Twitter Plot Summary: After a bike accident leaves a woman needing experimental skin graft surgery, she becomes the origin of a zombie-like infection.
Rabid is the fourth feature film directed by David Cronenberg, the oft-proclaimed master of body horror. After a motorbike accident leaves young woman Rose (Marilyn Chambers) horribly scarred, she undergoes experimental plastic surgery in a bid to save her life. But the surgery works a little too well, and before you can say “thirst for human blood” she’s nibbling on those around her (kind of) and turning them into zombies. The virus soon spreads and sleepy provincial Canada (for this is where the story takes place) starts to suffer its effects. A fun twist is that those infected have no memory of the event, and are soon chomping down (literally) on uninfected people.
The body horror aspect comes into play with her method of infecting people. Something (a something that is a tad phallic in appearance) pops out of a new hole in her armpit and into her victims. More disturbing is that Rose appears to get a perverse sexual pleasure out of each infection, later moving through the hospital residents and infecting a number of people in quick succession and then gradually out into the wider world. We’ll ignore the fact the hospital looks like a very 70s (read: brown) hotel, because everything in Rabid looks horribly 70s.
This feeling of 70s cheapness extends to the appearance of the infected. In brief spurts they’re not too bad, but for the most part there is an amateurish air to them, a greenish face paint and copious amounts of fake blood and bile. The effects may not be all that great, but the scares generated by the infected are generally done well. True, they may lack the impact of the original Night of the Living Dead (or even its 1990 remake) and later zombie thrills, but given the obvious lack of budget Cronenberg gets what he can out of it. You wouldn’t get a surgeon chomping down on a colleague in Romero’s canon (unless he was an undead doctor, of course), but Cronenberg does at least follow Romero in providing an incredibly downbeat ending.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a 70s horror film without a woman ambling around topless, and that job falls to Marilyn Chambers. Whilst totally exploitative, in the context of the story it is something that works in her character’s favour. She becomes a creature that isn’t bound by societal norms, existing solely to infect those around her. It also perhaps helped that Chambers was previously involved in the pornographic industry. A link is made between the virus infecting people and the rabies virus, although that angle is perhaps not explored in as much detail as it deserved.
So while it doesn’t have the budget, Rabid is full of big ideas and contains an engaging narrative that horror buffs will appreciate. It occasionally benefits from its rough around the edges style, but you can only imagine how much better it could have been had it received a larger budget. Perhaps a big budget Hollywood remake awaits? Actually, perhaps not.