In his second commercial movie director David Cronenberg blurs what would later become his typical ‘body horror’ style with the rampaging zombie themes of the time to create his cult hit ‘Rabid’.
Fans of Cronenberg’s later style may find this entry, as with his big screen debut ‘Shivers’, somewhat jarring as its low budget constraints sees the movie sit more in line with other horror/sci-fi entries of the time rather than standing proud as a landmark film as some of his other cult movies such as Video-drome, ‘Dead Ringers’ and my personal favourite ‘The Fly’. Personally, however, I find this somewhat the charm of ‘Rabid’ and a reason why I constantly revisit it in my collection: it is simple in design yet there are flashes of the signs of genius still to come!
The plot begins with a motorcycle crash threating the lives of both riders. One suffers from some broken bones and is sent on his way without any further complication, his girlfriend however ‘Rose’ is not so lucky. With her body burnt from the crash she must undergo urgent and experimental skin-grafts on her body. This new medical concept hopes to revolutionise plastic surgery as it implants the usual thigh grafts with undifferentiated cells which can become any tissue, therefore making the replacement surgery more natural looking. In hindsight, and you don’t have to be a medical expert to make the connection, fears over new stem-cell research were no doubt the influence on the director at the time. Well it’s not long before we see yet another reason why medical testing takes the time it does, these grafts come with a rather bizarre side effect. Rose awakens with a vampire like proboscis under her arm pit, and blood is all she can eat. If that wasn’t bad enough, those ‘bitten’ become crazed and violent.
Upon reflecting on the concept here it would have been really interesting to be a fly on the wall – not the Goldblum style though – in the early meetings for this script. Whilst I feel the theme fits in as good as any zombie creation rationale at the time, I cannot help feel there was a different agenda initially, as the movie seems to follow two separate sub-plots. One which sees the character of innocent Rose developing a heightened sense of her sexuality, empowered in an almost predatory role, the other deals with the side effects of her newly-turned-zombie victims and the typical apocalyptic aftermath. The former would certainly fit in more with Cronenberg’s later themes of the commonly used themes of ‘body-horror’, the latter, what studios would feel would have made more money following the market trends of the time.
There are some really nice touches to the cinematography, the typical clinical yet faceless interior of the hospitals, the nurses and doctors who all look alike in contrast to the warm interiors of the homes and more welcoming characters. The phobia and paranoia of both governments and medical ethics form a subtext of satire through this (and many other movies of the period). The locations are varied, and there are some really nice landscape shots particularly in the opening sequence – this is by no means a dingy cash-in title. The acting is fairly decent throughout, although the more zombie-horror scenes do push the boundaries of the feasibility of both character actions and the actor’s ability to act them. Whilst we are on the horror, there are some really great zombie-sequences throughout with the shotgun scenes and blood sprays giving genre fans what they need! As you might expect, Rose’s condition is pretty grim also, and whilst the gross-out scenes are nothing compared to Cronenberg’s later showstoppers, they still are more than a match for the squeamish!
Overall when you consider the movies science based plot, its anti-corporate and governmental stance and some added bodily appendages there can only be one director at the helm. As I’ve said, it’s not as polished, or developed in either plot or style as Cronenberg’s later movies, but it is a winner for me as a solid and more mature entry into the Zombie genre – from this perspective I cannot see any horror fan being disappointed! Arrow have done us all a service with providing this film in a special steel book format, and the upgrade in quality from DVD to Blu is just the facelift this movie deserved.