A couple of years after he almost singlehandedly shut down the Canadian film industry with Shivers (aka. They Came From Within), canuck king of venereal horror, David Cronenberg returned to the genre with a noticably widened scope with Rabid, a gruesome variation on worst case pandemic scenarios mixed with his particular brand of body horror and social commentary.
But where his last movie saw the well-to-do residents of a state of the art, gated community succumb to phallic shaped sex parasites, this time saw delirious Dave assault all of Montreal with a virulent brand of rabies that’s transmitted from the vagina-like growth that forms in the armpit of a young woman after radical, life saving surgery. Look… it’s Cronenberg, all right, so harden your stomachs and brace yourselves because we’re about to get Rabid.


Young, carefree, motorcycling couple Rose and Hart have their innocent outlook on life severely tested when they’re involved in a horrific accident that leaves him badly injured and her suffering life altering burns. “Luckily”, the accident occurs close to the Keloid Clinic For Plastic Surgery and the two are carted there as it’s far closer than any hospital, but once admitted, head doctor Dan Keloid decides to play Frankenstein with Rose’s ruined torso and uses *checks notes* morphogenetically neutral grafts in the hope that it will differentiate and replace the damaged skin and organs – cool, nothing will go wrong there, then.
A month passes and Hart is released while Rose still remains in a coma – until she isn’t – and the predictably unpredictable side effects of her treatment reveals itself in the form of a small stinger that emerges from a vaginal opening in her armpit that drains the blood of her victims and eventually turns them into gibbering, violent lunatics. However, the catch is that even though Rose now needs blood to survive, she has absolutely no clue about the repercussions of her vampiric actions and even worse, this hyperactive version of rabies starts to spread through the berserk actions of the carriers as their numbers gradually spread. As the government struggles to counteract this growing plague, its methods go rapidly from ineffectual vaccines to full blown martial law as soldiers in hazmat suits patrol the streets with orders to blow away anyone sporting green drool and anti-social tendencies.
As Hart tries to negotiate a city that’s rapidly going down the tubes, he slowly starts to put together what’s happening with the aid of Murray Cypher, the kindly business partner of Dr Keloid and desperately tries to track down his girlfriend before her increased libido, her need for blood and that lethal lady garden located in her armpit causes yet more damage.


There’s a distinct feel that with Rabid, Cronenberg is desperately trying to cram as many ideas as he can into the script, possibly under the delusion that he’d never make another movie again after the backlash aimed at Shivers. In the earlier realms of his career, the director was a fevered ideas man, drawing out his monstrous concepts to make his obsessions with body horror and diseases punch gruesome holes in such treasured institutions as the accumulation of wealth, marriage and childbirth, but here he unleashes so much of them at once it sort of blurs the target.
The first problem is that if you take an unbiased step back (something not easy for me to do – I love early Cronenberg) Rabid is merely the plot of Shivers but expanded beyond the borders of of a single building. Both detail the path of an insidious virus that starts as a mutated form of a STI and goes on to threaten society itself that also has a genuinely skin crawling delivery system, but where Cronenberg’s earlier movie had regular folk turn into deranged sex offenders, this one goes more down the route of a more contemporary form of zombieism or even vampirism. The movie also seems a little confused as to what (if anything) it’s supposed to be taking aim at as its early, plastic surgery set scenes, seem to hint at taking sly digs at vain, rich people as Rose’s virus tears through them like particularly powerful laxative, but as the pandemic grows the thread gets abandoned in favor of diverting jabs at sexual social interactions with Rose’s choice of victim becoming an inversion of catching something from a one night stand. However, even though the movie comes across as creepily prescient (COVID may have really done a number on us but it’s certainly breathed new life into untold outbreak movies), if I’m being brutally honest, George A. Romero did the whole government struggling against a virus thing better back in 1973 with The Crazies.
This doesn’t mean that Rabid doesn’t leave a mark; far from it in fact as big Dave seems determined to bust a couple of taboos here and there just to remind you who’s boss. A mall Santa is accidently cut down with gunfire as a security guard pulls his gun on an infected member of the population, a outbreak happens on a crowded subway and a loving father and husband races home to find what’s left of his baby and an infected wife; it’s all appropriately callous but the director’s done more haunting stuff elsewhere.
Still, props have to be given to the fledgling Cronenberg as he’s noticably trying to up his game here. Not only is the scope of the virus far bigger than the one in Shivers, but he also tries to put a human face on it in the form of Marilyn Chambers’ oblivious Rose, a sultry bloodthirsty villain and a tragic, innocent victim all rolled into one and it’s a slight Ray of humanity in the director’s usually cold veneer. However, all of Chambers’ hard work (not to mention some of Cronenberg’s) is undone by the flat performance of male lead Frank Moore who is supposed to be one half of a heartbreaking romance but instead comes across as so wooden I’m genuinely surprised there isn’t squirrels trying to hide nuts in his belly button. It overturns a lot of the drama, but luckily the sheer nastiness and nihilism of the film just manages to balance it out.


Rabid is a prime example of a horror legend finding his feet, honing his skills and throwing every grungy little concept he has into a single movie – sure, not all of it works, but if you like your 70’s horror bleak, uncompromising and overwhelmingly grim, Rabid is certainly your antidote.


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