Curiously dreary one moment and excitingly chaotic the next
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. Cronenberg’s sophomore feature remains a cult gem but there's no glossing over the fact that it has its 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. Whilst his bleak finale is, itself, just a riff upon the ending of Night of the Living Dead.
Classic scenes and imagery abound
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.
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, it 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.
The 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 70’s flavour of pessimism to Rabid that ensures its travelogue of slaughter is both genre infectious and culturally portentous.
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