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The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Seventeen: Rabid (1977)

Just last week, on the “Byzantium” comment board, I found myself defending the modern “vampire” film and its endless variations. Ironically enough, right around that time, I was re-watching David Cronenberg’s “Rabid” in preparation for the penultimate entry in the monthly Cronenberg Chronicle. And as the initiated already know, the 1977 release is often dubbed “Cronenberg’s vampire movie”. Now, I haven’t a clue as to how many films featuring bloodsuckers my astute friend Brian has seen, but I’ll wager this—he’s never seen one quite like “Rabid”. Honestly, a vampire film starring one of the 1970’s most notorious porn stars, in which the blood is sucked via a phallic-shaped flesh “needle” hiding inside a vagina-like crevice in the fiend’s armpit? Only Cronenberg could pen something so insane. And that it holds up surprisingly well 36 years on has to be something of a minor miracle. It is one of David’s lesser efforts—all of the pieces weren’t quite there yet. But it’s an earnest entry in his early oeuvre, and the writing was on the wall here for some of his later, more accomplished work. And the body horror quotient is quite impressive and obviously maverick. It’s easy to see why for a number of years he was often tagged as “Dave Deprave”. This sophomore effort was distributed by Cinepix Film Properties and was produced by Ivan Reitman—just like “Shivers” two years earlier. Plus, it features the inaugural appearance of Cronenberg perennial, Robert A. Silverman! “Rabid” has a lot to recommend it, even if the director hadn’t quite yet hit his stride. But he was showing signs already of being well on his way.

Rose(Marilyn Chambers, a half decade removed from her hardcore turn in the infamous “Behind the Green Door”)is a young woman critically injured in a motorcycle accident. “Rabid” opens with the young beauty suiting up for the fateful ride, and then hopping on the bike behind her boyfriend, Hart(a serviceable Frank Moore). Hart receives relatively minor injuries in the crash, but Rose is close to death. “Luckily” for Rose though, the accident occurs a short distance from the Keloid Institute, an advanced plastic surgery clinic that specializes in Morphogenetic tissue replacement. Now, from what I can decipher from the internet, Morphogenesis is a biological process that causes organisms to develop their shape. And in “Rabid” it appears that Dr. Dan Keloid(the solid Howard Ryshpan)wants to graft just enough tissue from Rose’s undamaged areas, and then let the skin develop independently after its applied. Hart, on the other hand, is quickly treated and then sent to a more conventional hospital. Rose eventually emerges from a coma, and the operation seems to have been successful. Until the hunger starts. Rose’s body begins to repel the ingestion of normal food, but she almost immediately desires a semiconscious craving for blood. In fact, the skin transplants have morphed into something hideous—an orifice under Rose’s armpit that ejects a penis-like stinger. Rose is bewildered and horrified by this developement, but the thirst must be quenched. At one point, she sneaks out of the institute and tries to feed off of a cow’s blood at a nearby farm, but her body almost immediately rejects it. Also, her victims at the Keloid Clinic don’t perish after she feeds, but become “carriers”, as they are now infected themselves. Rose escapes the institute after passing on her unique form of “rabies” to a number of people—including Dr. Keloid. A still recovering Hart sets out to find and save her with the help of Murray Cypher(an excellent Joe Silver, carrying over from 1975’s “Shivers”), but it’s a race against time. Rose has begun hitchhiking her way to the big city, and obviously needing to feed as she goes.

Rose is presented as a beautiful innocent in the tragic trajectory of “Rabid”, and it’s clear that she is a victim as well as the protagonist. You can’t help but feel sorry for Rose, and subsequently root for her to emerge from this ordeal. However, that becomes increasingly unlikely as the plot moves forward. And besides, this is a David Cronenberg film after all. David is on record as saying that he wanted Sissy Spacek for the lead in “Rabid”, but that the studio found her freckly complexion unattractive and her southern accent unacceptable. This was a decision they would come to regret, as 1976’s “Carrie”(starring Spacek)would become wildly popular during the shooting of “Rabid”, and the grand opportunity to have an Academy Award nominated star fronting the film was missed. An in-joke included in “Rabid” features Marilyn Chambers pausing under a movie theater marquee, directly in front of a promotional poster for “Carrie”. I can’t recall ever reading about Chambers being aware of the significance of the “stunt”. And how does Marilyn fare as an actress in “Rabid”? Well, she’s not awful—which turns out to be just good enough. She’s very pretty(Chambers had a modeling stint as the “Ivory Soap girl”, with her picture emblazoned on Ivory Snow soap boxes, not long before her rocket rise in pornography), and pulls off Rose’s innocence quite well. Hey, it’s obvious she’s no actress, but she doesn’t embarrass herself in any way, either. Cronenberg has stated that he felt she had a real shot at a legitimate career, although I once read that he found her somewhat “coarser” when meeting her than he cared for—possibly an offshoot of her hardcore career. Chambers, btw, was only 24 during the filming of “Rabid”, and would tragically pass away from heart failure in 2009—just 10 days shy of her 57th birthday. My famed “S” team is nowhere to be found in this early Cronenberg release. Jean LaFleur is the editor, as we were still one film away from the expert cuts of Ronald Sanders. Peter Suschitzky’s cinematography was a long way off, and instead we had lensing under the charge of Rene Verzier—and it shows. Art Direction by Claude Marchand is in lieu of Carol Spier. “Rabid” also bears some passing resemblance to George A. Romero’s “The Crazies” from 1973, and its epidemic theme was utilized in “Shivers” too. But it admirably overcomes a myriad of disadvantages, like limited budget and uneven performances, and manages to play darn well circa 2013. Chambers mainstream dreams were soon thwarted after “Rabid”—she returned to porn by the end of the decade. But Cronenberg showcased what she might have been, and “Rabid” was a sure step towards David’s brilliance yet-to-come.          Grade:   B-

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2 comments on “The Cronenberg Chronicle-Phase Seventeen: Rabid (1977)

  1. Very good review! The first thing I thought of when I started reading your blog was that I had read that Sissy Spacek had been considered for the role of Rose. I think she would have been great, but, of course, we will never know. I have seen the film several times, and the ending is definitely something that stuck with me after the first time I watched it.
    When I have mentioned this film to people over the years most haven’t seen this movie, or Cronenberg’s “The Brood.” Did you ever see the original Warner Brothers clamshell box for “Rabid?” I love those old school boxes and I collect them.

  2. “Badlands” is one of my favorite films, so yeah—I think Spacek would’ve been superb. It could’ve given the film a prestige it doesn’t currently hold. As for the clam shell…I must’ve rented “Rabid” in one of those boxes years ago, but it’s tough to recall. So pleased you enjoyed the review, and thanks for the insightful commentary! ML

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