If your film debut is a shock­ing yet intel­li­gent film like Shivers, what is the appro­pri­ate sec­ond act?  David Cronenberg found the best pos­si­ble answer when he made his next film, Rabid: it traf­fics in the same themes of sex and muta­tion while also show­ing he could add com­plex­i­ty and scope to his treat­ment of the­se con­cepts.  The rabid-posresult was a exploita­tion fan favorite that is also burst­ing with fas­ci­nat­ing­ly odd ideas and a per­verse yet care­ful­ly con­trolled sense of artistry.

Rabid begins with love­ly Rose (erst­while adult film star Marilyn Chambers) get­ting seri­ous­ly injured when a motor­cy­cle dri­ven by her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) col­lides with a van.  She is wheeled off to the near­est hos­pi­tal, which hap­pens to be a plas­tic surgery clin­ic run by the ambi­tious Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan).  He treats her dis­fig­ur­ing injuries with an exper­i­men­tal skin graft.  Unfortunately, said treat­ment turns her into a vam­pire who devel­ops a phal­lic pro­boscis under one arm that extracts blood from her vic­tims.  Even worse, any vic­tims that sur­vive devel­op a rabies-like homi­ci­dal mad­ness that begins to spread with alarm­ing speed.

This sto­ry­line deliv­ers all the shocks hor­ror fans expect.  Cronenberg’s script uses Rose as a cat­a­lyst more than a clas­sic lead char­ac­ter, allow­ing him to devel­op an episod­ic yet fast-mov­ing plot packed with an inter­est­ing ensem­ble and plen­ti­ful hor­ri­fic inci­dents.  The film’s final half-hour real­ly pays off for the hor­ror crowd, with nerve-jan­gling sce­nes like a rabid per­son attack­ing a pas­sen­ger in a crowd­ed sub­way car and a machine gun-tot­ing cop try­ing to take down anoth­er rabies-mad attack­er in a busy shop­ping mall.

Conceptually, Rabid is an arrest­ing fusion of vam­pire and zom­bie motifs, giv­ing them an ele­ment of for­ward-think­ing sci­ence as well a sex­u­al­ly sub­ver­sive ele­ment (the cast­ing of adult star Chambers adds to the lat­ter).   It also shows great imag­i­na­tion in its use of effec­tive make­up effects from pio­neer­ing FX design­er Joe Blasco.  For instance, the barbed vam­pir­ic phal­lus that emerges from a vagi­nal ori­fice is a clas­sic exam­ple of the flesh-dis­tort­ing muta­tion that Cronenberg’s ear­ly work is known for.

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It’s worst not­ing that Cronenberg’s ideas are as unnerv­ing as his spe­cial effects.  A good exam­ple is how the posi­tion of Rose’s vam­pir­ic organ requires her to hug her vic­tims to bleed them dry.  This turns a tra­di­tion­al ges­ture of affec­tion into a har­bin­ger of death — and puts the audi­ence on the edge of their seat every time Rose embraces some­one.  The idea behind the exper­i­men­tal plas­tic surgery antic­i­pates stem-cell research and the spread­ing of the con­ta­gion allows him to explore drug addic­tion and vene­re­al dis­ease metaphors as well as the hor­rors of mar­tial law.  That’s a lot for an exploita­tion film to jug­gle but Cronenberg devel­ops the ideas with skill and con­fi­dence.

Similarly, Cronenberg shows a lot of skill behind the cam­era at this ear­ly junc­ture.  Working with vet­er­an Canadian cin­e­matog­ra­pher Rene Verzier, he gives the film a slick and con­trolled look that makes good use of nat­u­ral­is­tic light­ing to provide a believ­able back­drop for the hor­ri­fic events.  The scares are struc­tured skill­ful­ly and he does an effec­tive job of evok­ing large-scale chaos with­out hav­ing to show a lot.  He also gets strong per­for­mances across the board: Chambers gives her all in a sur­pris­ing­ly nat­u­ral per­for­mance that uses her phys­i­cal­i­ty to con­vey her shift into vam­pirism while Moore does like­able low-key work as her frus­trat­ed boyfriend and Joe Silver lends nice sup­port as a busi­ness part­ner at the clin­ic.

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In short, Rabid is a piv­otal film in Cronenberg’s career because it showed he could express a com­plex yet unique­ly per­son­al­ized vision in a way that could com­mu­ni­cate with an audi­ence.  Any fan of his lat­er work will enjoy watch­ing the pro­gres­sion he makes from low-bud­get begin­nings here.