1977, Starring Marilyn Chambers, Howard Ryshpan, and Frank Moore. Directed by David Cronenberg.
Guest review by Rhett Miller
David Cronenberg will always be remembered as Canada's premier horror auteur, an iconoclastic director who used the Canadian tax shelters to fund his unique brand of bodily horroreven though few of his movies are identifiably Canadian. Despite holding claim as one of Canada's best and most loyal talents, the majority of his films exist in more of a generic North American location rather than a Canadian one: Fast Company is a standard drag racing film with a few throwaway shots of the Rockies, Scanners is a mindfuck movie that briefly mentions Thunder Bay, and The Dead Zone is more faithful to King's book than it is the Ontario locale in which it was shot. Indeed, most of Cronenberg's films could have been made anywhere, since they all seem to possess universal themes about human psychobiology. Rabid, his second film, is the exception. Distinctly set in Montreal, the film is a clever and timely spin on vampirism that uses its Canadian setting to scrutinize the power allocated to governmental social systems.
The film begins with a shot of an unnamed couple boarding a motorcycle and heading off into the wintry Quebec landscape. Also on the open road is a bickering family in need of a vacation, piled together in their clunky Winnebago. Navigating to a nearby farm, the couple realize they missed an important turnoff. Given the lack of traffic on rural Canadian roads, the family does not think twice about doing a U-turn, unwittingly blocking the way for the oncoming cycle. The couple, clearly speeding, attempt to avoid the van but end up crashing in a sea of violent flames. The male gets out virtually unscathed, but his girlfriend Rose (porn queen Marilyn Chambers), is badly burned.
Rose is rushed to nearest hospital where Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) proposes the use of a new experimental surgical technique to save her. Skin grafting, as the procedure is known, involves taking skin fragments from undamaged areas of the body and grafting them upon the burned skin areas. Although the technique remains relatively unstudied, Keloid feels that Rose is the perfect guinea pig for his medical breakthrough.
Rose is given the treatment, and after months in a coma, she finally comes to lifehealed and agile. Her newly transplanted skin radiates with an Ivory girl sheen, but there was one minor setback to the otherwise successful grafting. Protruding out of her left armpit is a strange, fleshy stub every Rose has its thorn, as it were. Like in all Cronenberg movies, problems compound beneath the surface, and Rose develops a deadly lust for blood. She hugs her victims, all of which are male, and pokes them with her phallic armpit in a clever gender reversal on sexual politics. This poking, however, infects the men with a rabid-like primality, turning them into foaming-at-the-mouth animals.
Before long, the number of infected exponentially increase until the entire city of Montreal is in chaos. The government attempts to deal with the outbreak by issuing a state of martial law, as officers snipe the suspicious by rooftop, and sanitation workers vaccinate the areas. Rose's motorcycle companion, Hart Read (Frank Moore), tries to alert his girlfriend of her condition to save the remaining population, but when Rose eventually realizes her tragic fate, like Dracula, she dies both victimizer and victim.
Cronenberg has always had a distrust for medical authority, and his preoccupation is more than relevant in a nation where health care remains controlled entirely by the state. While Shivers also hinted at this scrutiny of public health practices, it was very much isolated to an indistinct apartment complex. Rabid is a much more elaborate staging of a similar concept, but this time the effect hits much closer to home. Montreal, one of Canada's largest cities, is thrown into anarchy as the threat of medical malpractice and social unrest suddenly becomes very realand very Canadian.
With Rabid, Cronenberg questions the very public institution that was funding his films and plays devil's advocate to a nation top-heavy in governmental control of key institutions. Just as there was no one to stop the government from sterilizing thousands of Albertans deemed mentally unfit in a eugenics campaign that ran until the early seventies, the powers-that-be could just as easily introduce a radically untested and dangerous medical technique on an unsuspecting populace. Cronenberg readily and effectively exploits this feat while using Rabid to comment on this unadulterated control over Canadian health care, and more broadly, Canadian life.
While the focus of Rabid is on the effects of medical experimentation, Cronenberg also takes time to point out other pitfalls of the Canadian government. The R.C.M.P.'s brash and insensitive handling of the epidemic in Montreal serves as a further cautionary "what if?" scenario of unrestrained power, made all the more real in light of the recent October Crisis. Even more subversive is a quiet moment in a police station, where two First Nations people are forced to take a breathalyzer test. While attempts have been made to compensate Canadian natives, widespread alcohol addiction and limited post-secondary enrollment have demonstrated that the system has failed to accurately integrate natives into seemingly "modern" society, and Cronenberg highlights the government's mishandling of Canada's indigenous people to give credibility to his concern regarding public health care. Canada's government, while undeniably good, is flawed, and in a time of extreme scientific experimentation, such a medical slip-up as the grafting in Rabid doesn't really seem that far fetched.
The dark punchline of the entire film is that the government must deal with a problem of its own making, which is again a theme Cronenberg explored in Shivers. The main difference however, is that in Rabid there are actual victims, whereas Shivers is problematic because it offers no concrete hero or heroine to care for or identify with. Without this identification, the entire film and message seems at best disconnected from reality, and at worst, irresponsible. With Rabid though, Cronenberg offers us the heartbreaking Rose, a victimizer against her own will and a victim by forced fate. In the end she is reduced to mere trash, and her ending gives a tragic weight to Cronenberg's chaos.
Rabid is the only Cronenberg film that wears its Canuck identity proudly on its sleeve. French accents, wintry locales, and rural farmlands reaffirm the sheer Canadian-ness of it all. The Canadian location is paramount, since the threat posed in Rabid is most effective in a society with a concentrated governmental control of services. Rabid proposes a broad examination of the cautions of state control, and the personalization of the Rose character forces us to care. It is an effective film, biting, clever, dark, timely and ultimately Canadian.