“The Canadian film industry of the 1970s was… rudimentary,” recalls producer Ivan Reitman in one of the interviews accompanying Arrow’s newly restored Blu-ray of Canadian writer/director David Cronenberg’s 1977 feature Rabid. Released two years after his first major feature Shivers, that film had performed impressively but was labelled “pornographic, obscene, hideous” in an article in the influential magazine Saturday Night which led to problems as the film was taxpayer funded, though as Cronenberg observes sanguinely it was the only government invested project which actually paid back.

Despite recouping C$5m against a modest budget of C$385k, the understandable displeasure of the Canadian Film Development Company meant it was an uphill struggle to persuade them to entrust Cronenberg with the C$500k budget for Rabid, but with hindsight their misgivings seem to have been swept aside by the subsequent takings of C$7m.

In the following years, Cronenberg would establish himself as a major, if unorthodox, ambassador for Canadian cinema with Scanners opening as the number one film at the American box office in 1981, his profile increasing through Videodrome (1983), the Stephen King adaptation The Dead Zone (1983) and peaking with The Fly (1986) which grossed $60M worldwide, but it was Rabid which was the turning point for his career.

By Cronenberg’s own admission, it was the first time he had real power in a production, engaged in the hiring of crew as well as actors and with much more involvement in the planning of the shoot, and it took a toll, the director suffering a “crisis of confidence” when writing, fearing it was “a ridiculous premise,” the first time he had had such doubts, though it was understandable: “Rabid was my first epic.”

Both Shivers and Rabid were filmed entirely in and around Montreal, but unlike his previous film Rabid was not confined to a single location and so was a more complicated and consequently harder shoot, though Reitman recalls that he laid down a rule that there were to be no setups near a stereo store or a motorcycle shop as they could lose Cronenberg for hours.

In fact, Toronto native Cronenberg was commuting to Montreal every day on his faithful Ducati motorbike which provides the sound for the first scene of the film as he preferred that to the Norton which actually appears, a vehicle he regarded as “unreliable, like all British motorcycles.”

Opening on a country road where the lonely motorbike races through the winter scenery with its two riders, there is visible dirt on the title cards but the main body of the print is a great improvement, but the picture does not improve soon enough to spot the hazard on the road ahead, a stalled camper van which forces the bike off the road.

Fortunately, the accident occurs within sight of the clinic where Doctor Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) is reticently talking franchises with his colleagues, fearful of being regarded as “the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery,” when the emergency call comes through and an ambulance is dispatched to the scene immediately.

Hart Read (Frank Moore) suffers only superficial injuries, but his girlfriend Rose (Marilyn Chambers) requires immediate surgery if she is to survive, and Doctor Keloid uses an experimental technique using skin grafts treated to be “morphogenetically neutral.”

In effect he has reversed the cell differentiation to allow what were formerly skin cells to adapt to become whatever tissue the damaged body requires, a treatment similar to modern stem cell therapies.

Hart is released, but Rose remains in a recuperative coma, Doctor Keloid monitoring her closely to observe the success, or otherwise, of his radical therapy. Upon awakening, Rose is at first hysterical; another patient attempts to comfort her, putting her back to bed, but in doing so Rose unconsciously attacks him with a stinger which emerges from her operation scar.

Driven by urges she cannot comprehend or express, Rose moves first through the hospital then discharges herself, returning to the city where her flatmate Mindy (Susan Roman) takes care of her, but she is still compelled to walk the streets in search of victims. Worse, those she has fed from are now infected, the authorities first believing that it is an outbreak of rabies before it becomes undeniable that it is a full blown slow incubation outbreak of an unknown vector.

In many ways Rabid is almost an expanded remake of Shivers, an experimental surgical procedure gone wrong which forces murderous urges upon the recipient, communicable and fast spreading, right down to the swimming pool scene, though strictly one-on-one here rather than an orgy, though moving beyond the confines of the apartment block community allows motorbike and car crashes as well as the streets of Montreal and a zombie rampage sequence set inside a shopping mall a year before George A Romero released Dawn of the Dead, concluding with Santa Claus being machine gunned down by an overzealous security guard.

Medical procedures and scenes set in hospitals, doctor’s offices and clinics are almost a tradition in early Cronenberg, Shivers (1975), The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) and revisited peripherally in The Fly (1986) before a final purge in Dead Ringers (1988) which appears to have cleared the obsession. With a lead physician named after the clinical term for hardened scar tissue, Rabid is all about the penetrating wounds as Rose revenges herself on all the male stereotypes of Montreal who have taken advantage of her sisters.

At the time of the release of 1987’s Fatal Attraction it was commented that Glenn Close was the first person to portray the AIDS virus onscreen, but in fact it was Marilyn Chambers a full decade earlier, before the pathology had even been characterised, ironic as until that time Chambers’ best known roles had taken her into first Canadian households as the angelic face of Ivory Snow soap then adult cinemas in the hardcore feature Behind the Green Door (1972), which Cronenberg maintains he has still never seen.

It was Reitman who suggested Chambers for the lead role, hoping that stunt casting would boost their profile as they were unable to afford a genuine star; “I had some reservations, I must say,” Cronenberg offers, before continuing that “she was actually good, she could act.” Praising her appeal, he feels “she played it like the girl next door,” and remains baffled that she never capitalised on it to launch a mainstream career, with Rabid her only credit in a dramatic film.

Thirty five years later, it is true that Chambers was very good as Rose, bright and earnest and undeniably beautiful, but also needy and vulnerable, and in her fur coat wandering the streets at night, seducing men and draining them, there is a clear influence on Scarlett Johansson’s unnamed alien who also associated with bikers in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

Cronenberg’s framing is typically sparse, and he never makes Canada look warm or welcoming; in such a desolate, bleak wasteland it’s small wonder nobody notices the horrors unfolding around them until they get out hand. The film builds towards a crescendo but falters before the climax, drifting rather than building urgency for a disappointingly low-key finale which would be echoed later that year in The Incredible Melting Man, while the newscasts give it a Romero feel, pre-dated by Night of the Living Dead (1968) and followed by Dawn of the Dead (1978) and the infected are also referred to as crazies, the title of another Romero film from 1973.

In addition to two commentaries, one with the director himself, the other with an expert on the works of Cronenberg, writer David Beard, there are brief interviews with Cronenberg, Reitman, co-producer Don Carmody, makeup effects creator Joe Blasco and a brief overview of Cinépix, but most interesting is the inclusion of a 1999 edition of the television series The Directors which offers an illuminating but abbreviated overview of his career up to the pre-production phase of 2002’s Spider, though with a tendency to significantly spoil the climaxes of several of his films.

Of the many actors interviewed, all speak of Cronenberg with affection and enthusiasm, singling out his understanding of and support of actors. Holly Hunter, with whom he worked on Crash (1996), says “He is involved exclusively in the story,” while The Dead Zone‘s Anthony Zerbe states “There was a lot of space for the actor.”

It is this piece which gives the only opportunity to see Marilyn Chambers reflect on the film, which she remembers as “a really good experience.” Ms Chambers died suddenly in 2009 shortly before her 57th birthday, and it is regrettable that it was not possible to gather more material to remember and celebrate her better.

Michael Ironside, a genre legend who was first brought to mainstream attention through his role of Darryl Revok on Scanners, is clear where Cronenberg’s strength lies: “He casts correctly. He has a phenomenal ability to recognise people and call upon them. On set he’s a joy to work with.” Ironside also states an opinion shared by many who know the man: “He has an absolutely unique way of looking at the world.” That sentiment is echoed by Peter Weller, star of Naked Lunch (1991), who says “Sometimes the soul awakens to horror which must be expressed, and David expresses it.”

While traditional narratives tend to portray the emotional transformation of a character, Cronenberg admits it is physical transformation which has always fascinated him. Reminiscing on the production of Rabid, he says “The inside being the source of horror as opposed to something outside…was relatively unique in horror at the time.” Alien would famously capitalise on this two years later, but Cronenberg was there first.

Soft spoken, modest and articulate, he talks of the controversies his work has engendered (“Politics and the art of filmmaking do not go together”), the labels put on his films (“People who want your film to be misogynistic will make it misogynistic”), but only expresses anger when he talks of his frustration in the aftermath of the release of Crash, a film which was hounded for a full year, the bête noire of the conservative British press.

Interestingly, while it was his interest in biochemistry as a potential career which initially inspired Rabid, before film beckoned he had thought to be a writer before a series of rejections to his short stories set him on a different course. While the archive interview has Cronenberg wistfully saying, “I think I aspired to be an obscure novelist,” that ambition has since been realised, with his debut novel Consumed published in late 2014.

Rabid is available now from Arrow Films on Blu-ray and as a limited edition steelbook



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