This review is going up about two weeks late.
I watched this movie on Friday night of Memorial Day weekend, and fully intended to post this the following week. Unfortunately, more…pressing…matters came up that weekend, and consumed all of that following week. And while the topics I discussed last week weren’t anywhere near as important, they still counted as current events, and needed to be dealt with in a timely manner.
But now that I’ve got them out of the way, it’s finally time to review Rabid.
This past Friday night, Red Molly and I decided to kick off the holiday weekend by…taking a Groupon and going to a nice restaurant (highly recommended. Try the il vitello funghi or the Filetto di Manzo del re). After that, we went home, popped up some popcorn, and settled in to watch David Cronenberg’s 1977 film Rabid.
For once, you don’t really have to worry about spoilers from this review. The movie is so simple and straightforward, there really aren’t any.
Unfortunately, Hart somehow fails to see a huge van stopped in the middle of a straight, flat stretch of road until it’s too late, and they crash. Rose is pinned beneath the motorcycle, which catches fire.
Fortunately for both, there’s a hospital nearby. Well, actually, it’s a cosmetic surgery clinic, but beggars can’t be choosers. Cosmetic surgeons are still doctors.
(An amusing detail that I couldn’t unsee: the head doctor, for whom the clinic is named, is Dr. Dan Keloid. “Keloid” is the name for a particularly nasty type of scar.)
Rose is badly burned across much of her torso, and very close to death. She needs treatment that a cosmetic surgery clinic can’t really provide, but since none is close enough, Dr. Keloid decides to improvise. He’s developed a technique that allows him to remove a skin graft from one part of a patient’s body, and treat the cells so that they become undifferentiated. That way, when they’re grafted onto a new place on the patient’s body, they grow as if they were cells from that place. The example he uses is taking a piece of skin from a patient’s thigh and grafting it to their cheek; thigh skin is significantly thicker than facial skin, but after this treatment, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Yes. He’s found a way to turn skin cells into stem cells. In the 1970’s.
Is it just a David Cronenberg thing, or do most speculative fiction writers grossly underestimate the wonders of science they put forth as plot devices? Cronenberg would do the exact same thing ten years later in The Fly, when Seth Brundle refused to publicize his teleportation booths until he could successfully, consistently transport living humans. In reality, he’d be the greatest physicist ever just for mathematically proving that macro-scale teleportation was possible. In the same way, Dr. Keloid should be winning all of the Nobel Prizes for Medicine.
At least he’s not portrayed as a mad scientist callously performing reckless experiments on a human guinea pig. I get so sick of that. Keloid is a caring, responsible doctor, and if his treatment is new, it’s not entirely untested, and if it’s being used for something it was never intended for, the situation is desperate.
Unfortunately, no one has ever had the process applied to as much of their bodies as Rose has, still less had it used to repair organs, and the treatment has some unexpected side-effects. When she wakes up a month after the accident, she finds that she can only feed on human blood. Anything else makes her violently ill.
Okay, I can see that. I mean, the real science is bullshit, obviously, but in terms of science fiction artistic license, the changes to her internal organs could –
…which she ingests through a phallic feeding tube…
…that emerges from a vaginal/anal looking orifice…
… in her left armpit.
What the hell are you smoking, Cronenberg?
What makes even less sense – if such a thing is possible – is that if someone survives a feeding (most do), they quickly develop a rabies-like illness. No, they don’t drink blood or in any other way share symptoms with Patient Zero. They just foam at the mouth and attack people.
Before we sat down to watch this movie, Red Molly admitted that she sometimes confuses David Lynch and David Cronenberg. This is why. They’re both mind-bendingly surreal and sometimes nonsensical. It’s just that Cronenberg’s weirdness is…gooier.
Anyway, after this point, it becomes a zombie movie.
But here’s something interesting: because this movie was made in 1977 – which is to say, nine years after Night of the Living Dead, but one year before Dawn of the Dead, the “zombie apocalypse” genre as we know it had not yet been established. This movie does not give us the impression that the world is doomed because of this. The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (the Canadian CDC) is able to track this new epidemic to its source (as is their job), and the city of Montreal is put under quarantine.
Which is kinda how I suspect a zombie apocalypse would work out in real life. Humanity has dealt with epidemic disease before. Why should the one that can only be transmitted by the bite of its slow-moving, highly-recognizable carriers be the one that finishes us?
Still, a city under military lockdown, with soldiers hunting down their infected fellow citizens and bodies being disposed of in garbage trucks is grim enough. Especially because the alternative is an ever-spreading epidemic of incurable disease and psychotic violence.
And of course, the situation is only going to get worse as long as Patient Zero is free to wander around and feed on blood, creating new outbreaks wherever she goes.
This movie was Marilyn Chambers’s attempt to break into legit movies, and she actually does a decent job. She’s nothing special, but she’s still one of the better actors in the movie (Hart, by contrast, is a complete stiff). And although most of her attacks involve seduction (you try attacking someone with your left armpit!), we don’t actually spend that much time looking at her assets. By Seventies standards, it’s almost demure.
Unfortunately, the part she plays is weirdly inconsistent. Sometimes, Rose seems to embrace her new vampiric nature, seducing new victims with a smile on her face. Other times, she struggles against it, trying to force down other foods (even animal blood makes her sick), or starving herself and fleeing from loved ones so she doesn’t have to feed on them. In another movie, these things would make sense as a progression, as she slowly lost her grip on her humanity, but in this movie they happen in random order. Are the different modes of behavior supposed to represent separate personalities? There are times that she doesn’t seem entirely aware of what she’s done as her “vampire self”. We don’t get to know Rose before the crash, so we have no idea if the sociopathy required to feed on other human beings for their blood comes easily for her, and nobody says. It’s all maddeningly vague.
Like most zombie movies before and after, Rabid was shot on a low budget, and it shows. Unlike the loving close-ups of highly detailed body horror that Cronenberg would give us in Videodrome and The Fly, we only catch brief glimpses of Rose’s armpit-proboscis. In the opening scene, Rose’s burns are on her torso, where they can be hidden by a sheet, rather than on her face, where difficult (and probably unconvincing) burn make-up would be necessary. All of the onscreen violence (and much of it is offscreen) is carefully planned to be as light on special effects as possible.
Still, Cronenberg does a fine – if head-scratchingly bizarre – job with what he has. While no one is going to call this movie a classic of western cinema, I recommend it for fans of deliciously bleak Seventies horror, or fans of zombie horror who want to take a look at the roots of the genre as it was taking shape.