In some respects, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg took a step backward with Rabid, the second of his myriad biological-horror sagas and his fourth theatrical feature overall. Whereas the director’s previous bio-horror picture, 1975’s Shivers a/k/a They Came from Within, is suffused with Cronenberg’s distinctively clinical approach, Rabid is more obviously derivative, borrowing stylistic and thematic tropes from sources including the work of American gore maven George A. Romero. Rabid also lacks Cronenberg’s usual storytelling sophistication, suffering from halfhearted characterization, as well as stop-and-start pacing. Nonetheless, Rabid is still a nasty jolt of sexualized violence, and better by far than the average drive-in schlock of the same era—even mediocre Cronenberg is basically worthwhile. Better still, the creative growth the director demonstrated with his next bio-horror story, 1979’s The Brood, was extraordinary; after that, he was off and running on an impressive streak that carried him all the way to the acclaimed Dead Ringers (1988).
Like so many of Cronenberg’s movies, Rabid begins with experimental medicine. At the institute bearing his name, Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) employs chemically treated grafts to create quasi-artificial skin tissue during plastic surgery. When a young couple suffers a terrible motorcycle accident near the institute. Dr. Keloid employs his risky technique on badly wounded Rose (Marilyn Chambers). Upon awaking after surgery, Rose becomes a sort of mutant vampire, having grown a vagina-like orifice in her armpit that emits a probe capable of sucking blood from other people’s bodies. The movie’s title stems from a major subplot, in which the virus carried by Rose spreads to other victims, resulting in quarantines and other draconian responses by the government, recalling Romero’s The Crazies (1973).
Whereas the best Cronenberg movies wrestle with profound ethical issues, Rabid is more of a traditional shocker in the Frankenstein mold—a doctor unwittingly transforms an innocent victim into a deadly monster that must be stopped. As such, there’s a lot of herky-jerky rhythm as the movie idles through dialogue scenes in between attacks. Rabid ultimately works, both in terms of shock value and suspense, but it’s not especially original or provocative, notwithstanding the aforementioned weird appendage. Among other problems, the music is generic and shrill, because Cronenberg had not yet begun his fruitful collaboration with composer Howard Shore, who bathed many of the director’s subsequent films with aural landscapes full of elegant dread. One more aspect of Rabid that’s worth noting is the presence of leading lady Chambers, appearing in her first mainstream movie after achieving fame in the porn blockbuster Behind the Green Door (1972). She’s fine here, and even affecting at times, though her frequent nude scenes indicate she was hired for her lack of inhibitions as much as for her acting talent.