It’s that time of year again! Time to celebrate the Resurrection with a weeklong plunge into all things zombie! Here’s the history: In 2008, Dr. Girlfriend and I decided to spend a week or so each year marathoning through zombie films that we’d never seen before, and I would blog short reviews. And simple as that, the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon was born.

For the curious, here are links to 2008, 2009 (a bad year), 2010, 2011, 2012 (when we left the blog behind), 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019.

Here there be spoilers.

Since this is the unofficial Quarantine Edition of the Easter Zombie Movie Marathon, we decided to close out this year’s viewings by loosening up the requirements and doing a special double-feature finale, watching the original 1977 David Cronenberg classic, Rabid, followed by last year’s Soska Sisters remake. Both feature pandemics that, while not being about zombies, are about savage, blood-crazed maniacs causing the shutdown of cities and maybe bringing about the end of the world.

I’m sure anybody reading this knows who David Cronenberg is. He’s the Canadian auteur filmmaker with a penchant for extremely visceral body horror and a mistrust of medical professionals. Rabid is his second feature film, taking place in the Quebec countryside before shifting to the city of Montreal. The film stars porn legend Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door) in her first “straight” film role, thanks to the urging of producer Ivan Reitman (Meatballs, Stripes, Ghostbusters). Cronenberg had originally wanted to cast Sissy Spacek as Rose, the Patient Zero in the film’s super rabies outbreak, but was denied. Apparently another producer didn’t like her freckles or her Texas accent, plus she wasn’t a name talent at that point.

However, she ended up making Carrie, which ended up being released while Rabid was filming, and totally blew up. There’s even a nice moment in Rabid where Chambers is walking down a street and passes a movie theater with a Carrie poster in the window.

Rabid almost didn’t get made, as Cronenberg’s first film, Shivers (1975), had been declared filth by one of Canada’s top film critics and since it had been financed by the government there was a lot of controversy and Cronenberg was frozen out of their financing for an extended period of time. However, Shivers ended up being one of the only films financed by CFDC (Canadian Film Development Corporation) to make a profit, as up until that point they mostly financed soft-core sex films. Because of this, somewhere behind the scenes, money got shuffled around, earmarked for other projects, but then shifted over to Rabid.

As luck would have it, Rabid went over well with the international markets and became the last of Cronenberg’s lower-budget, rough around the edges horror works, being followed by the extremely disturbing parenthood paranoia masterpiece, The Brood (technically, Cronenberg did another film in between, the car racing drama, Fast Company).

Okay, enough background. What about the movie?

Rabid is clearly a movie by a director who is still learning his craft. Technically more proficient than Shivers but lacking the same sort of visceral impact, Rabid also tells a much larger story. Whereas the spread of mind-controlling slugs through sexual activity in Shivers had been confined to a single high-rise apartment building, Rabid starts small but then builds the threat of the super rabies virus spreading throughout Canada.

While motorcycling in the countryside of Quebec, Rose (Chambers) and her boyfriend Hart Read (Frank Moore) are in an accident, and while he suffers a broken hand, separated shoulder and a concussion, Rose’s injuries are much more life-threatening. Luckily there is a remote plastic surgery hospital nearby, The Keloid Clinic, and they are able to get an ambulance to them quickly and treat them there, as the nearest hospital is three hours away. This provides Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) to perform an experimental surgery on Rose, using morphogenetically neutral skin grafts to her wounds in an attempt to replace the damaged skin and organs.

A month later, Rose wakes from her coma and the fireworks begin. She first feeds on another patient at the hospital, a man who rushes in to help her when she wakes up screaming. She is aggressive, saying she’s cold and begging him to hold her, and when he embraces her, a weird new spiked organ emerges from her armpit, stabbing him and draining his blood. And that’s how she feeds, ladies and gentlemen. A weird phallus emerges from a little vagina and she drinks blood through it. But she doesn’t just feed. The sting numbs the body of the victim and introduces an anti-coagulant along with a virulent strain of rabies.

And the doctors said cancerous growths might be the only side-effect of the treatment.

The film does a great job of allowing the story to develop without overt exposition. The story develops mostly through the visual elements. For example we see Rose slip out of the hospital at night and attempt to feed on a cow in a nearby barn, but she vomits up the blood, unable to digest it, and then wounds the lecherous farmer who tries to assault her, stabbing him in the eye with her stinger.

There’s also no overt moralizing. Sure the farmer deserved to be punished, but her first victim surely didn’t. Cronenberg doesn’t use the film’s subject matter to make a statement one way or the other. He simply treats her, post-surgery, as a vampiric predator, and it is worth noting that most of her direct victims are not actively hunted or sought out. Rose simply walks through a mall, hitchhikes, or goes to a porno movie theater, and men approach her. She doesn’t have to hunt, since being a woman automatically makes her a target for predatory men (although women aren’t off-limits).

And then, six to eight hours later, they begin foaming at the mouth and go crazy, trying to bite and kill anyone around them, spreading the infection from there.

The effects are low-budget, but effective, and the performers really go all out when they go crazy. The attacks are violent and bloody and nobody is safe. This is a plague film, after all. You never know who might survive. This becomes especially true after martial law is declared in Montreal and the military rolls in with guns and a line of dump trucks with which to collect bodies.

The film makes impressive use of a budget of only 530,000 Canadian dollars, featuring a wide range of settings and a huge cast of featured performers and extras. It’s not polished at all, though. This is a film that looks exactly like what it is, a horror exploitation film from Canada.

Marilyn Chambers does surprisingly good work as Rose. The script helps her out by avoiding a lot of dialogue and focusing on her physicality and expressiveness. There are times when she is clearly under the influence of her new urges and then other moments when she is horrified by what she’s become, until we get to her final moments of pure denial.

The other performers do good work with the material, but nobody is really tasked with doing much more than worrying about Rose, joking around with each other, or being sleazy stalker-types who get what’s coming to them. The script is lean and effective, with very little fat, allowing the tension to amp up organically as the rabies spreads from person to person along Rose’s path from Quebec to Montreal.

The ending is brutal and a touch nihilistic without pushing a moral on the viewer. Rose dies because she won’t (can’t?) take responsibility for what she has done. She knows she’s feeding on people, drinking their blood, but denies that the rabies plague is her fault. Although, upon retrospect, her “experiment” to prove her innocence is, perhaps, her way out. She goes home with a man, feeds on him, and then waits to see if he goes rabid. Her phone call to Hart is both delusional and apologetic, and he is tragically forced to listen to her die.

The final shot of bio-suited soldiers finding her stiff, dead body in the garbage of an alley and then tossing her into their dump truck, crushing her and moving on to the next body is haunting, but I admit it lacks the impact of that final shot of Shivers, as the infected people all get in their cars and head for the big city to spread their plague. It recalls the final shot of Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, too, but without the thematic power.

All in all, Rabid is an extremely effective plague film that manages to not only haunt with its violence and savagery but also to disturb with the venereal spread of the disease. It’s a film that tries to avoid being political and therefore makes its own sort of political statement about disease, about feminism, about politics. Statements that cannot be simply argued from one position or another. There is no moralizing. Rose is passive and aggressive. The military are necessary for survival but also dehumanizing in their approach to the disease.

There is no cure. Once someone is infected, the only response is to kill them before they spread the disease to someone else. It’s coldly efficient filmmaking that propelled Cronenberg to the top of the heap of Seventies horror directors alongside Romero, Tobe Hooper, Wes Craven, and eventually John Carpenter.

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