Second times the charm for the body horror hero, and as Rabid sets director David Cronenberg up for one of his many successes, there is a sensation of guilt that rushes through this late-70s experience. Another tale of infections in society, there are immediate comparisons to that of Shivers, where an unlikely experience for one person leads to a breakdown of order. Pale zombies patter through the streets, all after a freak incident in a radical surgery. His reliance on understanding the leading character, rather than experiencing the horror, is the great change needed to keep his work fresh and invigorating. That much would be true for the greatest hits of his filmography, and it is an exceptional draw for Rabid too.
Where The Fly and Videodrome were horrors with a focus on their leading men, Rabid sets the mould rather well for those future projects. Its ability to convey emotion and sympathy for its lead, Rose (Marilyn Chambers), is miraculous. Cronenberg’s attempts at offering emotionally rewarding protagonists in his previous ventures were less than invigorating. Here, though, he brings experiences and fears that an audience can feel for themselves. They are not cordoned off by the reality-bending moments, but guided by them. Rose is the misguided entity, holding all her mental faculties but never able to stop feeding her bloodlust. A true tragedy, but at least these later moments of madness pave the way to adrenalin-fuelled panic and a look at how an effective lockdown may work.
Cronenberg had a gift for horror. He could bring realism to impossible situations and discomfort to the most far-fetched of ideas. A botched surgery that turns this comatose victim into an accidental member of the undead dials up that fear factor with a perceptible intensity. Chambers’ performance offers sympathy for a staple villain of the horror genre, one that is perceptible in many zombie horror flicks, but is never touched upon. We are there to see the undead pushed back to the graves they came from, and while Cronenberg does provide an understanding of this entertainment value, the core message that comes from Rose is a marvellous display of narrative strengths.
But the strengths of this story are displayed through Chambers and Cronenberg alone. A strong pairing that brings the two some fine work is weighed down heavily by supporting performances that go nowhere, a script that focuses more on the horror than the history of these characters is bound to fail somewhere. While Rabid is a marginal improvement over Shivers, his sophomore effort does not fully utilise the setting presented to an audience. He is not yet tapping into those disgustingly vivid imageries, but they are present and at least prepare audiences for the inevitable future of this horror mastermind. It is the blueprint for his success, and seeing the markers of success within Rabid is a comfort for established fans, and a sigh of relief for newcomers.