It’s a funny thing, watching David Cronenberg’s early films now with 40 years of work to his credit. He’s a director whose movies have a reputation for being cold, clinical, and cerebral. He is known for his fascination with body horror, but approaches it from the remoteness of a distant observer rather than as a fellow human being. And while some of this characterization may be correct, very little of it accurately describes his early efforts, including 1977’s Rabid, Cronenberg’s second-ever horror movie (following Shivers, aka They Came From Within) and his fourth feature film overall, now out on a special edition Blu-ray from Scream Factory.
At the time most famous for giving adult film superstar Marilyn Chambers her first leading role in a mainstream movie, Rabid is one of several variations on a theme Cronenberg made in the first half of his career, in which he shows the spread of some sort of disease, usually explored as a metaphor for a sexual transmission. In Rabid, it’s hardly even metaphorical; the sexual content is unmistakable. Chambers stars as a woman who is in a bad motorcycle accident with her boyfriend (Frank Moore) and is rushed to the hospital, where she undergoes an experimental surgery that has bizarre and horrifying side effects. She grows what is essentially a vampiric penis out of an armpit vagina and needs blood to survive; each time she stabs it into someone else, they, too, become infected and the disease begins to spread all over Quebec.
Rabid is certainly not the first horror film to depict an outbreak of a disease that turns anyone who contracts it into a bloodthirsty killer; the premise is pretty much any vampire or zombie movie to come before or since. Most horror films that use this template establish the outbreak and then follow a group of characters as they try to survive. Cronenberg being Cronenberg, though, is much more interested in tracking the disease—he’s more interested in the way it is passed and the effect that it has than on the people who contract it. That means Rabid is basically a succession of scenes in which one infected person attacks another, followed by another, followed by another. Chambers, meanwhile, is more or less clueless as patient zero, and the emotional spine of the film is constructed from her boyfriend’s realization of what’s really going on and his efforts to find her.
So while the imagery is surprisingly sexual and both the disease themes and the body horror elements are quite Cronenbergian, maybe the most interesting thing about Rabid is watching one of horror’s true masters more or less find his way. The movie is actually pretty clunky, particularly by the formalist standards of Cronenberg’s later work. It’s crude but effective, constructed much more like a drive-in exploitation film than most of what Cronenberg would make afterwards, and while the casting of Marilyn Chambers is clever in a thematic sense (having an actress best known for performing sex on camera contributes to the film’s ideas of this being a sexual phenomenon), it does very little to create a sympathetic center where having one might have made a difference. It’s not that she’s terrible—she’s not—but every one of her line deliveries is a reminder that her casting is more of a stunt than a case of finding the right actor for the job.
Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of Rabid offers a brand new 2K scan of the film in full 1080p HD, and while the movie still has a washed-out, low-budget look, it has been significantly cleaned up and offers a good amount of detail and a natural palette that looks, in a word, fantastic. Three commentary tracks have been included: one with writer/director Cronenberg carried over from a previous release, and another with author and Cronenberg expert William Beard, also transplanted from another version. A brand new commentary has been included on this release is billed as an “audio interview” and doesn’t comment directly on the action (and only runs for the first hour or so of the movie), but it features author Jill C. Nelson, an expert on female adult film stars of the ’70s and ’80s, and Marilyn Chambers’ former “personal appearances manager” Ken Leicht. As can be expected, its focus is much less on Rabid and much more on its star.
In addition to a new interview with co-star Susan Roman, who plays Mindy, there are interviews with Cronenberg, producer Ivan Reitman, and producer Don Carmody carried over from past releases. There’s also the standard still gallery and a collection of trailers, TV and radio spots, but perhaps my favorite bonus feature on the disc is a 30-minute visual essay on the early work of Cronenberg (through Videodrome in 1982) by Caelum Vatnsdal, author of They Came From Within: A History Of Canadian Horror Cinema. Not only does the essay help place Rabid within the larger context of Cronenberg’s career, but it also helps place his work within the larger context of the Canadian film scene at the time.
Rabid isn’t one of Cronenberg’s best films, but it is an important one in terms of his evolution as a filmmaker. While many of his concerns are the same even this early on, he’s much more direct in the way in which he deals with them, and his roots are much more rough-edged than his slicker studio work would later suggest.
With their restoration work and the amount of bonus features included, Scream Factory’s edition is the definitive version of the movie and worth picking up for any fan of one of the greatest horror directors of all-time. Between this and their recent release of Dead Ringers, here’s hoping Scream Factory continues issuing Cronenberg’s filmography the same way they have done with Wes Craven and John Carpenter’s respective work in the past—at least, the ones not already put out by Criterion. I’m looking at you, Shivers.
Movie Score: 3/5, Disc Score: 4/5