After surviving a life threatening motorcycle accident leaving her body with severe burns, Rose (Marilyn Chambers) undergoes an experimental skin grafting surgery in attempt to restore her skin. The operation is a success, although as an unusual side effect, Rose soon develops on orifice under her arm which houses a phallic stinger which feeds off blood, which Rose soon discovers she needs as sustenance. Rose soon escapes the hospital and en route to Montreal while continuing to quench her thirst for blood. Unbeknownst to her, whoever she feeds off of becomes infected with a rabies like virus, turning them into a bloodthirsty maniac who’s bite spreads the disease. The virus spreads rapidly becoming an epidemic, eventually reaching the city of Montreal. Panic erupts and the city is placed on martial law, all the while Rose’s boyfriend Hart desperately searches for her before she infects any more people.
In a way, Rabid could be seen as a companion piece to Shivers, albeit on a much larger scale. Both films deal with rapidly spreading diseases and seem to be some sort of critique on the consequences (fantastic as they are) of renegade science and medicine run amok, but while Shivers gave off an uncomfortable feeling of isolation, having the action confined to the Starliner apartment building, Rabid sees Cronenberg expanding his canvas. By having the disease spread to an highly populated city, Cronenberg was able to create a real sense of paranoia as tension is high everywhere you turn. Part of the fun of watching this movie is knowing that something is going to happen, just not knowing when. Sometimes it’s more obvious than others, such as when a farmer that Rose fed from the night before attacks a diner, or a man entering his house calling out to his wife but nobody answers, but they’re still effective scenes to watch. Cronenberg increases the felling of social panic by having many scenes take place in crowded places such as a mall (one of the film’s highlights), a subway train and a long line of people. Like all great epidemic films, anybody can be infected and strike at any time in any place. Who will it be? How many of them will there be? Nobody is immune from the disease. It could be a wife, husband, child, ect… doesn’t matter, so there’s always that element of surprise. I’m not sure if it was intentional on Cronenberg’s part or not, but I’ve always seen some aspects of Rabid as an observation on how we the public reacts to news concerning a sickness or epidemic, rushing to conclusions, inducing panic and so forth. Granted the panic in this film is more than warranted but it’s just a thought that always pops in my head while watching this.
There’s been some debate over the years as to exactly what you would call the infected ones. They share the traits of both zombies and vampires, yet they aren’t exactly either of those. I’ve heard the term “rage zombies” thrown around a lot when discussing this film. Well, I wouldn’t describe them as either of those, others have disagreed. Like zombies they’re basically mindless save for the fact that they know they’re constantly hungry and they’ve got one hell of a bite. What is certain about them however, is that they are fucking vicious, and their attacks are quite nasty. The scene where one of Rose’s doctors becomes rabid during a surgery is a classic Cronenberg moment. The make up is sparse but perfect, whitened faces, some marks around the eyes making them look severely ill and of course the frothing at the mouth. The actors portraying the infected ones do a good job coming off as legimately rabid. Then of course there’s Rose. Rose survives off blood, but would you call her a vampire? Certainly not in the traditional sense. To be honest I don’t think the diseased in the film, nor Rose herself really need to be classified, as I personally feel it takes away from their uniqueness. Still it’s an interesting topic to bring up when talking about this film. Leave it to Cronenberg to come up with a sickness totally unclassifiable.
It would have been easy to have made Rose a one dimensional, mindless, raving bloodsucker but Cronenberg is smarter than that and made her a very well rounded character with depth, and Marilyn Chambers delivers a strong performance hitting all the right notes. If she had been lackluster the film would have suffered greatly. It goes without saying that she’s a stunning, very alluring woman and as Rose she uses her sexuality to her utmost advantage when needing to feed, such as going into a sleazy porno theatre knowing that some creepy guy will approach her. She is able to radiate sexuality by just sitting still. Despite needing blood to survive, Rose is still very much human. She is nothing like the monsters she inadvertently creates, only becoming violent when hunger strikes. From a physical standpoint Chambers knocked this aspect of her character out of the park, as she is very aggressive when she attacks, and there is a sexual aspect about her method, the way she cradles the head of her victims. Cronenberg treats Rose’s need for blood very much like a drug addiction as when Rose goes long periods without blood she writes on the floor, very convincingly, in excruciating pain. There is an air of sympathy to Rose, as it’s not exactly her fault she became this way, nor does she enjoy it, yet she quickly learned she has to do these things to survive, all the while being completely oblivious to the fact that she’s the one that’s causing the outbreak. Chambers handles this emotional side of Rose very well, and when she is finally hit with the revelation that she’s the cause of the plague her denial makes it all the more tragic.
When Rabid was being shot Marilyn Chambers was arguably the most famous porn star in the world thanks to her 1972 film Behind the Green Door which actually found some crossover success during the so called “golden age of porn”. Rabid was her first non porn film and it’s a shame she never got the chance to do any others as she defiantly had the chops as witnessed here. I believe she could have been a well loved actress in the horror genre. Sadly she passed away in 2009 at the age of 56. Cronenberg stated in an interview that when he found out Chamber's was looking for a role in a “legitimate film” he was “quite tickled” that she thought Rabid would be a legitimate film. Rabid is an essential Cronenberg movie as it sees him further expand upon ideas that he would eventually perfect in future films in the so called “body horror” or “venereal horror” that he is credited with inventing. It’s unusual “monsters”, visceral attack moments, intense mood and a great showing from Chambers will make it a fun watch for fans of the genre in general and hopefully it will turn people on to the wonderful world of Cronenberg and make them fans. It’s awesome.