David Cronenberg’s early feature Rabid (1977) has a 40th anniversary this year. It is hard to believe that his unique and influential style of body horror has been unleashed on the world for that long. Rabid comes after the similarly themed and plotted Shivers (1975), which is considered the director’s first film (although he had made notable work previously, i.e. his student films Stereo (1969) and Crimes of the Future (1970)). Shivers touted different trashy titles upon release such as They Came from Within and Orgy of the Blood Parasites. Rabid starred Marilyn Chambers, the porn star who was best known for being in Behind the Green Door (1972). Advertising this may have been a good way to get people’s attention, but not consideration from the artistic and cinematic canons. Yet, now in 2017, David Cronenberg has become one of the most highly respected filmmakers in North America.
Chambers does a good job playing Rose, a young woman badly injured in a motorcycle accident. The closest hospital happens to be some kind of upper class retreat for patients who are mending from plastic surgery. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan), the head doctor, decides to use some experimental techniques on Rose, which manifest themselves as strange orifices in her armpits, which eject phallic, pointy rods towards anyone in her embrace. This triggers a contagious vampiric effect, while also making the victims foam at the mouth, go crazy, and as the title suggests, become completely “rabid.” Once Rose escapes from the clinic and arrives back in Montreal, her trail of victims creates an epidemic that is brutally handled by the local police and military. This epidemic effect is a holdover from Shivers, which deals with similar scenes of humans reduced to frothing, disease-spreading monstrosities.
Knowing what came afterwards in Cronenberg’s career frames Rabid in a new way. Aside from Chambers’ particular kind of fame, the film doesn’t have up and coming stars like James Woods and Debbie Harry in Videodrome (1983), Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone (1983), Jeff Goldblum in The Fly (1986), or Jeremy Irons x2 in Dead Ringers (1988). Rabid does not have the psychological pretension that Cronenberg’s more recent films (A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis (2012)) use either. Rabid succeeds on the general anonymity of the Canadian cast, and good old blood and guts—be it of the medical or psychotic kind, which releases its perverse charm progressively throughout the picture. In this way it succeeds very much like the American slasher films to follow in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which did not need star power as long as it contained copious amounts of sexuality and violence.
Yet Rabid also contains some very important notions of social commentary. Right from the start, the audience is confronted with the superficiality, absurdity, and danger involved with plastic surgery. Narcissistic characters infatuated with their physical appearance populate the Keloid Clinic to such a degree that this upper class social aberration appears to be almost normal. The film challenges the idea that there are bodily ideals that humans need to live up to, and it is quite interesting that this theme is found in a film starring a porn actress. Hardcore pornography amplified the beauty standards that women in particular were expected to live up to, but here Cronenberg places Marilyn Chambers in a space where she is both saved by and a victim of such standards. Having her in the picture, attacking and infecting men while simultaneously suffering from this vampiric sickness, complicates the discourse that social critics were pursuing then, and continuously now.
One of the other most important aspects of Cronenberg’s work is present early in his filmography—a focus on aberrant, queer, and infectious sexuality. Notable film scholar Teresa de Lauretis has written at length on the perverse and transmittable sexuality found in Cronenberg’s cinema, particularly M Butterfly (1993) and Existenz (1999), but this essential aspect of his work has been present as early as Rabid. The renegade surgical operation performed on Rose creates more orifices with the ability to inflict pleasure and pain upon people. More importantly, these orifices have the ability to jab erect and voracious rods at people. This confuses any kind of general psychoanalytic analysis of the film in that it conflates male and female anatomy, and the phallic and anal stages of sexual development. It leaves this approach to criticism with Rabid as a transgressive system in which stages of development overlap and meld together, creating a route that is stuck in abjection and a rejection of normality. It is easy to equate Cronenberg’s cinema with creative, new sexually transmitted diseases, but it proves to be so much more than that. This attack on normative sexual and furthermore familial values continues into one of the director’s next films, The Brood (1979), which tackles marital disintegration and odd birthing techniques, among other things.
Aside from these socio-cultural and quasi-academic concerns, a great reason to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Rabid is because it is a scary, sad, and very fun film to watch. At one point Rose, seeking to satiate her new illness, takes a bestial turn and tries pinching a cow, only to find out that this causes some extreme vomiting. This is quickly followed by an encounter with a lecherous drunk man who gets his just desserts, and later causes a wild scene at a diner. Another favorite scene takes place at a shopping mall during Christmas season. It is almost as if Rose is cruising around looking for victims, attracting a man who appears to be seeking victims of his own. Their interaction is cut short when someone at another bench starts going nuts and a trigger-happy young cop mows down Santa Claus accidentally. Once Rose’s dead body ultimately meets its fate in a dumpster, Rabid proves to be a film with a sad, almost hopeless feeling, in which viewers know that the epidemic going on will probably never find its antidote. It is endings like these which create a sense of urgency and point out the radical potential that horror films have, which other genres don’t dare to breach.