for the first time entirely in reality and featuring a career-best performance from Jeremy Irons. The 1990s saw Cronenberg in uncompromising form, adapting a pair of "unfilmable" modern classics - Burrough's Naked Lunch and Ballard's Crash - in typically idiosyncratic style. M. Butterfly was something of a misfire, but eXistenZ surprised many by being fast-moving and funny, while 2002's powerful Spider saw Cronenberg at his most art-house.