Arrow's Blu-ray should please the most rabid of fans
Rabid Film Review
Cronenberg takes a controversial bite out of the Canadian socio-political climate with Rabid and spreads cinematic chaos!Cult auteur David Cronenberg’s second feature film sees Quebec assailed by a vampiric plague that stems from a quirky skin-graft operation on the victim of a motorcycle accident on a country lane. Marilyn Chambers’ Rose awakens from a coma to find a hungry penis languishing in her armpit (surely not a first for the former porn-queen!) that compels her to attack and drain blood from unwitting hosts. This, in turn, transforms these hapless saps into frothing, rage-filled crazies who then spread the disease all the way into Montreal. While martial law descends upon the frightened populace, Rose’s bland boyfriend (Frank Moore) embarks on a cross-country trip to find her after she absconds from the dubious rural clinic that treated her. Curiously dreary one moment and excitingly chaotic the next, Rabid is both episodic and repetitive.After Shivers, the subject of a sexual/psychotic plague is certainly familiar, but Cronenberg has more space to play in and a better grasp on shock tactics. Performances are fair, the frequent attack scenes are genuinely frightening and the theme of arousal/contagion is certainly prescient of AIDs. Although its pacing is off, Rabid fits very agreeably alongside Dawn of the Dead and very clearly set a template for 28 Days Later. Gritty, gory and gut-reactionary, the film is also darkly receptive of a troubled political climate and solidified its maker as a force to be reckoned with. Cronenberg’s visionary zest would gain clarity and strength, but even such low-budget beginnings seep with inspiration, cynicism and intelligence.
Blu-ray Picture QualityA rabid attention to detail
Well, there was no way that Cronenberg’s gritty 1977 shocker was ever going to look spectacular, no matter how grand a restoration was performed upon it. The film is just too rough and ready to ever come up gleaming. But this said, I still expected an image that was a little bit better than this, given the restoration that the film had been bestowed.
Oh, the 1.78:1 AVC transfer is faithful to the source, I have no doubts about that at all, but the level of contrast wavering, diluting of shadows and visual inconsistency can prove to be distracting. Typical print damage may not be glaring – with only a few very finite vertical lines appearing from time to time – but there are occasions when fluctuating horizontal bands appear that are nothing short of ugly. The characters watch now-antique televisions in the film that suffer from very similar broadcast disruptions of rolling horizontal lines, and it feels, however infrequently, that we are being subjected to the same thing. This aberrant visual impairment occurs mainly during one sequence of Hart and his buddy, played by Sid James lookalike Joe Silver, travelling in that endlessly futile wild goose chase for Rose, and however reliable the film is around this section, still causes concern.
Grain looks natural to me, but can vary from scene to scene. Mostly, the film is evenly textured, but there are certain shots that become mired with much coarser grain. This, though, is part and parcel of older low budget movies, and does not prove too problematic. Far worse for me is the contrast fades and the tendency for one extreme edge of the frame to succumb to overt brightness and blooming. This, of course, is down to the source elements. But before you think I have a downer on this transfer, let me assure you that, on the whole, I think Arrow’s Rabid actually looks very good, all things considered.
Colours, which have been re-graded carefully to replicate the film’s theatrical presentation, are muted and veer distressingly into bleak browns and yellows, with only blood and neon ever really standing out from the washed-out and autumnal palette. This, of course, is right on the money. The film stock, lighting style, season and locations are very similar to those encountered in George Romero’s epic Dawn of the Dead. In fact, the cold and dreary environs of Pittsburgh could easily be swapped for those of rural Quebec, and nobody would notice much difference. But this is precisely how the film should look. Skin tones have that already sickly TV pallor. Costumes are drab and simply blend into the surroundings. The gore, however, is not the famously wrong colour of Tom Savini’s for Dawn. Where he had day-glow orange and pink, Joe Blasco has the real deal. Well, in terms of tone and colour, anyway. Thus, the nasty bits have some punch to them.
The film is just too rough and ready to ever come up gleaming.
I mentioned diluted shadows earlier and whilst this is true for some scenes, the black levels can actually be pretty deep during others. When the haulage boss goes looking for a suspiciously missing driver, the shadows in the loading dock are quite sinister. Some vehicular chaos on the freeway does look rather too murky however, though I wouldn’t say that any crushing takes place – other than that of the vehicles and their occupants.
I was also pleased with the level of detail on show. Forget the murk of distant exterior shots – desiccated, leafless trees and rundown roadside shanties lose definition – and you have a vintage image that provides reliable resolution for clothes, faces and wounds. Cronenberg uses a welter of faces familiar from several of his other early features, and a ripe old bunch of oddities they are too. Bushy eyebrows, copious nasal hair and bulbous, strawberry noses. And the transfer enables you to peruse such wondrous countenances to a studious degree. Thankfully, this clarity also extends towards the gorgeous Chambers, whose frequent nudity is a welcome distraction from the otherwise mundane settings.We can clearly read graffiti on walls, name-tags and the details on packing crates, too. Surgical instruments get a clinical sparkle, and the baubles on the Christmas tree also appear bright and detailed, especially when they get shot to bits.
The transfer wasn’t hampered with any digital banding or smearing. Panning shots coped well with the brown bricks of the Keloid Clinic - something that could have looked blurred – and the trees sweeping past as the motorcycle roars around country roads are also very well delineated without becoming a digital mess. So, summing all this up, Arrow’s transfer is a strong and accurate one... albeit one that has been culled from ultimately vintage, grit ‘n’ sawdust original sources. And you know what? It probably looks more gnarly and ghoulish this way.
Blu-ray Sound QualityInfectious Audio
In a way, it is good that I have almost nothing to really say about the uncompressed PCM 1.0 audio track. Other than to praise it, that is. No annoying hiss or crackle intrudes and I detected no drop-outs. Hardly the most gregarious of soundtracks, but Arrow’s restored mix, taken from the best elements available, is the best that I have heard Rabid sound. Despite being an early Cronenberg film, there are gunshots and explosions, even a pneumatic drill at work here. These effects are clean and powerfully handled. There isn’t a lot of depth to the mono track, but each shout, scream, bullet and impact is cleanly and sharply delivered. When that drill is plunged into the door of a car, the resulting shattering of the driver’s window is keenly felt.
No annoying hiss or crackle intrudes and we detected no drop-outs.
There are no problems with the dialogue either. Voices are perfectly rendered and still provide some nuance. Even the mumbling of the disastrously dull Frank Moore, who looks like a cross between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, but has absolutely none of the charisma or ability of either, comes across without a hitch. However, there is a moment when he finally confronts Rose about the hellish situation she has spawned when the pair scream at one another, that sounds a bit shrill and betrays the limitations of the original audio.
The music is also very well handled by the transfer, even down to hearing Marilyn Chambers’ own pop ballad, Benihana . Brian Bennett’s haunting Hideout was a synonymous piece of library music that seemed to appear in a hundred and one TV shows and films during the seventies, but it does get repetitive in the film. In fact, Cronenberg’s spotting of music throughout is very suspect. It plays over inappropriate scenes and draws too much attention to itself, I feel. All in all, this is a fine audio mix.
Blu-ray ExtrasPlague-riddled extras
Arrow deliver the goods yet again. This may not be the most slavishly stacked selection of supplements, but even the most rabid of fans should be pleased with what is on offer.
We have two commentary tracks. The first is a typically brilliant discussion from David Cronenberg, and the second is from William Beard, author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg. Both are well worth your time.
There are interviews with Cronenberg, producer Ivan Reitman, make-up man Joe Blasco and co-producer Don Carmody, which delve quite nicely into production, the times and the social/cultural climate of its release.
In Raw, Rough and Rabid: The Lacerating Legacy of Cinépix , the history of Canada’s courageously forward-thinking and independent/exploitation supporting film company is celebrated.
The Directors: David Cronenberg is a 1999 documentary on the filmmaker, containing interviews with Cronenberg, Marilyn Chambers, Deborah Harry, Michael Ironside, Peter Weller and others. Fine stuff, again.
There is also that infamous original trailer that shows practically everything that happens in the film! When I was a kid and watching my old Intervision tapes the trailer-fest that preceded the main feature often left me with the feeling that I had literally just seen the full films. Rabid’s promo is, by far, the most ridiculous and revealing, even going so far as to show you the grim imagery that Cronenberg crafted for the mean-spirited conclusion.
You have the ubiquitous custom artwork, a fabulous steel-tin alternative and an illustrated booklet that contains an essay and interviews as well as details about the transfer.
Rabid Blu-ray VerdictWhilst Cronenberg’s sophomore feature remains a cult gem and a strong personal favourite of mine, there is no glossing over the fact that it has its fair share of faults, and possibly suffers from over-reaching ambition. The more epic scope of the scenario inevitably leads to the low budget shining through, but this is easily forgivable. The fundamental lack of precision in the screenplay not so much, though. There is little to no explanation for how Rose’s experimental skin graft causes her armpit-mutation and, subsequently, how this leads to a vampiric bloodlust that spawns a fast-acting rabid contagion. Being cynical, you could argue that Cronenberg has simply sought to give his body-horror obsession a Romero-esque zombie commercial viability. His scenes of attack and federal clampdown on the outbreak are, indeed, suspiciously similar to Dawn’s escapist excess and the vicious authoritarian stance of The Crazies. His bleak finale, itself, is a riff upon that of Night of the Living Dead.
Even with these conceits Cronenberg has never been one to simply imitate and copy. His notions of disease and bodily breakdown being synonymous with psychological corruption and cerebral evolution, and his suggestions of how naively executed New Wave science is usually to blame, are consistent and potent. His staunch viewpoint of how badly mankind deals with such things is also keenly observed throughout his glorious early canon of work, and painstakingly examined in Rabid. What he delivers here, albeit in a topsy-turvy manner – by turns exciting and then exceedingly dull – is a stepping-stone to the bravely magnificent statements he would make in The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly which remain the filmmaker’s most complex and brilliant fantasies.
Rabid actually stands apart from this outstanding run of avant-garde ideology because of its structural faults. Whereas his other scientific nightmares detail technological advances being made that can actually offer hope and optimism, so long as essential plot spanners like errant flies, bad siblings and mental neurosis don’t get in the way, Rabid’s script never makes it clear whether or not Dr. Keloid’s forward-thinking techniques are actually any good for mankind. In fact, the futuristic surgery and the plague-spreading at work here can seem like a clumsy collision of narrative intention. Almost as though Cronenberg really just wanted to make a movie about a nasty plague but struggled with how to actually start one.
Classic scenes and imagery abound, however. The notorious frozen girl is Horror’s equivalent to Shirley Eaton’s lacquered damsel in Goldfinger. A tense standoff in a police station is brief but nerve-shredding. The subway siege hints at mass carnage. And the mayhem in the operating theatre is bravura Grand Guignol.
Arrow’s UK Blu-ray offers a suitably grungy transfer that is rough around the edges but certainly accurate.
Arrow’s UK Blu-ray offers a suitably grungy transfer that is rough around the edges but certainly accurate, I would wager. The audio is stronger than you might expect. Extras-wise, this is a decent package that allows Cronenberg to have his say on the climate surrounding the production and how much he had gained in confidence and ability since making Shivers. And, speaking of Arrow’s previous Cronenberg release, there doesn’t appear to be any frames missing from this print.
Rabid’s influence was indeed contagious, even to the likes of Species and Lifeforce, both of which represented a deadly female predator, beautiful but world-threatening. There are those who prefer the more claustrophobic terrors of The Brood and Shivers from his early features, and it is true that Cronenberg is much better working with a smaller environment and cast, but there is cold sense of bleakness and that gloriously pure and embittered 70s flavour of pessimism to Rabid that ensures its travelogue of slaughter is both genre infectious and culturally portentous - Highly recommended.
You can buy Rabid on Blu-ray Here
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