❉ Jonathan Sisson on the 2K Blu-Ray of Cronenberg’s cult classic!
Yes, everyone’s favourite film about the pretty girl-next-door who is horrifically injured in a motorcycle accident and grows a murderous blood-sucking penis that lives within an anus in her armpit following radical stem cell based skin grafts is back on Blu-ray in a Cronenberg-approved 2K scan from the original camera negative!
After being severely burned when her boyfriend’s upturned motorbike explodes whilst she’s pinned under it, young and seemingly innocent Rose (adult film star Marylyn Chambers) is rescued by emphatically eyebrowed Dr Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan — Yes! The voice of Mendoza from 80s cartoon series The Mysterious Cities of Gold!) and his team after one of his patients happens to observe the tragedy from the good doctor’s nearby plastic surgery clinic. With no choice but to perform an immediate emergency procedure upon the dying girl using radical techniques, Keloid uses experimental “neutral field graphs” designed to convert skin samples from her thigh into tissue usable in any part of her body.
However, this being a David Cronenberg film set in a sinister but well-meaning medical institute, the whole thing naturally goes tits up and Rose ends up not with the side effects of a carcinoma Dr Keloid is dreading, but with a phallic proboscis in her armpit that emerges from an underarm anus to suck and infect her victims with a rabies-like virus that soon takes out an entire city.
Don’t ask me why; Cronenberg actually cut the scene in which it’s explained what the hell the thing is in order to tighten the narrative flow. He’s stated in interviews he always made the mistake of cutting too much exposition in those days, but who cares? The vagaries make it so much more wonderfully weird.
Rabid forgoes the fuck-everything-and-bring-civilised-society-down ferocity of Cronenberg’s mainstream debut Shivers (1975) in favour of an almost conventional zombie apocalypse narrative. Indeed, it’s more like Romero’s The Crazies (1973) than the Canuck Body Horror maestro’s usual early period fare, with scenes of action and mounting chaos that anticipates Scanners (1981) but which feels a little safer than not only Shivers but also Cronenberg’s underground work like the extremely uncomfortable Stereo (1969) and the extremely, extremely uncomfortable Crimes of the Future (1970).
One suspects that the furore sparked by Shivers – which caused questions to be asked in the Canadian Parliament – was still fresh in everyone’s memory and while it may have made for a great free marketing campaign, no one wanted to push their luck… Nevertheless the casting of Chambers actually affected Cronenberg personally; his landlady (whom he referred to as “Attila the Hun, the leader of the Mongol hoards of my most paranoid dreams” in an article he penned for Toronto daily The Globe and Mail) kicked him out after discovering he’d made a film with “that woman”. He’d just put up some nice new shelves as well.
Rose herself is a the sort of horror femme fatale so beloved by Jess Franco and so perfected in Jonathan Galzer’s Under the Skin (2013). Cronenberg originally wanted Sissy Spacek for the role, but former Ivory Snow model Chambers really makes it her own, and though her presence is the result of stunt casting (what with porno hit Behind the Green Door (1972) still fresh in everyone’s mind at the time, and the prospect that she might co-star with Rip Torn in a never-made Hollywood film a very real possibility), she fits perfectly into the various scenarios Cronenberg places her in—Rose as a luscious yet vulnerable comatose patient suddenly awoken and seemingly horny; Rose as a carefree and beautiful hitchhiker; Rose as a fur coat-wearing girl in a porno theatre surrounded by skeevy men and so on—all of which feel like they could at anytime degenerate into hardcore fucking but which soon turn into something else entirely.
After a few of these scenes, the whole almost becomes a deconstruction; self-consciously a feminist supernatural power trip and a misogynistic fear of female sexuality. Rose is both empowered and victimised (and vilified) by her newfound mutation. It’s no accident, either, that vampiric new appendage has such a penile look to it. That’s not to say Cronenberg ever has an agenda; he maintains a professional, clinical distance, observing the results of the experiment he’s set in motion like any good mad scientist should. All he’s really interested in is the unification of male and female sexualities, whether it be via infectious parasites, medical treatments, or, in the case of M. Butterfly (1993) actual gender fluidity.
Really, though, Rabid, like The Fly (1986) is more tragic than disturbing. The crash that sparks off the whole apocalyptic nip-‘n-tuck debacle is the result of the most minor of faults with a holidaying family’s camper van; a phone call missed by a matter of moments due to a loud radio could have forestalled or perhaps even negated the cataclysm altogether; a genius plastic surgeon is reduced to the state of a slavering, rabid zombie. Small details about the various characters (and there are, perhaps too many) are dropped in throughout so that we get to know these people better than a standard horror movie would usually warrant. Rose seems by turns to revel in her new found power or be distraught at her condition; Keloid expresses his worry about going down in history as “The Colonel Saunders of Plastic Surgery” when his wife Patricia (Patricia Gage) and business partner Murray Cypher (Joe Silver) propose franchising his clinic, and Murray himself is at one point seen sitting up with his newborn baby watching cartoons in an almost throwaway tender moment that gives him more backstory than most film makers would bother with.
Oddly, the character we should be rooting for the most — Rose’s boyfriend, the guilt-ridden Hart Reid — is the least interesting, but that’s more down to Frank Moore’s weird half-Nicolas Cage, half-Christopher Walken performance. There’s some great world-building too; a couple of drunk Native Americans getting breathalysed at a police station add an odd moment of levity to brief expositional scene, the patients at the clinic are all oddballs each with their own particular brand of neurosis, Victor Désy turns in a subtly eccentric performance as the Quebec Bureau of Health representative trying to deal with the epidemic (“don’t let any-waaan bite-a-you!” he advises the nation during a TV interview).
All this makes the movie actually kind of fun; certainly it’s the most humorous of Cronenberg’s early works. What it lacks in ferocity, it makes up for in likeability. That’s not to say there aren’t disturbing scenes; the ending in particular, and no one does a “Yikes! The surgeon’s gone fucking off his rocker during a delicate operation!” scene quite as well as Cronenberg (see also 1988’s astonishing Dead Ringers).
For years, Rabid has only been available in some pretty gammy releases mastered from what appear to be faded TV prints. Thankfully, the transfer used for the is release is something of a revelation, with a clarity and gloss that makes this, the most overlooked of Cronenberg’s early works, infinitely more watchable and polished than it has done previously. In fact, seeing it in this light makes one re-evaluate the film and makes one realise how much it belies its low budget.
Included as a special feature is a 70-minute documentary entitled…
The Quiet Revolution (2019)
Now this is one of those little goodies that, despite merely being an ensemble of talking heads and a few film clips, really delivers some insight into its subject matter by letting those in the know simply recount the facts to the best of their memory, rather than mucking about with flash animations, reconstructions, power point presentations or devised performance pieces. This is what a documentary should be; a fascinating story told simply yet informatively.
Briefly, it details the rise of the Canadian film industry from the late-sixties to the early eighties thanks to the cultural impact of the titular Révolution Tranquille, along with the economic climate of government investment and tax shelter schemes. Specifically, it delves into the history of Cinepix and the John Dunning-André Link partnership that founded it (via Dunning’s son Greg and former Cinepix employee turned prolific Hollywood producer Don Carmody) and, along with extensive interviews with Cinepixe’s arch-rival and occasional co-production partner Pierre David (who gives us wonderful exploding head related insights and explains in simple terms how the tax shelter system worked amongst other things), we hear from film makers such as writer-director William Fruet, editor Jean Lafleur and Cinematographer Mark Irwin, and academics Professor Ernest Mathijs and Dr Jenifer Wallis who give us some sociological and theoretical context for the films that were produced. If you’re in any way interested in Canuxploitation or the socio-economics of film production in general, this is worth the price of the disc alone, and it squeezes everything of relevance into sleek 70 minutes.
‘Rabid’ Special Features
❉ The Quiet Revolution: State, Society and the Canadian Horror Film – Part One: Gimme Shelter: Cinepix and the Birth of the Canadian Horror Film, a brand new feature-length documentary exploring the social contexts behind Canadian horror cinema from filmmaker and author Xavier Mendik.
❉ Audio commentary with filmmakers Jen and Sylvia Soska (directors of the 2019’s Rabid reimagining)
❉ Limited edition booklet: Includes ‘The Birth of Rabid’ by Greg Dunning and ‘Stunned. Shocked. Exhilarated: Horror in the Early Films of David Cronenberg’ by Alex Morris
❉ Audio commentary with writer-director David Cronenberg
❉ Audio commentary with William Beard, author of ‘The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg’
❉ Audio commentary with Jill C. Nelson, author of ‘Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women Of Classic Erotic Cinema, 1968-1985’ and Marilyn Chambers’ Personal Appearances Manager Ken Leicht
❉ Young And Rabid – An interview with actress Susan Roman
❉ Archive interview with David Cronenberg
❉ The Directors: David Cronenberg – a 1999 documentary on the filmmaker
❉ Interview with executive producer Ivan Reitman
❉ Interview with co-producer Don Carmody
❉ Radio spots
❉ 101 Films presents Rabid on two-disc special edition Blu-ray 26 August (Cat no.: 101BL009). Order direct from 101 Films: http://bit.ly/101black
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions.