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Something to cut with...
A region 1 DVD review of RABID by Slarek
 
"Now who hasn't been on a crowded subway and wanted to bite someone's
ear off? I know that I've certainly wanted to do that many times."
Rabid director David Cronenberg

 

Years ago, before the age of home video (shortly before – let's not make myself seem older than I actually am) and when I had a lot more free time, I used to go to the cinema several times a week. I was at film school then and there were a lot of screens in the immediate area and a wider range of films on offer than you'll find at the average multiplex now. Of course there were also fewer wankers in the audience back then – before the days of mobile phone proliferation you could actually sit the whole way through a film without having some self-centred twat yell into their glowing handpiece: "I'm in a cinema!"

But I digress. I was particularly fond of horror films at this time (still am, as it happens), and in the late 1970s there were a new breed of horror directors who were dedicated to the genre and working miracles on tiny budgets, creating works where ideas and imagination counted far more than expensive effects. Every year, on my birthday, I made a point of seeing such a film – it was my present to myself. In 1978 that birthday film was Rabid.

By this point in my viewing career I had developed my own personal hierarchy of horror directors based on a throwaway remark I had read in a Time Out review of Tobe Hooper's Death Trap. Those who had made their mark on the genre in some small way were the High Priests of Horror, but those who had proved themselves on several occasion were the Horror Gods. Some directors became Horror Gods on the basis of just one film if it was life-changing enough – Tobe Hooper for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was a prime example – but most had to earn their deification through a body of work. A couple of years earlier I'd seen a film called Shivers, which the press had dismissed as lurid and ludicrous but had filled me with glee. It was disturbing, intelligent, funny and apocalyptic. I knew Rabid was directed by the same man, so my hopes were high. I was not disappointed. David Cronenberg had firmly established himself as a High Priest of Horror and took a sizeable step closer to being a Horror God. Little did I know then that this man was destined to become one of the greatest Horror Gods of all.

Some plot. Following a motorcycle accident, young and attractive Rose is taken to a nearby plastic surgery clinic, where an experimental skin grafting technique is used to treat her injuries. The initial success of the operation masks the biological change that her body has undergone, creating a need for blood that she extracts from her victims via a spiked protrusion under her armpit, which contaminates them with a rabies-like disease that they spread by biting others.

Rabid was actually Cronenberg's fourth feature (after Stereo, Crimes of the Future and Shivers), though only his second to receive widespread UK distribution. It's certainly not as polished as his later works, lacking their smart dialogue, compelling central performances and visual slickness. This may well prompt those who have discovered Cronenberg via his more recent films to be dismissive of Rabid's comparative primitivism. Not me, matey. For those who grew up with the stark, low-budget urgency of 1970s horror, this aesthetic is very much part of the film's appeal. Ask a more mainstream-orientated horror fan about their favourite Cronenberg films and they will tend to chose The Dead Zone or The Fly, but ask a fan of outsider cinema and they'll choose Shivers, Rabid, The Brood and Videodrome every time. For us those rough edges and technical imperfections add to the immediacy and even the authenticity of the experience.

That said, Rabid is certainly a little lacking in some of the areas that Cronenberg was soon to show considerable skill. The script is short on the sort of intellectual banter that you'll find in the director's works from The Brood onwards, and the music score includes a few too many loudly trumpeted crescendos during the sequences when Rose lets her armpit do the talking. The absence on the film of a composer credit (executive producer Ivan Reitman is credited as 'Music Supervisor'), together with some oft-repeated creepy piano tinklings that bear a strking similarity to those used in William Fruet's 1976 Death Weekend, suggest the score is comprised of library music.

But this is still a very smart and often technically accomplished film, and far more than the simple exploitation genre piece it was dismissed as by some on its first release. Working almost as a companion piece to Shivers, the film allows Cronenberg to once again explore the relationship between sex and disease in a way that can't help but be seen as prefiguring the spread of AIDS, but he also throws in a critique of experimental surgery techniques that anticipate present-day stem cell research. His fascination with the corruption of the body is taken a step further from Shivers, with the new organ that develops under Rose's armpit – a spiked phallus buried in an anus-like opening – playing most effectively as a deadly metaphor for dangers of sexually transmitted infections. This also ties up with the film's vampiric element, with Rose's blood lust (the blood of a cow and regular food make her physically sick) and the sexual nature of the encounters that lead to the feeding (here a reversal rape in which the male is penetrated by a female phallus) being traditional elements of this particular sub-genre. But Rose's condition is medical rather than supernatural and her 'bites' do not create new vampires but instead spread a disease that she herself is immune to, casting her as a modern-day Typhoid Mary.

Performance-wise it's a mixed bag, but if Frank Moore is a little lacking in charisma as Rose's boyfriend Hart, then adult film star Marilyn Chambers, in what was to prove her only 'straight' role, does a sterling job as Rose, her physicality as a performer especially evident when her character is in pain. Many of the support cast are little more than efficient, though sometimes rise above that, with Joe Silver in particular gruffly sincere as Hart's intriguingly named friend Murray Cypher. There are also a couple of familiar faces lurking at the background, with Gary McKeehan – the shining light of the Cronenberg short The Italian Machine and later to take a memorable small role in The Brood – popping up as truck driver Smooth Eddie, and making his first brief appearance in a Cronenberg film is the wonderful Robert Silverman, later to play a succession of affected eccentrics in The Brood, Scanners and eXistenZ.

Although camera placement and editing are largely functional (in particular, one key operating theatre scene is broken up by splicing in a dialogue-free shot of Hart and Murray driving to the clinic, which is clearly only there to shorten the scene), Cronenberg works small miracles with minimal resources once the virus is loose, creating a very convincing sense of a city in panic and under martial law. The make-up effects are also surprisingly effective, with the close-ups of Rose's under-arm protrusion having a nicely yucky feel, while the most wince-inducing moment – a nurse's fingers being cut off with scissors – is actually hidden under surgical gloves and probably the cheapest effect in the film.

In many ways Rose is a typical Cronenberg protagonist, an innocent who is affected by an event that will cause them to undergo drastic mental or physical change and probable eventual death. Like Jeff Brundle in The Fly, Beverly Mantle in Dead Ringers and Max Renn in Videodrome, the seeds for Rose's destruction are sewn at an early stage, and the subsequent downward spiral will inevitably afflict others. Like those subsequent films, Rabid is downbeat in tone, but as the infection spreads it takes on a more apocalyptic feel than the director's more personal later dramas, aligning it with George Romero's The Crazies and Dawn of the Dead, Jeff Leiberman's Blue Sunshine and, of course, Cronenberg's own Shivers, where a single apartment block effectively stood in for society at large. It's this sense of scale, together with the 1970s low-budget edginess, that marks it apart from the director's later works.

For my money Cronenberg has since made films that are more technically accomplished, more intellectually and emotionally involving, more daring and more dangerous than Rabid. But despite all that, Rabid remains one of my personal favourites. At art school I always preferred sketches to finished paintings, as to see something taking shape was always more exciting to me than the final end result. I similarly have a thing for films in which you can see a cinematic style developing – sometimes hesitantly, sometimes boldly, often unevenly but always excitingly – to the more polished later works when that style is perfected (despite the brilliance of Scorsese's Goodfellas, for example, I still get a bigger kick from the explosive energy and leap-off-the-screen vibrancy of Mean Streets, and give me Oliver Stone's Salvador any day over Nixon or even JFK). Rabid is not as slickly made or as thematically deep as Cronenberg's more widely acclaimed achievements, but as a cinematic sketchbook and a slice of 70s horror it is energetic, inventive and consistently involving. And despite the generally dark tone, it is also – as reflected in the small moments that pepper the film (the runner sporting the 'Jogging Kills' T-shirt, the gleeful killing of a shopping mall Santa, the scientist who offers the safety advice: "Don't let anyone bite you") – a great deal of fun.

sound and vision

The DVD cover informs us that the print here has been 'digitally remastered', a term that is used a bit too liberally to describe just about any quality of DVD transfer from the mediocre to the pristine. The picture quality on Somerville House's 'digitally remastered' print here is a mixed bag, though some of the flaws are clearly down to the condition of the source print. Framed at 1.85:1, which occasionally seems a little tight (TV overscan pushes some key elements right to the edge of frame), the film grain is visible on even the brighter scenes, and the print also flickers noticeably throughout, though almost never to a distracting degree. The contrast, however, is generally very good, with solid blacks, clear detail in the shadow areas and very reasonable colour reproduction. Sharpness is also very good, but – and this is what let's the transfer down the most – the transfer is non-anamorphic, and on a PAL widescreen TV this means barely half of the available resolution is being used, and the picture thus suffers somewhat when zoomed in. That said, this is still a clearer, sharper, altogether more pleasing transfer than the anamorphic PAL transfer on Metrodrome's region 2 disk.

The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is listed on the packaging as stereo, but is effectively mono spread over the front speakers. It's clear enough without reaching the heights of Criterion's Videodrome. There are a few fidelity issues due to location recording on a minimal budget, but hiss and pops are absent, and there is no distortion during the film itself, despite the musical blasts (the end credits music is a bit rough, though).

The disk includes both the English language and French dub – called Rage – of the film. The selection is made before the main menu.

extra features

Billed as a special edition, this has just enough extras to quality, though really trades on the quality of the main one, which is a goodie: a screen-specific commentary by David Cronenberg. Cronenberg is a smart and consistently interesting talker, and the information supplied on the film itself is enlightening and occasionally very entertaining. The quote that heads this review one of my favourites, but as someone who also loathes the so-called 'festive season', I warmed to his claim that "Shooting Santa Claus is irresistible for anyone who hates Christmas." He talks extensively about the scientific aspects of the film, his early training in bio-chemistry providing plausible explanations of the medical processes used and even Rose's condition. He also talks about the contribution made by executive producer Ivan Reitman, later to become a successful director in his own right, and devotes much of the first few minutes to talking in depth about one of his favourite subjects – motorbikes. All in all, reason enough alone for fans to buy the disk.

There's also a Cronenberg Interview, which is shot on digital video at 4:3 and runs for 20 minutes. Cronenberg discusses the problems he had with the Canadian government following the release of Shivers and the effect it had on his own film career, the development of Rabid, his own (temporary) doubts about the project, the learning process it proved to be and the politics of the reaction to the film. Pleasingly, there is little duplication of commentary material, save for his discussion on the casting of Marilyn Chambers (though even this is expanded on from the commentary version). As ever, Cronenberg makes for a fascinating interviewee, and this is a very worthwhile inclusion.

The trailer runs for 2 minutes and is approximately 1.66:1 and non-anamorphic. Though a bit dusty, it's in reasonably good shape and has been transferred well. Narrated by one of those Trailer Voice Men, there are some smile-prompting moments, my favourite being "Don't scream. Don't panic. He's dead. And the dead can't hurt the living." OK then. It's still a pretty good sell, and very much a product of its time.

Biographies gives quite detailed biographies and filmographies for David Cronenberg and Marilyn Chambers.

Finally the photo gallery has what looks suspiciously like 18 frame grabs from the film rather than production photos.

summary

Rabid is a an essential slice of early Cronenberg and a key work of late 70s American low-budget horror. Despite the low budget, it remains an ambitious, intelligent and prophetic work, and one that for my money has stood the test of time very well indeed.

It would be lovely to see Criterion pull off a Rabid/Shivers two-disk special edition with tasty anamorphic prints and a barrel of extras, but in the mean time this will do for Rabid. The lack of an anamorphic transfer hurts the otherwise rather good picture quality, but it's still the best version out there, and the Cronenberg commentary and interview make it worth the purchase price alone. If you're a Cronenberg fan, and I mean a real Cronenberg fan, then this is a must-buy.

Rabid

Canada 1977
91 mins
director
David Cronenberg
starring
Marilyn Chambers
Frank Moore
Joe Silver
Howard Ryshpan
Patricia Gage

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 letterboxed
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
English
French
subtitles
none
extras
Director's commentary
Interview with director
Trailer
Biographies
Photo gallery
distributor
Ventura Distribution
release date
out now
review posted
9 October 2004

Related reviews
Rabid [Blu-ray review]
Stereo / Crimes of the Future
The Brood [DVD review]
The Brood [Blu-ray review]
Scanners [DVD review]
Scanners [Blu-ray review]
Naked Lunch
A History of Violence

See all of Slarek's reviews