Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

David Cronenberg's Rabid
"The scene where a train full of commuters realise there are infected people among them is one of the most riveting depictions of mass panic ever recorded."

Between the dark sexual violence of Shivers and the cult horror success of Scanners and The Brood, Rabid is the film that really launched the career of David Cronenberg. Although the story it tells is nothing remarkable, the director's startling visual imagination emerges here at its finest, a low budget forcing inventive camerawork where he would later come to rely more of special effects. The effects here are crude but still work well, never pushing their limits too hard. The result is a film that may seem slight but will grab your attention and linger in your memory for a long time afterwards.

Porn star Marilyn Chambers, suitably fragile and distant-looking in her vacant way, is Rose, a young woman who barely survives a terrible accident. She is saved by 'experimental' plastic surgery (foreshadowing Dead Ringers) which does the job but leaves her with a strange, secret mutation, a new organ with which she longs to penetrate the bodies of others, thirsting for their blood. Frightened and disorientated, she is at once desperately vulnerable (especially to the sexual predation of the men who meet her when she flees) and a newly formed predator herself; as the narrative unfolds she becomes a better survivor, new instincts taking over, but at the expense of her humanity.

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It doesn't stop there. Though nobody else seems to mutate as she does, some other aspect of Rose's condition is infectious, and soon the people she has assaulted are getting back on their feet and attacking others. The downbeat way that Cronenberg presents this, in crumbling concrete buildings beneath grey skies, gives it an edge of realism that beats anything in 28 Days Later and makes it feel far more immediate and visceral. There's no glamour here - Chambers is the only pretty star, and she spends half her time covered in blood. Many sequences look more like news broadcasts, now eerily reminiscent of some of the attempts to control swine 'flu. Much more than just another zombie movie, this is really about epidemics and the fear of disease, and the scene where a train full of commuters realise there are infected people among them is one of the most riveting depictions of mass panic ever recorded.

When he made Rabid, Cronenberg was not an auteur with a reputation to defend. He'd barely even established himself as a cult favourite. What he delivers, then, is unrestrained by any such concerns - he never expected it to win fans or make money, so it follows his own vision, raw and uncompromising. Its disorganised nature is entirely appropriate to the story it tells, so that whilst it may drag in places, whilst there are plot inconsistencies and loose ends, the overall effect is very powerful. It was an unforgettable calling card signalling the start of a unique career, and it's well worth looking back on now.

Reviewed on: 18 May 2009
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A young woman's strange mutation, triggered by experimental surgery, triggers an epidemic of aggression.
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Director: David Cronenberg

Writer: David Cronenberg

Starring: Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Joe Silver, Howard Ryshpan, Patricia Gage, Susan Roman

Year: 1977

Runtime: 91 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: Canada


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