David Cronenberg: Rabid (1977)

1977’s Rabid continues David Cronenberg’s career exploration of body-horror and is, in many ways, a natural pairing with the film that preceded it, 1975’s Shivers. Both films involve medical interventions gone wrong that breed nightmarish epidemics of sexual violence. At the same time Rabid represents an expansion of Cronenberg’s palette and theme, moving the action from the confines of the Starliner Towers to the whole city of Montreal and further exploring the way that evolutionary drives can breed social chaos. Rabid further crystallizes many of the director’s main themes and points the way forward at the same time.

Developed as Cronenberg’s second feature for the Canadian exploitation film production outfit, Cinépix (now Lionsgate), at the time known for sleazy softcore European pornos, Rabid is both more disreputable than the films that came before it and, in other ways, more refined; the casting of porn star Marilyn Chambers in one of her first mainstream roles certainly lent the film prurient interest to foreign buyers, but the film also represents a refinement and development of filmmaking technique as Cronenberg further adjusts to the challenges of commercial filmmaking. Fascinating and at times repulsive, Rabid explores the contrast between appearance and inner depth, and the way that biological traumas—that is, the drivers of evolution—shape and are shaped by human beings in their interactions with the larger structures of society.

Pleased with the success of Shivers, which returned over $5 million dollars on a $180,000 budget, Cinépix was eager to have Cronenberg return with another film. Cronenberg had an idea for a film he initially called “Mosquito,” a kind of present-day vampire film. Yet, in keeping with Cronenberg’s rejection of transcendence, this would necessarily be a non-supernatural, biological kind of vampirism.

One thematic through-line in Cronenberg’s cinema is its clear rejection of religion as a source for meaning, which contrasts in many ways with the cinematic genre he is best known for: horror. Horror is often analyzed as a religious genre, fascinated with the demonic and the existence of supernatural evil. Yet, Cronenberg is not just passively, but consciously anti-religious. As he has said, he explicitly does not  “want to promote supernatural thinking.” Cronenberg’s parents, while culturally Jewish, were in his own words, “anti-religious, but not in a proselytizing way.” While he claims he doesn’t hold any particular animosity toward religion, it does not play a role in the kinds of stories he’s interested in exploring. He is, as one interviewer put it, a “secular auteur.”

Instead of the supernatural realm or divine presence, what offers the basis for knowledge and grounding of existence is the body: both the individual body and the corporate or societal body. Rabid is about precisely the distinctions and breakdowns in such bodies, instigated by human interference and what Cronenberg calls “the short circuiting of the concept of evolution.”

Rabid begins at the Keloid Clinic, a plastic surgery clinic in rural Quebec where Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) and his associates are developing new and experimental techniques for regenerating damaged tissue. When an accident on a local highway leaves a motorcyclist, Hart Read (Frank Moore) and his girlfriend, Rose (Marilyn Chambers), badly hurt, Dr. Keloid performs experimental plastic surgery on Rose to save her life. This surgery involves the use of “morphogenetically neutral grafts” taken from her legs and applied to Rose’s organs and torso, so that the tissue will form the body parts that were damaged in the crash. Hart is released after healing from his wounds, but Rose is kept on at the clinic to heal. One evening Rose awakens and attacks another patient at the clinic, Lloyd Walsh (J. Roger Periard), leaving him weakened and drained of blood, with open wounds that won’t clot. Lloyd is transferred to Montreal General Hospital, while Rose eventually leaves the clinic terrified by the urges that have overcome her.

Rose first leaves to a nearby farm, and when she vomits after feeding on the blood of a cow, she realizes that she can only subsist on human blood, acquired via a phallic stinger that emerges from a labial opening in her armpit. By extracting the blood, Rose infects those that she feeds on, including the farmer. She returns to the clinic, infecting Dr. Keloid, and then the truck driver who takes her to Montreal. The infection resembles a particularly virulent form of rabies, that leaves the victim a crazed maniac, foaming at the mouth and hyper-aggressive. Unaware that she has created an epidemic, and that she might hold the key to a cure, Rose seeks refuge at a friend’s apartment as the city of Montreal  is placed under martial law and the infected are disposed of on sight by hazmat-suited extermination units.

While Rabid shares with Shivers the subject of a human-induced plague, the scale and details are different. In Rabid, one can see an affinity with other stories of human society reduced to chaos by infections that undo our own own ability to reason and will. The following year, in 1978, George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead would also explore similar themes; a scene with Rose in a Montreal shopping centre explicitly presages the images of biological infection devastating a consumer society.

However, Cronenberg’s film is not a mere metaphor for decay; the vampirism here isn’t presented allegory for consumerism, as zombism is in Romero’s film, or even a metaphor for human depravity and sexual thirst. Instead, Rabid portrays the horror of being betrayed by one’s own body. Rose is horrified at her transformation, and yet the will to survive overrides any moral limits against killing, or against using her own sexuality to lure victims to her, as she does in one scene set in a porno theatre.

Another contrast between Rabid and other similar stories, especially Romero’s, is that rather than portray the interactions between the band of survivors and their various strategies for survival, even if doomed, Cronenberg’s film is about the impact on the wider societal whole. In fact, group dynamics and the interactions of institutions, whether the Keloid Clinic or the government of Quebec, often serve to exacerbate rather than curb the spread of infections. Thus, the body corporate and politic is similar to the individual biological body: its systems can be exploited by the evolution of various diseases and organisms to their own ends. Thus, Rabid makes explicit the link between societal chaos and destruction and aspects of human existence that conflict with rationality; in an overly-Freudian sense, Rabid is about the experience of horror at our own desires. This is telegraphed early in the film when a patient in the hottub at Keloid is seen reading Ernest Jones’s biography of Freud, but Freud is present throughout the film (and all of Cronenberg’s films really, culminating in A Dangerous Method). Firstly, Rose is clearly disturbed by her own desire for human blood and the growth of the phallic stinger; and yet, her biological reality takes primacy above social and moral norms. She feasts when she needs to. She utilizes her sexuality to lure in victims, but at the same time the film shows how sexual desire overriding normal boundaries is present in non-rabid victims in equal measure. Men are constantly drawn to Rose, disturbingly and violently seeking sex.

The casting of Marilyn Chambers, a significant figure in 1970s porn cinema, plays into this aspect of the film, lending it a kind of meta-significance. Chambers’ casting at the urging of Cronenberg’s producer Ivan Reitman conflicted with Cronenberg’s own first choice for the role of Rose: Sissy Spacek, whom he had just seen in Terrence Malick’s Badlands. However, Spacek was seen as not a big enough draw (this was prior to her gaining of stardom in Carrie). As Cronenberg describes it, Reitman told him: “It would be really great for us if you like Marilyn Chambers for this movie, because her name means something, we can afford her and she wants to do a straight movie.” But her casting ended up working because of the sexual appeal that she generated. Cronenberg appreciated Chambers’ obvious effort in the performance, and it works, as she is able to be believable as someone who straddles the line between a girl next door and a sexual draw.

Rabid also deviates from Shivers in placing the woman in the sexually aggressive role at times. Cronenberg notes that his previous film had been accused of showing women as sexual victims, while Rabid was criticised for making female sexuality predatory. As Cronenberg reflects on the experience:

It’s fitting that a horror film should be attacked or defended by various feminist groups. It makes a lot of sense to me. In a way, it pleased me – and still does – not to be seen as adhering to anyone’s party line. That suits me temperamentally. I thought I was suitably nasty to everybody at one point or another in Rabid: male female, homosexual, child, everybody gets it. If you’re going to accuse me of something, you might as well accuse me of being misanthropic. I don’t feel I’m that either.

Rabid explores the complexities of biology in ways that may feel out of step with today’s gender and social conventions. Rose’s phallic stinger complicates simple gender binaries, featuring elements that are often considered either male or female: its penis like protrusion emerges from labial folds in her armpit. What Cronenberg’s film suggests is that social and sexual reorganizations do not follow gender conventions, instead adapting to whatever is necessary for survival. But in a way that challenges contemporary understandings of gender which see it as unrestrained by biology, Rabid affirms the centrality of the body in driving behaviour and survival. Rose cannot avoid being shaped by her appendage. Her sense of her own identity and personal self-determination are secondary to her biological reality. It may be controversial, but Cronenberg asks us to grapple with the body as central to our experience of the world.

Formally, Rabid shows slight development from Shivers, with more camera movement and creating compositions in a larger scale the city of Montreal and Quebec countryside offer from the claustrophobia of Starliner Towers. In terms of framing, Cronenberg favours more complex setups that contribute to revelation; instead of scares being revealed in cuts, he allows the surprise to emerge within the shot, as faces turn toward the camera or the camera moves around corners. The film is carefully composed for its genre, showing Cronenberg’s growth as a director of more mainstream fare.

In fact, Rabid is best understood as a deepening interrogation of the themes that Cronenberg would explore throughout his career: the role of the body in relation to society and the individual, the horror of evolution, and the loss of bodily integrity. With Shivers and Rabid, Cronenberg made his mark on 70s horror cinema, cementing a role as not only the most successful English Canadian director of the era, but in the history of horror. Is it possible to imagine the body horror of Alien (1979) or The Thing (1982) without Cronenberg’s exploitation films with Cinépix? Shivers and Rabid established the template that would mostly define Cronenberg’s output. At the same time, they appropriately pushed the evolution of the horror genre itself. While he would go on to make more formally elegant and thematically rich films, with Shivers and Rabid, Cronenberg established the core of what we have come to understand as “Cronenbergesque.”

7 out of 10

Rabid (1977, Canada/US)

Written and directed by David Cronenberg; starring Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan, Susan Roman, J. Roger Periard.