Body horror gets an icky upgrade in David Cronenberg’s grainy classic
There are many styles of horror films out there, and depending on the capability of the filmmaker in charge, any one of them can scare the hell out of you. The haunted house, the demonically possessed, the crazed slasher, the angry ghost, the mythical monster—each subset of the genre has its gems. But nothing gets under your skin, so to speak, like body horror.
Body horror can be considered to be any film that depicts a disturbing and unnatural violation, mutilation, or destruction of the human body. Frame for frame, body horror films are usually the most visually disturbing, in large part because they rely on the graphic attack of the human body to make their point. Blood, pus, vomit, broken bones, spilled organs, viscera. If it’s not icky and nauseating, then you’re not watching body horror.
Body horror has been with us since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus in 1818, even though the term didn’t emerge until relatively recently. The literature of H.P. Lovecraft, John Campbell, and Richard Matheson expanded the genre and took it in frighteningly original and nasty directions, but for decades film only occasionally explored body horror, with the most notable example being 1958’s The Fly. It wasn’t until the 1970s that body horror really came into its own. Relaxed censorship standards and a movie-going audiences eager for new thrills paved the way. And the filmmaker primarily responsible for the rise of this style of horror film was David Cronenberg.
In the ’70s, Cronenberg was a young Canadian director and screenwriter with a wide range of interests that included science, botany, and medicine. After making a couple of well received short art-house movies in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Cronenberg partnered with Ivan Reitman to make feature-length films. Their first venture, Shivers, was released in 1975. Also known as The Parasite Murders or They Came from Within, Shivers told the story of a luxury apartment complex under siege after a science experiment gone wrong releases nasty parasites that travel from host to victim through sexual contact. Critics savaged Shivers as repulsive and pornographic, but it was the only Canadian film up to that time to make a complete return on its investment, rare in countries with heavily subsidized film industries.
The small, closed circle of Canadian film critics held more sway over the Canadian film industry than audiences, so despite Shivers’ box office success, Cronenberg was frozen out of the Canadian government’s film fund. In most countries, Canada included, movie makers must petition the government for funds to make their films. The American model of filmmaking, which relies almost exclusively on private financing, is actually one of the few exceptions in the international film market.
[Tagline] One minute they’re perfectly normal, THE NEXT… RABID
Cronenberg and Reitman had to piece together financing for their next picture on the open market, which took close to two years. Rabid, released in 1977, uses the entire city of Montreal as the backdrop for a plague that turns its victims into bloodthirsty savages. The story features a woman, Rose, who after surviving a horrible motorcycle accident, is given an experimental skin grafting treatment that somehow gives her a thirst for human blood. Every victim she attacks becomes infected with the same disease, which rapidly spreads from the quiet countryside to downtown Montreal.
Cronenberg originally wanted Sissy Spacek to play Rose, but Reitman was not a fan of her Texas accent. Soon after they passed her up, Spacek landed the lead role in Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, Carrie. Reitman was more interested in Marilyn Chambers. At the time, Chambers was best known for two things: being the Ivory Snow detergent model (“99 and 44/100th percent pure” was the tagline), and star of one of the biggest porn films of the 1970s, Behind the Green Door.
Cronenberg, who to this day claims to have never seen Behind the Green Door, liked Chambers’ screen presence and style. She was eager to break away from porn and do mainstream film. Reitman believed the novelty of Chambers as the lead would make Rabid more marketable in other countries. Chambers demonstrated a natural affinity for the camera, and it is no surprise that she is to this day considered porn’s most famous crossover. In Rabid, she alternates seamlessly between unwitting victim and bloodthirsty seductress.
The whole setup as to how Chambers as Rose becomes the bloodthirsty seductress requires a bit of a leap of logic on the part of the audience. Rose and her boyfriend Hart get into a fiery motorcycle accident in the first moments of the film, and she is badly burned. Luckily, the accident takes place near the Keloid Clinic, a plastic surgery hospital where Dr. Dan Keloid is working with experimental treatments that include morphogenetically neutral skin grafts. For all you readers who chose not to finish medical school, this means that the standard biological process of morphogenesis, which gives cells and organisms their shape, is stalled to allow the grafts to be used to repair tissue in any part of the body. I doubt this was possible in 1977 when Rabid was released, or if it’s even possible now. But it does predict the use of stem cells, which is one of the medical marvels of the 21st century. Unfortunately for Rose, the grafts don’t work as planned.
Rose is kept in a coma for a month while the grafts do their work. Then one night, she wakes up screaming, prompting another patient, Lloyd, to come check on her. Rose rips off her bandages and writhes in naked agony on her bed. She begs for Lloyd to hold her to keep her warm, and instead of just pulling a blanket over her, he obliges. Suddenly, it is Lloyd who is writhing in agony in Rose’s deathlike grip. We can’t see what is going on, but Lloyd is bleeding from his side and Rose has a peaceful, satiated look on her face.
Murray Cypher: Potato man loves ketchup man.
Lloyd has no memory of what happened, and Keloid thinks the man has suffered a stroke, even though that doesn’t explain the wound in his side. What follows are a series of short scenes in which we see the beginnings of an epidemic unfold. Rose sneaks out of the clinic and attacks a farmer, who in turn later attacks a waitress at a restaurant. Lloyd leaves the hospital and attacks his cab driver. Rose returns to the clinic and attacks a woman in the sauna, then returns to her room as if nothing happened.
Keloid examines Rose and discovers a hole in her armpit that looks a lot like an anus. How it got there is unknown, but Keloid never gets the chance to find out. Rose attacks him and we see for the first time that the asshole in her armpit contains a stinger through which she sucks blood from her victims. It’s never explained just how Rose’s condition and her new stinger could be caused by a skin graft operation, no matter how experimental. But the wheels of horror are in motion, so we can only keep moving forward as Cronenberg’s tale starts to hit a frenetic pace.
Keloid, now infected and suffering an epic flop sweat, insists on performing plastic surgery on another patient, even though he looks like he is about to pass out. During the procedure, he succumbs to his blood lust and cuts a nurse’s finger off with a pair of surgical scissors and tries to suck her blood. Chaos reins at the Keloid Clinic. Rose continues to slip in and out of her fugue state, her blood lust alternating with moments of sheer terror as she fails to understand what is happening to her and those around her. She calls Hart and pleads for him to come rescue her, but by the time he gets there, Rose has fled the clinic and cops are everywhere. Keloid has been tossed in the back of a van with thick, nasty bile pouring out of his mouth. He growls and rages like a rabid dog.
Rose hitchhikes to Montreal, infecting a truck driver along the way. She reaches her best friend Mindy’s apartment, where we learn through a news program Mindy is watching that a rabies epidemic has broken out among the populace. But this is no ordinary strain of rabies. It is immune to the standard vaccination, it has a shorter incubation period than rabies, and its victims are turned into violent, bloodthirsty savages. Doctors have traced the outbreak to the Keloid clinic, and they believe if they can locate Patient Zero, then they can use that person’s blood as an antidote.
By the time Hart gets to Montreal, the city is under martial law. Garbage trucks led by guys in hazardous material suits are patrolling the streets under armed guard to pick up bodies. Hart reaches Mindy’s apartment to find Rose feeding on her best friend. He pleads for Rose to turn herself in to doctors, but she refuses to believe that she is the cause of the outbreak and runs off. Hart later gets a phone call from Rose, and she tells him that she has locked herself up in a man’s apartment whom she has infected. Desperate to prove Hart wrong, Rose waits to see if the man turns rabid—which he does—and if he is going to attack her—which he also does.
In the film’s final moments, Rose’s body is found in an alley by a hazmat team who unceremoniously toss her in the back of a garbage truck and unwittingly throw away any chance of developing an antidote from her precious bodily fluids. For a film that is full of shocks, seeing Rose go out this way is a real punch in the gut. Despite her feeding frenzy that starts a pandemic that topples Montreal, Rose is a sympathetic character who in her lucid state would never be capable of committing such unspeakable acts.
Rabid lays out an uncompromisingly bleak narrative that would become a signature element in Cronenberg’s body horror work in later years. The Brood, Scanners, Videodrome, The Fly, Dead Ringers and other work Cronenberg has done in the genre all feature characters facing a stacked deck in which the good guys rarely win, and if they do, it is a pyrrhic victory. There is also a blatant morality lesson at work here. Don’t mess with Mother Nature. It’s Keloid’s experiments with skin tissue that cause the whole problem in the first place. No matter how well-meaning his intentions, it still caused an epidemic of blood sucking crazies oozing vile bile from their mouths and eyes.
Even though Rabid was only Cronenberg’s second feature, it showed the promise of a talented filmmaker whose work would reach classic status in later years. Plot holes aside, Rabid embraces all the hallmarks of what makes for a solid horror film. The dreary, brown autumn landscape evokes feelings of isolation and death. Everyday people buckle under the threat of unseen forces. The unpolished realism of a low-budget production also makes the film all the more creepy and unpredictable.
Rabid also contains some of the tropes of the apocalyptic film genre. In the film’s third act, as the epidemic hits Montreal, we see people under real pressure. We are reminded how fragile our complex civilization truly is. When the going gets tough, the public completely loses its collective cool. Life loses its value, dignity goes out the window, and everyone is out for themselves. Or at least that is how events are portrayed here. It’s nice to think that in a real-life panic people would perform better. But who can say? We haven’t gone rabid. Yet.