David Cronenberg’s unique brand of horror resonates so strongly with audiences because it is often tied to the body, finding ways to make viewers squirm at the sight of the physical, but doing so by masterfully exploiting the psychological. While his later works apply this ethos to more dramatic contexts, such as Crash and A History of Violence, it is the earlier entries in Cronenberg’s filmography that made his indelible mark on the horror genre. However, before 1980s classics Videodrome or The Fly, there was one of his most overlooked but accomplished pieces, 1977’s Rabid.
In a daring, calculated move by Cronenberg and producer Ivan Reitman, late pornographic icon Marilyn Chambers was cast in the lead role as Rose, a young woman who is involved in a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) in the Quebec countryside. Fortunately, or perhaps unfortunately, the incident occurs near a private plastic surgery clinic and although Hart escapes with minor injuries, Rose requires life-saving surgery, which involves the use of a bold new surgical method. Although Rose manages a miraculous recovery, she is left with a slit under her left armpit that hides a stinger, which she uses to satiate her newfound thirst for blood. What she does not realise, however, is that her victims are infected with a disease that unleashes an epidemic that starts in the countryside, and eventually finds its way to the city of Montreal.
As you have likely noticed, Rabid’s synopsis eerily mirrors the current state of global affairs as COVID-19 wreaks havoc the world over. Considering how little I knew of the film prior to watching it, the uncanny parallels only struck me roughly midway through once I realised what Cronenberg was doing. To say I was enthralled from then on would be an understatement, but in truth, I was already hooked.
This is one Cronenberg’s most engaging narratives in his early career, with tight pacing to match it. Sure, he explains away the reasoning for Rose’s affliction with expository medical jargon that makes little sense in the grand scheme of things, but logic was going to occasionally take a backseat in a film about a woman who forms a stinger under her armpit. What truly matters is how Cronenberg deals with Rose’s medical anomaly after the fact.
In early parts of the film, I found myself questioning the apparent inconsistency of Rose’s actions after waking from her coma, which I initially chalked down to lazy screenwriting, but Cronenberg proved me wrong. It eventually becomes apparent that the writer and director extraordinaire injects an underlying psychological depth that enriches the material, which left me pleasantly surprised. Without it, the film would have been a hollow vessel of excess.
This is where the casting of Chambers, who was one of the biggest names in the porn industry at the time, becomes so crucial. There is an undeniable sexual element underscoring Rose’s affliction, from the hermaphroditic traits of the slit and stinger, to the not-so-subtle close-up of a book on Sigmund Freud, who believed that a great deal of human actions are unconsciously motivated by sex. This mirrors Rose’s uncontrollable actions, who not only derives pleasure from her feeding on others, but also uses her raw sexuality to lure in her victims. Pleasure and sexuality are traits for which Chambers was internationally renowned in her pornographic work and puts to excellent use in Rabid, while her performance is further bolstered by an impressive emotional presence and Cronenberg’s direction.
When the engaging subtext is not on the forefront of a scene, then Cronenberg is likely toying with his audience. There is an irrepressible tension throughout much of Rabid that hinges not on mystery, but rather the pieces of information given to us throughout. We know what Rose is capable of, as well as those whose she has infected, yet any scene where either is present can be stress-inducing in the best way possible for all you gluttons out there.
Rabid is an effective horror from one of the masters of the genre and has aged better than perhaps many in the era of its release would have thought. Add this to the current global pandemic, and it is more frightening now than it has ever been before, resulting in the perfect lockdown flick for horror aficionados.