Rabid (1976/1977) ***
You know, I was just thinking not that long ago that I really ought to get around to reviewing something from one or the other of the Two Twisted Daves (David Lynch and David Cronenberg-- and if you don’t understand why I would call them that, you need to track down a movie or two from each of them immediately). And then, mere days later, what should stare me in the face at my last trip to the video store but the beaten-up box to an old copy of Rabid, Cronenberg’s uniquely bent take on vampirism.
For those of you who know nothing of Cronenberg’s work, let me lay a little bit of groundwork before delving into Rabid’s story. Cronenberg, especially early in his career, seems to be obsessed with the ideas of sexual evil and evil sex. He’s also obsessed with the more general idea of the body and mind run amok, and with the power of modern medical technology to help both of them do just that. He’s dealt with one or more of these themes in just about all of the movies on which his reputation is founded. They Came from Within, The Brood, and The Fly are more about physical horrors, while Scanners, The Dead Zone, and Dead Ringers deal more with the mind in revolt against its owner, and a patina of warped sexuality overlies nearly all of the above-named films. Rabid falls mostly into the former category, and as in so many of Cronenberg’s movies, high-tech medicine is at the root of the horror.
One fine day in the Quebec countryside, a young man named Hart Read (Frank Moore, who went on to appear in the justly forgotten Gnaw: Food of the Gods II) and his girlfriend Rose (70’s crossover porno queen Marilyn Chambers, best remembered for Behind the Green Door and The Resurrection of Eve) are out for a motorcycle ride, which ends up being cut short when they crest a hill to discover a van stalled in mid-U-turn. Hart’s efforts to dodge the immobile vehicle result in his losing control of the bike, sending it sailing through the air to land in the field beside the road. Hart himself is thrown well clear of the bike (though he does himself quite a lot of damage on landing), but Rose is not so fortunate. She ends up pinned beneath the cycle when it bursts into flames and explodes, inflicting grievous injuries to her torso, both external and internal. Rose would ordinarily be a goner, but she and Hart have at least a little bit of luck with them today-- they have crashed only a couple of miles away from a private clinic specializing in cosmetic and reconstructive surgery. The head doctor there, Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan-- and by the way, I think naming the doctor in charge of Quebec’s foremost plastic surgery emporium after a particularly hideous form of burn scar is a nice touch) is not just an accomplished surgeon and a shrewd entrepreneur-- he’s also a cutting-edge medical researcher, making him seem like just the man Rose would want presiding over the efforts to put her back together. In particular, Keloid has developed a radical new tissue graft technique in which the cells to be grafted are specially treated to revert them to the undifferentiated state that one sees in embryonic tissues. With this technique, a piece of skin from the patient’s thigh can be used to make repairs on literally any part of the body, inside or out (though internal grafts of this nature are apparently tricky, and involve a relatively high incidence of side effects-- a bad graft can lead to cancer). Naturally, Rose is a prime candidate for the new treatment, and Keloid has her brought in from the field for surgery.
The girl is still in a shock-induced coma more than a month later, but at least her body is repairing itself according to expectations. Or at any rate, that’s what seems to be going on. As we shall soon see, all is not nearly so well as appearances suggest. One night, Rose awakens, and in her panic and disorientation, she begins tearing at her dressings and IVs. One of Keloid’s colleagues happens to hear her struggling in the ICU, and goes to check it out. He finds Rose behaving very strangely, even more so than her circumstances would predict. Disorientation, fear, and confusion are only to be expected, but the girl’s sudden sexual aggressiveness with the doctor is most assuredly not. Neither, for that matter, is that fact that, while Rose holds the doctor close to her in an uncomfortably intimate manner, she somehow stabs him in the side with a sharp implement concealed under her left arm. As the doctor loses consciousness, his blood soaking through his shirt, the most curious look of satiation passes over Rose’s face. She then lies back down on her bed, and slips back into her coma.
When her victim comes around, he has no memory of what happened to him. All he knows is that he’s lost, and continues to loose, a tremendous amount of blood, and that if he doesn’t do something about it soon, bleeding to death is a very real possibility. Keloid can’t figure out the cause of his injuries, though. All he can tell is that the blood from the wound isn’t coagulating, and that his new patient is experiencing stroke-like mental symptoms. Over the next couple of days, after she awakens fully, Rose subjects several more people at the Keloid clinic to similar attacks, each one revealing more about the girl’s modus operandi. It isn’t that she’s concealing a shiv in her armpit, but rather that her experimental tissue grafts have changed her, anatomically and physiologically, endowing her with a phallic, syringe-like organ concealed in her underarm, through which she siphons the blood of her victims, now the only food she is capable of digesting.
“That’s pretty disturbing, and all,” I hear you saying, “but what could such a thing possibly have to do with rabies? I mean, this movie is called Rabid, right?” Well, the rabies comes into play shortly after Rose begins her new life as a vampire, as every person from whom she drains blood becomes stricken, within eight hours or so of being attacked, with a contagious, rabies-like disease that turns them into mad, cannibalistic killers. (You know, I wonder if the makers of Cannibal Apocalypse ever saw this flick...) Rose herself apparently suffers no ill effects from whatever pathogen it is that she’s harboring, nor does she even realize what effect her blood-drinking ultimately has on her victims, but when she escapes from the clinic in search of more blood, she inadvertently sets in motion an epidemic of this mutant super-rabies that will eventually force the government to place the city of Montreal under martial law. One of the very first casualties of Rose’s plague is, fittingly, Dr. Keloid, whose blood she drains before her escape, and who subsequently tries to eat his support staff in the middle of an operation to repair a man’s ear.
Meanwhile, Hart has discovered that Rose is no longer in the clinic, and with the help of Keloid’s former business partner Murray Cypher (Joe Silver, from They Came from Within), he begins trying to track her down. It isn’t long before Rose turns up at the home of her friend, Mindy Kent (Susan Roman, who went on to be quite a prolific voice actor in cartoons-- her credits include Heavy Metal, Rock and Rule, and the role of Sailor Jupiter in the English-language version of “Sailor Moon”), but by that time the Keloid clinic is under quarantine, and neither Hart nor Cypher is allowed to leave until everyone inside has been inoculated against Rose’s rabies. Here, at last, the movie begins to build up momentum, as Hart’s search for Rose unfolds against a backdrop of escalating epidemiological crisis. By the time Hart gets in touch with his girlfriend and learns the truth, Quebec’s health department has determined that something is spreading the rabies plague in a predictable pattern, with the Keloid clinic as its center. The subsequent mutual revelation, in which Hart catches Rose feeding from Mindy and accuses Rose of spreading the plague, sets the stage for a truly fantastic ending that ought to convince even the most hardened naysayers that the modern horror film is not quite the intellectual vacuum that its detractors would have you believe.
It is this ending, along with a surprisingly subtle performance from Marilyn Chambers in what is actually a very meaty role, that really saves Rabid. Cronenberg’s script is, for the most part, rather flaccid and repetitive, and the over-the-top portrayal of most of the rabies-crazies does much to undermine the effect of what ought to be some pretty disturbing scenes. But a lot of thought went into the character of Rose, who is both this movie’s principal victim and its principal threat, and who is also well aware of her dual status (though she doesn’t quite grasp the scale of the evil that she does). Especially when one considers the fact that she has comparatively few lines, Chambers’s success in making Rose seem both monstrous and sympathetic is a major achievement. Her Rose is entirely convincing as a quasi-sexual predator, and yet is equally so in those scenes that offer us brief glimpses into her tortured psyche once her immediate thirst for blood has been slaked. The scene just before she kills Mindy, in which the latter woman talks her friend into murdering her without even realizing it, is especially well done. And Rose’s ultimate fate, both apt and tragic, may not be sufficient to elevate Rabid to the status of even a minor classic, but it does bring the movie to a close on a high enough note to counteract most of the awkwardness that characterizes the first two thirds of the film.