"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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
disk includes both the English language and French dub –
called Rage – of the film. The selection
is made before the main menu.
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
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.
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.
the photo gallery has what looks
suspiciously like 18 frame grabs from the film rather
than production photos.
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.
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.