Rabid (1977)

The Keloid Clinic (Inc.) is situated by a motorway in the sticks some way from Montreal. Offering plastic surgery and post-op recovery in resort-like surroundings, the Clinic represents a model that Murray Cypher (Joe Silver), business partner to founder Dr Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan), hopes to turn into a franchise – even if Keloid himself is reluctant to become “the Colonel Sanders of plastic surgery.” Still, you can see Murray’s point. After all, the Clinic’s moneyed clients often prove to be repeat customers, on a compulsive quest for bodily adjustment that one young patient, Judy Glasberg (Terry Schonblum), expressly recognises as Freudian.

The early films of David Cronenberg are full of corporate institutions in anonymous-looking buildings where strange industrial experiments take place beyond the public view. In his fourth feature, Rabid, the Keloid Clinic is atypically benign – but its paradigm of consumerism focused on corporeal imperfection will serve as a mirror to what will emerge as the film’s central themes of addictive hunger and body horror. For when Dr Keloid takes in Rose (Marilyn Chambers), who has just been in an accident while riding with boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) on his motorcycle near the Clinic, he does not realise that his brand of medical intervention is about to spread across the province of Quebec. 

In an attempt to save the gravely injured Rose, Keloid administers to her “morphogenetically neutral grafts” which have “the same ability to form any part of the human body that the tissue of a human embryo has.” Though biologically of the same material as her, these reconfigure Rose with a need to consume human blood which she extracts from others via a new appendage emerging, phallus-like, from an orifice under her armpit. In other words, Rose becomes a rationalised form of modern vampire, reduced to her basic drives and instincts, and any victims who survive her feasting go on to develop rabies-like symptoms that impel them to bite others and pass on their infection before themselves slipping into a coma and dying. Meanwhile Rose, estranged from herself and struggling to control her new addiction, is like a junkie who cannot help in the end turning on everyone, even her loved ones, to get what she craves. 

“We’re told to live with hypocrisy, camouflage truth, and not to let on that we are what we are… After all that, what are we looking for?… Happiness, each in our own way.” These words are uttered by a female character in an unseen porn film at the cinema where Rose has just turned the tables on a predatory male customer to sate, however temporarily, her own appetites. The words speak of women’s sublimated desires and suppressed yearnings – precisely the things which Rose’s condition, born of her own mutated body, allows to emerge from within and take over. The setting of this scene in an adult theatre is ironised by the fact that Chambers was herself a porn actress, best known for her starring rôle in Artie and Jim Mitchell’s Behind The Green Door (1972). Here Cronenberg casts her in a different kind of skin flick, and allows her to weaponise her seductive charms and to penetrate those who would do the same to her – all in the service of an animalistic lust (for blood) that is Insatiable (the title of one of Chambers’ later porn films). The porn cinema itself is called the Eve Theatre, presumably in reference to another of Chambers’ adult films, The Resurrection of Eve (1973). Once outside the cinema, Rose passes a conspicuous poster for Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976), whose star Sissy Spacek had also been considered for the part in Rabid that Chambers eventually took – and like Carrie, Rose will ultimately be unable to contain her nature, even if it proves destructive to all comers. There is a sense that Rabid is eating itself, cannibalising its own history and influences.

Rose is the Typhoid Mary of an epidemic that moves so fast it not only keeps preventing Hart from catching up with her (as his cross-country pursuit is repeatedly impeded by outbreaks and blockades), but also makes it increasingly difficult for her to find uninfected prey. Accordingly, Cronenberg offers us a Romero-like vision of society collapsing into utter chaos within the space of a few days. The rabid behave like mouth-foaming zombies, while one policeman even refers to them as ‘the crazies’, instantly evoking the title of Romero’s 1973 film. Yet what distinguishes Cronenberg’s film from Romero’s oeuvre is his undeniable, uncomfortable eroticisation of humanity’s basest urges, as though to say that our perverse hankerings and hungers are rarely anything more than skin deep.

© Anton Bitel