On a remote stretch of Canadian road, Rose (porn megastar Marilyn Chambers) and her boyfriend are involved in a terrible motorcycle accident that leaves her pinned under the vehicle when it explodes. Fortunately, the incident occurs very close to a boutique hospital specializing in plastic surgery. The head of the facility, Dr. Keloid, determines that only an experimental new skin grafting technique can save Rose’s life. It turns out he is correct but the procedure has unintended consequences, mainly in the form of a sharp phallus that protrudes from Rose’s armpit and her newfound thirst for human blood. As Rose reluctantly feeds her new hunger at opportune moments, the men she has already attacked begin displaying rabies-like tendencies towards violence and their victims, in turn, become infected. Soon, the virus reaches Montreal.
Rabid, Canadian director David Cronenberg’s follow up to They Came from Within aka Shivers, explores similar themes as that previous film (and would explore in many other films to come) but manages to make it more personal (by focusing on a beautiful and sweetly innocent protagonist) and far more widespread (instead of They Came from Within‘s contained apartment set, Rabid takes the horror to the streets). The layers of subtext are rich and Rabid could be used as a handy guidebook to the Cronenbergian ideas found in the rest of his filmography- there is the perversion of expected sexual politics, violent consequences of experimentation, body horror, epidemics – all while it touches on some unique themes such as the pitfalls of socialist medicine.
While Rabid does offer voluminous amounts of under-the-surface commentary, it also proves to be an effective and entertaining horror film. With Chambers at the lead, one need not worry about the film filling its nudity quota. In fact, it seems her shirt flips open, falls off, gets wet or otherwise disintegrates unexpectedly with welcome frequency. Her vampire tool, located in her armpit housed safely inside a vagina-like fissure is put on display frequently with gooey closeups inducing the expected audience squirms. As infected, zombie like citizens roam the streets their attacks, and the government’s kill-to-eliminate approach to containing the spreading outbreak, are visceral and dirty, Cronenberg’s camera is unhindered by a low budget and presents the horrors matter-of-factly. Even vehicles are unsafe, motor carnage appearing in the form of a spectacular sequence where a car’s driver is attacked by a passenger which causes it to careen off an overpass only to be plowed by a truck when it lands on the road below.
There are several horror films that tackle the spread of disease (specifically diseases that cause infected to become violent) and zombies/zombie-like people but few have the patience to begin with Patient Zero. Rabid is made more effective by keeping Rose a central character, Chambers’ sometimes dodgy acting beats and her character’s strange (and perhaps willful) continued ignorance notwithstanding. The body mechanics of her transformation into vampiric beauty are far less important than the compounding effects of her promiscuous feeding and Cronenberg treats his material and his audience with respect, avoiding camp as he would continue to do throughout his career when tackling such odd premises. It’s easy to explain why I love Rabid as a horror film and people far smarter than me have written many more words dissecting the film’s symbolism so I’ll just point out my favorite: every Rose has her thorn…inside of her armpit vagina.
Far be it from me to say how a person should enjoy his or her movie going experience but if you’re consistently the only one laughing out loud in a theater full of 200 people, you’re probably annoying a few people who are genuinely entranced by the film. Such was the case at the Terror Tuesday’s presentation of Rabid, two or three people in the audience found every single line and action on screen to be the funniest thing they had ever encountered. Fortunately, the other 99% of the crowd was in sync with the film, applauding at carnage, visually disturbed by juicy vampire-penis closeups, and connecting all around with Cronenberg’s vibe. Last time a Croneberg film, The Brood, was screened at Terror Tuesday we had quite a few people unable to control themselves and an epidemic of the whispers made the experience frustrating. Fortunately, outside of the couple guffawers that found their way in, this was an ideal audience for Rabid.