Marilyn Chambers (Rose), Frank Moore (Hart Read), Joe Silver (Murray Cypher), Howard Ryshpan (Dr. Dan Keloid)
Mutated Rabies Virus
"The period of incubation of this disease is very brief. maybe six, eight hours at the most. Now that's much quicker than normal rabies. Then the victim begins to sweat, to shake, to foam at the mouth. That's not rare, what is rare is that the victim, always with this new disease, becomes violent and wants to bite somebody new. And this crazy phase is followed by a coma and then in every case we know, by death." - Claude LaPointe
One of the big blank spots in my movie fandom has always been David Cronenberg. I of course loved The Fly and I enjoyed A History of Violence well enough but I found Scanners to just be adequate, I found Eastern Promises to be plodding, and I'm neither smart enough to appreciate Videodrome nor pretentious enough to pretend that I do. As such I've never really been driven to dig into the deeper parts of his career but I've always liked the fairly straightforward sounding nature of Rabid. I am a lover of zombie films and films that don't call themselves zombie films but are actually zombie films and the though of somebody as off-kilter as Cronenberg taking on this sort of subject matter was an easy sell for me.
The set-up of Rabid is so nonsensical that it borders on farce. A young woman, Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and her improbably named boyfriend Hart Read (Frank Moore) are on a motorcycle ride through rural Quebec when they crash in a field. Hart is thrown from the bike and mostly unharmed but Rose is trapped beneath it as it inexplicably bursts into flames. Fortunately a patient at a nearby plastic surgery clinic (!) spots the fire and notifies the staff who take their ambulance (!!) to save Rose. Rose has suffered severe barns to much of her body so the surgeon takes advantage of her doomed state to try and experimental skin graft that converts the skin cells to neutral cells that will homogenise with whatever cell they are placed in contact with. This completely restores Rose but it turns her into an insatiable sanguivore who must feed through a spiked phallic tentacle that comes out of the newly grown vagina in her armpit. (!)
Unfortunately the people upon whom Rose feeds are overtaken by a particularly virulent strain of rabies which goes into affect in a few hours and causes people to turn into gibbering violent zombies with green foam spewing out of their mouths. As Rose struggles to return home to Montreal to be with Hart she fails to control her hunger, causing the rabies virus to spread exponentially throughout the province.
Rabid is one of a small sub-genre of horror that came out in the 70s and early 80s that involved people becoming remorseless murderers. This included George A. Romero's The Crazies, former Doomsday Reels subject Nightmare City, and the delightfully trashy I Drink Your Blood. Even the literary world got in on the trend with books like James Herbert's The Fog or David Morrell's (of First Blood fame) The Totem. It has recently had a resurgence thanks to books like David Moody's Hater, comics like Garth Ennis' Crossed, and movies like Condemned and The Signal. The gist of every one of these stories, whether overtly stated or not is, "What if rabies worked the way that people think it does?"
For this part of the story, things work pretty well. The green foam is a bit silly but the actual rabid people are pretty upsetting to look at and the way they are intelligent about the violence they cause as well as gleeful in the doing really makes for an understated sense of unease in dealing with them. Cronenberg even sets up a very effective scene where a character returns to his home to find someone has been infected that shows very little but is extremely upsetting and depends on you having noticed something seemingly insignificant in an earlier scene. It's that kind of subtle quality that I have always really appreciated about David Cronenberg's style.
Unfortunately the rabid Quebecois take a back-seat to the a-story of Rose dealing with her new affliction that makes little to no sense and is never adequately explained. We're just supposed to take the expository dialogue in regard to Rose's experimental skin grafts, look at the blood-sucking murder penis that shoots out of Rose armpit-vagina and go "Ah, of course, man was not meant to play god." It's the kind of weird-for-weirdness sake quality that I have always really despised about David Cronenberg's style. It's like I feel like H. R. Giger after a certain point became jaded and just sat down to his easel every day and sighed heavily, saying, "Well, what kind of a picture can I make out of terrifying cocks today?" Similarly I think at one point Cronenberg just said, "How can I make this upsetting... oh, right, I'll just make it look like sex organs!"
Rose's a-story is a pretty standard vampire story the likes of which have been told plenty of times in better ways. There's not much pathos in Rose's story, she goes from slightly reluctant to drink peoples' blood to sadistically eager, a bit too into it. This character trait makes Rose incredibly unlikable and it's very difficult to sympathize with her plight when she seems to be enjoying what she's doing so much. There's not much to Rose's parts in the movies though, she gets a bunch of freebies in that most of the people she feeds on are creeps who are all but trying to rape her but all she does other than feed is writhe in pain from lack of feeding and spend a remarkable amount of time topless. Even when Rose's vampire story and the rest of the film's zombie story finally coalesce, it's in a way that's not particularly climactic or interesting and juts furthers the unlikable qualities of Rose's character.
There doesn't seem to be much to Rose's story other than that a lot of men are creeps to someone pretty and vulnerable looking and we get at best a surface glance of that message. I'm sure the limited scope of rabies-infested Montreal was a budgetary issue but it mostly feels like Rabid is a small indie film happening within the confines of a much more interesting large scale horror movie. It's okay, but it certainly hasn't changed my thoughts on David Cronenberg and it's not likely to do so for anyone else who isn't already a fan.
This review concludes Scream Factory month on Doomsday Reels, we will now return to a bi-weekly publishing schedule. Though I will have something a little extra next month.
Next Time on Doomsday Reels
"They don't advertise for killers in the newspaper."