EZMM 2020 Day 9.2: Rabid (2019)

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.

Forty-two years after the release of Cronenberg’s original Rabid, gonzo Canadian twin sister writer/directors Jen and Sylvia Soska (with John Serge also contributing to the screenplay) return to the fertile ground of venereal blood-sucking pandemic schlock with their 2019 remake. Rabid is the Soska Sisters’ fifth feature film, and while I still haven’t seen Vendetta (2015), every other film they’ve made has been solid. Even their ultra-no-budget premiere, Dead Hooker in a Trunk (2009). See No Evil 2 was an entertaining sequel to an almost forgotten franchise and American Mary may be their masterpiece.

Rabid fells solidly in line with the rest of their oeuvre, slightly edging out See No Evil 2 to rank as their second best film yet.

In development since 2016, Rabid finally entered pre-production at the beginning of 2018 and was announced as “a continuation of the thoughts and conversation David [Cronenberg] started with his original piece and modernized through a female perspective.” And that’s pretty much exactly what it is. The Soska’s take a bigger budget (proportionally) and really go all in on expanding the range of Cronenberg’s original idea, but opt to instead dig deeper into the body horror and move away from the larger citywide expanse of the original.

Basically, they used their money for the actors and effects more than for the shutting down of streets or renting of garbage trucks.

In this version, we get a much more flesh-out and defined Rose than the part that Marilyn Chambers played. Laura Vandervoort (Smallville, Supergirl) takes the lead here, playing a Rose who is already scarred from the childhood accident car accident that killed her parents. She works in the fashion industry for an over-the-top caricature designer named Gunter (Mackenzie Gray) while her foster sister Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot) works as a model. There’s literally more character development in the first ten minutes of this film than there was in the entire original.

That’s not to say the original was worse, it just had very different priorities.

Rose is shy and quiet, very insecure because of her scars, and wants to work in fashion because of the way clothing can empower someone. This version of Rabid begins as a Cinderella story but takes a hard turn into body horror after Chelsea asks photographer Brad (Benjamin Hollingsworth) to ask Rose to a show afterparty. When Rose finds out that the date was possibly a pity date she storms out, gets on her moped, and is immediately hit by a truck.

This is where we get a cameo appearance by Stephen McHattie (Pontypool) as Dr. Keloid – the doctor with the worst bedside manner imaginable for someone with horrific facial scarring. For the remake, however, Dr. Keloid isn’t the one who does the experimental plastic surgery. Instead, Rose is referred to Dr. William Burroughs (Ted Atherton) in what is only one in a long line of Cronenberg film references scattered throughout the film, this time for Naked Lunch. Dr. Burroughs’ deceased wife, seen in pictures in his office, is Lynn Lowry from Shivers, his surgical getup is inspired by the red outfits from Dead Ringers, a television director is played by Greg Bryk who was in A History of Violence.

Using an experimental stem cell skin graft, Dr. Burroughs doesn’t just heal the nightmarish disfigurement of her moped accident, all of her scars heal and she no longer needs glasses. Clearly something is up, but thanks to the promise of free healthcare (the film is set in New York, making the commentary on the cost of health care in America a slight, if effective, satirical jab), Rose and Chelsea don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. The only side effects are that Rose can’t seem to stomach her vegetarian diet and is instead forced to rely on protein drinks provided by Burroughs, and she has vivid hallucinations that she can’t discern from reality.

Or are they hallucinations?

From here we get more or less the same plot developments as the original, except where Chambers was well aware that she was going out hunting and drinking blood, Vandervoort keeps waking up in bed after committing brutal murders and doesn’t think they’re really happening. Her Rose is much more of a feminist predator, targeting men who kind of deserve it – particularly a douchebag named Billy, played by a cameoing C.M. Punk, who represents pretty much every toxic masculinity stereotype imaginable (I imagine his dialogue was put together by the Sisters getting together with other women and just listing all the horrible shit men have shouted at them on the street).

One distinct improvement over the original is the way Rose’s character develops. As I said, it’s a bit of a Cinderella story, but after she has the stem cell treatment, she gets a level of confidence that lets her cut loose with her fashion work, designing a fantastic dress that Gunter chooses to close his new fashion show, and Chelsea gets to be the model. It’s a dream come true for both of them, however, this is Rabid, so you know it’s not going to play out like they hope.

I watched Rabid a few months ago, for the first time, when I was putting together a list of Best Movies of 2020, and while I liked it, it didn’t make the list. One of the main reasons was the way the first part of the climax played out. Basically, because of Rose’s nighttime adventures, draining blood and spreading super rabies, New York is on quarantine, but Gunter refuses to cancel his fashion show, because, you know, fashion never rests or something. I thought that was kind of absurd and didn’t really think it was realistic, instead being shoehorned in just to give us a fashion show massacre.

Fast forward to today.

Gunter would totally hold his fashion show despite being ordered to shelter in place and maintain a quarantine. Suddenly, this became the most realistic moment in the entire movie. It just goes to show you how messed up reality is right now.

If this were a straight remake of Rabid, this is pretty much where the film would end, but this is a film by the Twisted Twins, man. There’s a whole other level of fucked up that they move on to.

Escaping the chaos of the city, Brad gets an obviously unhealthy Rose back to Dr. Burroughs, where he promptly locks them in a dark room with a wall of red glass where he can watch them. Burroughs is unhinged and demands that Rose feed on Brad. When she refuses, he reveals that Brad was working for him, keeping tabs on her, and if that wasn’t incentive enough, a bucket of blood dumps on him, making him extra tasty. And if that wasn’t fucked up enough, the back wall of the room is comprised of the massive, writhing, fleshy, tentacled, cancerous mass that was Mrs. Burroughs!

Once Rose can resist no longer, her feeding tentacle – it’s much longer and more mobile than what thrust out of Marilyn Chambers’ armpit in the original film – but Rose grabs Brad’s knife (did I mention he carried a knife?) and severs her own feeding tentacle, hacks the shit out of Mrs. Burroughs, killing her, then cuts her own throat while Dr. Burroughs screams in defeat.

Except it’s not defeat. Rose is essentially immortal thanks to the treatment and she wakes up in the same cell with dead Mrs. Burroughs and a new meat smoothie to drink, while Dr. Burroughs laughs in triumph.

It’s a downer ending, man. I’m not sure what to make of it, really.

Overall, though, the Soska Sisters’ reimagining of Rabid is a success. It improves on the original by making Rose an actual character with a past and dreams of a future, it ups the quality of the gore effects with some truly grotesque practical effects, and it takes the original one step further into a truly bizzaro ending that while not totally successful, demonstrates the Soskas’ body horror bonifides. As with all of their films, Rabid is one that horror fans should check out.

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