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“RABID” (UK Blu-Ray Review)

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Though the pervading cultural politeness would suggest otherwise, David Cronenberg could only have emerged from the chilly confines of Canada. Particularly in his early movies, shot in the winter when Canadian tax shelter film financing was available, even the frigid setting of Cronenberg’s twisted little nightmares feel foreboding. His work makes you uncomfortable long before any of the graphic gore and perverse conceptualizations appear, and though things seem normal, even mundane, you can’t help but squirm knowing that something horrible is coming from a director willing to shove you into the nastiest place possible at the most meaningful time.

Among stuffy film critics, there’s a common perception that Cronenberg’s earliest movies are interesting trash that hinted at an artist who would emerge one day as a Cannes favorite. Of course, us dirty horror folk know that they may be the best titles of his resume, serving up some deeply disturbing blasts of visceral horror mixed with disturbing conceptual horror and the gooey body horror leaking onto celluloid. Cronenberg’s sophomore effort, RABID, is typically ranked among the filmmaker’s weakest creations, but after another run through this armpit vampire sex scare thanks to Arrow’s gorgeous new Blu-ray, it’s hard not to be deeply impressed by how many ways the low budget flick continues to disturb 36 years later.

Soap, commercial and porn queen Marilyn Chambers (who is so strong in the film that you can’t help but lament the fact she took off in a mainstream acting career) stars as a young woman who has the misfortune of having a motorcycle accident right next to an experimental plastic surgery clinic. The doctors act fast, replacing Chambers’ burned flesh with a synthetic skin that can grow anywhere on the body. When she awakens, Chambers’ has grown a penile fang in an anal orifice in armpit thanks to the treatment. Yep, it’s a Cronenberg movie alright.

At this point, she’s got an insatiable thirst for blood and can’t stop giving into to her vampiric desires. Unfortunately for everyone else, those who she feeds on transform into rabid rage zombies who in turn pass on their disorder through green puss-filled bites. Soon, all of Montreal is placed under martial law trying to contain the epidemic, while Chambers continues to feed unaware of the pandemonium she’s causing. Simply put, it’s a harsh, disgusting, and masterful little ‘70s shocker filled with potent metaphors and allegory. Unlike Cronenberg’s punkishly playful debut SHIVERS, there’s not much goofy or camp humor to ease the pain either: This was Cronenberg’s first through-and-through downer and not even Santa Claus survives by the end.

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After the controversy and success that surrounded SHIVERS, Cronenberg was able to mount a more ambitious production in RABID, which really shows on this new Blu-ray. It’s still clearly a run-and-gun production with the ‘70s grain that horror fans know all too well. Yet, Cronenberg was also able to afford some disgusting prosthetic effects that hold up well, and by the time we get to the Montreal martial law climax, RABID is quite an ambitious little production with some major set pieces.

Cronenberg’s growth as an artist is clear here as well. This isn’t just a more ambitious movie technically, but one made by an artist who’d grown just enough to pull it off. Compared to most ramshackle no-budget drive-in productions of the era, RABID is pretty damn impressive technically, yet it’s everything bubbling beneath the surface that makes the biggest impact.

There’s a great deal going on in RABID, with Cronenberg toying with such themes as irresponsible science, irrational sexual desire, STD phobias, sexual predators, excessive government control, and even the infamous Montreal October Crisis (in which political radicals caused the city to devolve into martial law) that occurred right before production. Not only is all this weighty material name-checked on screen, but it’s richly explored and never at the expense of the genre sensationalism necessary to hit the target audience. All of that thematic and narrative juggling isn’t easy, yet Cronenberg somehow manages to make RABID play as pure entertainment.

It’s also worth noting that while the influence of George Romero is quite clear in the movie’s subtext, contemporary-setting, gore, and monsters, Cronenberg had cranked out SHIVERS and RABID before Romero had even made DAWN OF THE DEAD. He truly was a pioneer in the genre and even his crude early efforts feel far more rich, disturbing, and genuinely horrifying than most of the genre movies made today. RABID is quite often dismissed as being a lesser retread of SHIVERS, but that’s a mistake; it might not be as goofy fun, but it’s far more artfully crafted, genuinely moving, and packs a kick that will have you squirming and gagging long after the iconic disturbing final image.

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Thankfully, there’s no better time to re-evaluate RABID than now that Arrow’s beautiful new Blu-ray has hit shelves. Their new digital transfer is a bit of a revelation; RABID has always been saddled with cheap home video releases that only exacerbate the problems inherent with the low budget production, but this HD presentation shows what a slick production the film actually was and the new color timing replaces the washed-out ‘70s oranges with a rich, dark, shadowy aesthetic that infinitely enhances the mood of the creepy piece. The added detail also shows off how impressive the make up effects were for the time. In fact, by the time you get to all the finger-biting and pus-spewing madness, you might even regret that added detail because this movie inspires some damn nauseating responses even all these years later. Honestly, now that this HD transfer exists, you shouldn’t even consider watching RABID any other way.

The special feature section is pretty stacked as well. Ported over from the ancient DVD release is an involved and refreshingly honest commentary track from Cronenberg as well as a 20-minute interview about the movie and his early exploitation years. Also pulled from the archives is an old episode of THE DIRECTORS about Cronenberg featuring interviews with the man himself and a number of actors discussing his career from SHIVERS to EXISTENZ. The format might be dated and poppy, but since the subject is intellectual, the doc actually offers more insight than you’d expect.

The new material for this disc kicks off with three interviews. The first is Ivan Reitman discussing his work on Cronenberg’s first two movies with great fondness, the second is make-up artist Joe Blasco chatting up all his nasty work while showing off a few of the molds he kept, and the final interview is with producer Don Carmody focused mainly on the controversy surrounding the production and release of SHIVERS and RABID in Canada. Next up comes a brief yet informative doc on the Canuksploitation production company Cinepix that explains how movies like RABID and ILSA: SHE-WOLF OF THE SS somehow came out of Canada. Finally, things wrap up with an intellectual commentary from scholar William Beard, the hysterically spoileriffic theatrical trailer, a booklet with a trio of fantastic essays, and some beautiful freshly commissioned box art as well as the classic frozen girl poster (also featured on the steelbook release, which looks damn good).

In short, this is easily one of Arrow’s best HD horror movie re-issues to date and no title deserves it more. RABID should be considered one of the best ’70s horror movies rather than just a curiosity for Cronenberg fans. Pick this disc up and I guarantee you’ll understand why.

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About the author
Phil Brown

Phil Brown is a journalist, writer, and wiseacre who rattles his
keyboard from somewhere in Toronto. He writes about film and comedy
for a variety of websites/publications like Fangoria (duh!), Now
Magazine, The Toronto Star, Comics And Gaming Magazine, Toro, Critics
Studio, and others. He’s also been known to whip up the occasional
comedy sketch or short film. If you feel like being friends, go ahead
and find him. He doesn’t bite (much).

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