A brief look at David Cronenberg’s haunting second feature film

The fact that Rabid got made at all is a bit of a marvel. Fledgling director David Cronenberg had made his first feature, Shivers, in 1975 for Canadian exploitation imprint Cinepix and, although an international success, the fact that the movie was partially funded by a Government tax fund caused members of the Canadian press to take Cronenberg and Cinepix to task, citing the picture as smut and calling for the public to reject such practices.

This, of course, only served to make Cronenberg “notorious” and further put his movie on the map. And yet because of this, It took Cinepix almost two years to get the money to make the director’s follow-up film, Rabid. However the film finally went to camera and we’re lucky it did. Although Shivers is a more ambitious and ferocious horror film (as messy debut movies tend to be), Rabid is Cronenberg’s first genuinely scary movie and its infinitely more accomplished than its predecessor. It mines many of the same themes and ideas but keeps the focus more disciplined and pays attention to character nuances, creating a movie that is bloodthirsty and bizarre but also has a genuine sense of tragedy, something which would mark most of the director’s future work.

Rabid casts now deceased ex-porn star Marilyn Chambers stars as Rose, a motorcycle mama who gets in a fiery accident and is whisked away to a remote, experimental plastic surgery clinic. There, Rose receives some sort of skin graft procedure that goes awry; when she wakes up, she finds she was developed an vagina/anus in her armpit that, when stimulated, pushes out a phallus that drains her victims of their blood. After a feed, Rose has no memory of her vampiric crime and her victims stumble away in shock. Later, they whir into action as rabid zombie vampires. The people they bite get up and bite and soon a modern plague wracks the streets of Montreal, with Rose the “Typhoid Mary” bringer of death.

Rabid is a truly frightening and haunting piece of work, due not only to Cronenberg’s ideas and the solid work of the pro-amateur cast, but the eerie use of library “needle-drop” music that serves as the patchwork score. The main theme is an old cue from Keith Mansfield from the KPM vaults called “Summer’s Coming” and it’s sad, moving and cold, like the film. Have a listen:

The other key track is “Hideout” by Brian Bennett which was also used in the eerie Australian show Prisoner Cell Block H. Unforgettable stuff…

That melancholy pervades every inch of Rabid, from the opening shots circling Chambers on a highway to the final, miserable garbage truck shots and nihilistic non-resolution, you just feel heavy watching this movie. It’s Cronenberg’s best full-stop horror movie, I think, one where the horror comes first and the subtext is almost accidental. Later, it would be the reverse. This is a truly grim shocker and it sits high in the filmography of one of the most important filmmakers in genre history.

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