Review Date: September 12, 2004
Released by: Ventura Distribution
Release date: 6/1/2004
Region 1, NTSC
Widescreen 1.85:1 | 16x9: No
“A lot of the story of Rabid
is the story of Marilyn Chambers,” David Cronenberg so accurately states at the beginning of his audio commentary. Chambers and Cronenberg had both began to escalate to fame at the same time, and in similarly reviled genres. Chambers had become notorious for her pornographic cross-over hits, Behind the Green Door
(1972) and Resurrection of Eve
(1973), while Cronenberg had achieved success in the confines of the horror genre with Shivers
(1975) and his underground shorts. It was inevitable that the two outcasts, detested either by Ivory soap or Canadian critics, would come together for what would eventually materialize as Rabid
. With Rabid
, Cronenberg would continue his auteurist fascination with disease and medicine, while incorporating Chamber’s as his attempt at creating the revenge of the subjugated female. Originally a shoddy and tough to find DVD, Rabid
has now gotten special edition reissue by Ventura. Let’s peal back the skin and delve into this film and disc.
The film begins with a shot of two unnamed and inconspicuous bikers heading out on a road trip. They board their motorcycle and head out over a wintry Canadian highway. Also on the road is a bickering family trying to find a vacationing farm house. The family miss a turn, and given the empty rural roads, decide to pull a u-turn. Their large van stalls and blocks the road, just as motorcycles come cruising down the hill. Without enough time to stop, the couple crash into the van, propelling them into a field where the bike eventually ignites. The man is able to dodge the fire, but the girl remains pinned beneath the bike, her skin badly burned.
Rose (Marilyn Chambers
), as we eventually learn her name to be, is rescued by a nearby hospital that specializes in plastic surgery. Her skin has been burned beyond conventional repair, and only an experimental new technique could restore her skin to its original beauty. Skin grafting, as the procedure is called, involves removing skin layers from undamaged parts of the body in order to use them to repair the burned parts. Leg skin could thus become facial tissue, and vice versa. The procedure is untested, but the staff at the Keloid clinic decide to make Rose their first guinea pig.
The grafting works wonders, but when Rose is finally awoken from her coma, she realizes that her name takes on an ironic truth. Like a rose she is beautiful, but she also has grown a lethal thorn in her side. This penis-like protrusion is a side-effect of the experiment, and has turned her into a character driven by sexual lust. She has compulsive urges to thrust her phallic stinger into whatever male victim she comes across, infecting them with a rabid-like primality. Eventually, the city of Montreal becomes infected, as martial law takes over. Rose must realize her Carrie
r status, and address her tragic fate in a shocking conclusion.
is an effective horror film, and one that plays just as good today as it did back in 1977. Cronenberg’s prophetic ability to predict not only the outbreak of venereal diseases like AIDS but also mankind’s newfound obsession with altering one’s body in order to comply with social norms as to what looks “beautiful”. Virtually all pornographic stars today must augment their breasts to larger (and thus faker) proportions, and women in particular aim to mask the effects of aging with other surgical techniques. The fact that Cronenberg cast Marilyn Chambers hints at a society becoming obsessed with ethereal beauty, since before Chambers porn stars very much possessed a girl-next-door quality. After Chambers, there was a push for pornography (and indirectly society) to resort to plastic surgery in order to become more beautiful. Plastic surgery is the practice that underpins the whole film, and it is what is responsible for sending the world into chaos.
More interesting though, is Cronenberg’s use of the connotations within the casting of Marilyn Chambers. In response to an unethical use of science by the male, Chambers grows a phallus in her armpit, to signify that she, not the male, has power. Known almost entirely for her work in pornographic films like Behind the Green Door
and Resurrection of Eve
, Chambers has been a figure of domination and sexual gratification to the overpowering male. Pornography is almost all about the male, focusing on his orgasm as he instructs the woman what to do in order to get himself off. Green Door
puts the women at an even lesser vantage point by having Chambers kidnapped and forced to engage in primitive sexual acts in front of an elite audience. Eve
is similar in its subjugation of women in that the titular character gets married only when she is resurrected as the beautiful Marilyn Chambers, as if to suggest that women are good only for their physical attributes. Chambers’ penis-like extension in Rabid
suddenly gives her a newfound power that she was unable to possess in her exploitative pornographic films. What she does with it is punish men, and only men (the one women she infects she does so against her will), stabbing her phallic protrusion sexually into them. Cronenberg’s film demonstrates a shifting in power, from the man to the women, in the realm of the physical and the sexual.
The viewer is led to believe that it is Chambers herself that is given this power in order to rectify the wrongs done to her in past pornographic characterizations, because she is given no exposition at the start of the film. Rabid
begins immediately with the motorcycle accident, and it is learned only much later that her name is Rose (which is really just a metaphor anyway). Since her character is given no establishing background, one must identify with her from the only extra-textual information provided, and that is that Chambers herself is a porn star. “You don’t understand,” Chambers says in the film “I’m still me.” That is as good of indication as any that the Rose character is meant to be read as Chambers herself.
is in many ways like Carrie
, a demonstration of a woman empowered by her newly discovered talents, punishing those who had done her wrong in the past. In fact, there is a scene where Chambers marches down the street, and in the background a theatrical poster for Carrie
can be seen. Where in Carrie
White got back at all those that laughed at her in high school, while in Rabid
Chambers responds against being the victim of male fantasy. Chambers uses her body to give herself power, but like in Carrie
, she ultimately destroys herself in the end.
is a solid horror film from venereal auteur, David Cronenberg, from a time when he was still working out and establishing the motifs that would come to dominate his films. Only his second feature-length effort (Shivers
being his first), Cronenberg is surprisingly very confident behind the camera, lacing the film with metaphors on sexuality, disease and experimentation. The pacing of Rabid
is fast and arguably Cronenberg’s most quickly paced films.
That said, the film is also one of his more shallow, devoting more time to death scenes than to the typical medical exposition that we usually find in the oeuvre de Cronenberg. Where in movies like The Brood
, Cronenberg fleshed out his story so all the blame could not irresponsibly be placed on the doctors, for it was the meltdown of the family unit that brought about the chaos. In Rabid
, Cronenberg is less perceptive, easily just blaming science for the destruction of mankind. What Cronenberg does beneath the surface though, with his subtle wit in naming or his clever use of Marilyn Chambers, is construct a film of subversive complexity that more than rectifies his shallow plotting. Porn and horror are two genres always frowned upon by mainstream critics, and with Rabid
, Cronenberg has melded the major themes of both into a fascinating and respectable film. Rabid
penetrates, with a deep and lasting artistry.
Almost unheard of in today’s 16x9 world, Rabid
is presented in a non-anamorphic 1.85:1 widescreen. As one could imagine, the letterbox transfer is extremely lacking. Although purported to be digitally mastered on the cover, the resulting print is lackluster at best, filled with intermittent lines and specs throughout. Colors appear washed out, as skin tones look desaturated, and blood much less vibrant than usual. The entire image looks soft and lacking delineation, as colors subtly bleed into each other. The lack of anamorphic enhancement is the final infecting flaw. While never distractingly bad, and at least better than its VHS incarnations, the transfer here leaves much to be desired.
Ventura presents the film in a two channel mono track, and the sound is about as underwhelming as the video. Voices sound at times muffled, and there is a light hiss that presides over the entire track. While dialogue is always audible, it is a far cry from sounding lifelike. Still, with an older low budget picture like this, it is tough to expect much more.
The disc makes up for its weak transfer with a slew of solid supplements. The main attraction is an audio commentary with David Cronenberg, which is yet another of his perceptive musings on the film and the various themes that permeate Cronenberg’s twisted little mind. Although he does not speak in detail about the making of the film itself, he does speak elegantly about society and its obsession with altering the natural environment and the body to accommodate mankind’s desires. He also talks of his love for motorcycles, biology and Marilyn Chamber’s naked. It’s a great track, as most Cronenberg commentaries are, and well worth hearing for any fans of the director or film.
Cronenberg is also interviewed in another supplement, and although there is some overlap between the interview and the commentary, he is still a joy to listen to. In the interview he speaks more about the film’s production history, with a particularly interesting bit on how Shivers
was labeled pornographic when it was released, and so what did Cronenberg do? He cast the most notorious porn star in his next film. He also talks about the Canadian film industry, and the reception to some of his earlier films. It is a good look into Cronenberg’s early career.
The disc is rounded off by a trailer, a photo gallery, and fairly dry biographies on Cronenberg and Chambers. While not the packed special edition that some of his other films have received, the supplemental features on this disc will no doubt satisfy fans salivating for all things Cronenberg. An interview with Chambers would have been nice, though.
is a clever little movie made all the more interesting by Cronenberg’s twisted use of Marilyn Chambers’ image. It is full of rabid phallic carnage, but at its heart it still has a strong emotional core with Chambers. The video and audio are lacking, the non-anamorphic transfer being the biggest drawback, but the supplements make up for it. Cronenberg is vocal and thoughtful, giving more than the standard commentator. Fans will want to pick this up undoubtedly, since it is the best version of the film available. Those not enthralled with all things Cronenberg might want to wait until Rabid
enters the bites into anamorphic in the future.
Movie – A-
Image Quality – C
Sound – C
Supplements – B+
- Running Time - 1 hour 30 minutes
- Rated R
- 1 Disc
- Chapter Stops
- English Mono
- Commentary with director David Cronenberg
- David Cronenberg interview
- Theatrical trailer
- Photo gallery