Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ante Meridiem Theatre: David Cronenberg’s “Rabid”

A near collision culminates with Rose (Marilyn Chambers) pinned underneath a motorcycle in flames. She and the other rider, Hart (Frank Moore), are rushed to the nearby Keloid Clinic, where plastic surgeon Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) immediately begins surgery on Rose. He employs a revolutionary process called “neutral field grafts,” in which skin grafted onto the woman’s burned body would aid in the growth of new tissue. An unforeseen side effect is a slit underneath Rose’s left armpit, from which protrudes a stinger-like organ used for feeding on blood. What’s even worse is that Rose’s victims don’t die but rather turn into raving zombies that, in turn, attack and infect others.

David Cronenberg’s Rabid (1977) is an early film for the Canadian director but still displays the type of themes he would continually return to, including metamorphosis, physical or otherwise. It’s also an early movie for producer/director Ivan Reitman, who produced this movie and Cronenberg’s previous film, Shivers (1975/aka They Came from Within).

The sexual implications of Rabid are unmistakable. But what holds even more weight is a more general comparison of genders and a critical assessment, it would seem, of masculinity. One can’t help but associate some of Rose’s qualities – her new body part and its corresponding violence – with masculinity and the woman’s human characteristics – her guilt, expressions of pain, even her smile – with her own femininity. Or more simply: the monster is male, the human is female.

In the same vein, the majority of Rose’s victims are male, most of whom are aggressive or too brazen and seemingly deserve their fate. The rabid men’s attacks are ferocious – they hurl themselves at people while foaming at the mouth – but Rose feeds with a mere hug, and an arguably more potent result. She ends most attacks by gently stroking the victim’s hair, a compassionate act that further differentiates the monster (male) from the woman herself. Perhaps most significantly, the doctor, who’s essentially responsible for Rose’s condition, is a man who tries to improve the female body and fails miserably.

Cronenberg excels at perverting the ordinary. A crowded subway train becomes confined and inescapable when one of the infected passengers begins attacking others. A surgeon asking for a surgical instrument is really just asking for a weapon when he’s rabid and craving blood. Movie theatres aren’t relaxing, shopping malls are anything but leisurely, and hospitals are better at creating sicknesses than curing them.

Chambers, born Marilyn Ann Briggs, first gained notoriety in adult features before leaving the industry and starring in mainstream films. Rabid was her first starring role in mainstream. She returned to adult pictures and eventually starred in indie films. Chambers began her career as a model and was pictured on the box for Ivory Snow laundry detergent in the 1970s – she’s a smiling mother holding an infant. The multitalented woman was also a singer and had some success with the single, “Benihana”, which is featured in Rabid, playing on the radio while Hart is in the garage w
orking on his bike.

Sissy Spacek was reportedly the actress whom Cronenberg originally wanted to play Rose. In the film, actress Chambers passes a movie poster for Carrie, Brian De Palma’s 1976 movie starring Spacek.

A keloid or keloid scar – the doctor’s namesake in Rabid – is scar tissue growth that typically occurs following a skin injury.

So what’s the moral of Rabid? Well, it could be that men without inhibitions would turn into rabid, mindless, infectious, murderous freaks. Or maybe it’s that men should respect women and accept them as the stronger, more adaptable sex. But I like to think it’s this: Hugging a person you love is good. Hugging strangers or people you barely know is bad, especially if they’ve just undergone experimental surgery.


  1. Yet another "new" film you have introduced me to, Sark. I often wonder where you find these nuggets. Now, I'm a bit confused about Briggs--was she in adult-adult films and also the face of Ivory Snow Detergent? Because if she was, someone at P&G dropped the ball.

    1. Kim, Marilyn Chambers was pictured on the detergent boxes before starring in adult pictures. She was introduced as a new star with a play on Ivory's slogan, "99 44/100% Pure."

  2. I love Cronenberg, but I missed this one. It sure sounds gross -- just what you expect from the old boy. Your review is so well-written, and as a Cronenberg fan I've got to find this one. The only thing I disagree with is your description of Chambers as multi-talented. I would say multi-available-for-anything! LOL!

  3. Sark, this was an excellent analysis of an early Cronenberg work (and a great companion piece to your equally compelling review of THE BROOD). My favorite Cronenberg films are still the ones from this period. There's a raw quality that's less abundant in his later work. Marilyn Chambers acquits herself quite well as the victim/monster (I can't envision Spacek in the part, though she's a fine actress). Love your moral for the film...wish I had written that!

  4. Sark, this was a great post! I think your moral is quite apropos. It is also good advice for "Alien" and the TV show "War of the Worlds."