Retro Review: "Rabid" (1977)
Have you ever watched a movie at a young age (let's say 20 in this case) and gotten one thing from it, then you see it again at double that age and have your mind mildly blown? That just happened to me. I have David Cronenberg to thank for it.
What can be said about David Cronenberg that hasn't already been said? He may be Hollywood's most psychologically examined director (in addition to being Canada's greatest export....sorry, Letterkenny and Trish Stratus!). He's a multilayered bundle of hangups and complexes who clearly had some issues with the human body and the nature of sex. His list of masterpieces (both minor and major) is long and decorated: Shivers, Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly (second greatest remake ever!), Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, ExistenZ, and A History of Violence. There has never been a director with more to say than the Baron of Blood a.k.a. The King of Venereal Horror. If you could take a long walk in his mind you would find a labyrinth that would make Clive Barker's Cenobites pop a chubby and blush at the same time.
Rabid is his second big feature film. The story of Rose (adult legend Marilyn Chambers, Behind the Green Door) is one of an unfortunate motorcycle accident and the ensuing experimental surgery that makes her a victim to a bloodlust that puts vampires to shame via a hideous proboscis in her armpit. Everyone she infects becomes a bloodthirsty "zombie" exhibiting rabies-like symptoms. The results of her feeding frenzy quickly turn into a pandemic across Montreal.
Two things become very clear within the first forty-five minutes: Rose can't help herself and mankind at large is a slave to base needs. These are common themes throughout all of Cronenberg's films (along with a mistrust of technology and man's natural propensity for savagery). He was clearly a man who had some issues to deal with. I say "thank God for his issues!" He is unflinching in his approach.
An early and clearly raw effort, Rabid is seething with sexual energy and power. The late Marilyn Chambers deserves her reputation as one of the most viciously attractive and sexually intense women of any era. She drips vulnerable sexuality in a role that she was born to play. There's a victim / little girl quality to her character that is juxtaposed with her aggressive and frightening intensity in the attack scenes. She's simply amazing. I can only imagine the shit-eating grin Cronenberg must have been wearing during the filming.
The beauty of this sophomore effort comes in how evident it is that she is powerless to stop her transformation, and the ending only solidifies this. It's bleak, ugly, and real. All of the parties involved simply can't help themselves, and isn't that the utter truth?
While the early pacing is a tad slow, it picks up steam like an old diesel truck on an open freeway. By the time you hit the last act it's kicking ass and taking names Canadian style! The dated look of this freaky piece of body horror only enhances it's power. The theme of how surgery changes us and the reminder of the starkness of martial law age beautifully and enhance the film's effect. The effects aren't over the top, but they don't pull any punches either. For Christ's sake, even Santa isn't safe in this one!
Rabid is, for me, one of the more underrated movies of the 1970's. It's an archetype of what many modern filmmakers want to capture when they try to recreate that look and style. When I saw this for the first time as a young man just out of his teens (who also happened to be phenomenally stoned to boot) I saw a slow-paced, extremely Canadian thinker with a couple of "high spots".
Now, as I stand on the very doorstep of "over the hill", I see it for what it is: a universal statement on the power of all lust made by the hands of a criminally skilled filmmaker.
Put it on your watch list. Trust me.