After confusing and confounding those that managed to see his experimental shorts ‘Stereo’ and ‘Crimes Of The Future’ David Cronenberg caught attention with his first full length feature Shivers in 1975. From there his creative juices really flowed with films following in quick succession leading to the Canadian auteur propelling himself to a must see director for those who liked horror films with substance and to large extents sophistication. His movies proved that they were not throwaway one watch features but ones that would stay uncomfortably lingering in the viewer’s minds for years to come. No doubt that is why they were at first such big hits with the birth of home video and have been re-released many times thereafter. Rabid (1977) his second real film now gets a very welcome Blu-ray debut courtesy of Arrow Films, naturally with a host of extras providing you with everything you could really want from the film. Although you can happily pick it up and cast off those old editions, if you have the original Alpha Intervision VHS of it you will be wanting to keep hold of it as a classic for posterity.
There are a lot of parallels between this, Shivers and 1979 feature The Brood which followed after Cronenberg fulfilled another love of his to take a stop gap with Fast Company and make a film about drag racing far removed from his body horror motifs. This title however made things quite clear what sort of film you were going to get. For those of us who had grown up over the era and read lurid one word titled novels by the likes of Guy N Smith and Graham Masterton it would be somewhat similar territory with a virus taking hold and creating a pandemic and it’s one that in these times is just as valid as ever. This one is man made in one of Cronenberg’s ever popular research centres the Keloid Institute which is a leading clinic for plastic surgery and with it housing its fair share of interesting patients. Following a terrible motor cycle accident nearby (that those who like Arrow’s output of late will probably be remembering Motel Hell) badly burned Rose is given some tissue replacement treatment on her serious burns in the hope of these grafting and repairing the damage. The Dr’s talk and explain the process but it’s all a bit psychobabble and at the time a very experimental procedure which could lead to some sort of carcinogenic reaction. This it does with Rose coming out of a medically induced coma early with a vaginal cyst and penile growth under her arm that needs feeding on blood. Naturally things all go to shit very quickly.
The film is all the more convincing due to the very solid performance of Rose who is played by Marilyn Chambers. This was quite an adventurous choice as Chambers was best known for not so much her acting abilities in more main stream film but those in XXX hardcore titles such as the legendary Behind The Green Door (1972). She displays a certain eroticism and naturalness from these films and brings them to the screen here admirably and has no trouble finding men, women and even a cow to feed off. The problem is once she has done so the human donors become rabid very quickly (yep all bitey and foaming green goo at the mouth). As she leaves the institute she is followed by her somewhat ineffectual boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore with a touch of a young Christopher Walken about him image wise) and a Dr Murray from the institute (Joe Silver a ringer for Sid James and last seen getting his face bitten off in Shivers). Along the way more and more people become infected in highly memorable scenes and by the time Rose and what she is carrying reached Montreal martial law is the only answer.
There is much going for Rabid that makes it such a great film all of 38 years after it originally hit the screens. Performances aside it’s the fact that it has not aged at all (apart from some bad 70’s fashion and décor, the Docs wallpaper needs to be seen to be believed) and is such a conceivable scenario with the likes of bird flu and Ebola being all too close for comfort. The way it takes over people is horrifying and is echoed in other films of the time such as George Romero’s The Crazies (1973) which it could well have taken a certain amount of inspiration from and similarly David Durston’s I Drink Your Blood (1970). It shows that nobody is immune from being caught up in the panic not even (in one potent and highly enjoyable scene for grinches like me) Santa Claus. It’s only due to well-co-ordinated control that there is any hope here but seriously is this something we believe would stop an all-out end of world scenario if not contained?
The music here deserves mention too; supervised by Ivan Reitman the stock library footage is highly effective from the jagged freneticism of the parasitical attacks to the main haunting refrain which I have heard used as samples on albums as well I am sure on other films such as possibly Ilsa Tigress Of Siberia. Cronenberg keeps things looking futuristic with the archaeology of the institute as well as Montreal but on the journey from one to the other over snow swept arable land one can easily look at a barn and imagine it being filmed in the same place as Ezra Cobb was dressing his victim in Gillen and Ormsby’s Deranged (1974).
Rabid really is a shocker with some jarring parts that will fray your nerves and will not be shifted from your sub-conscious. Naturally it looks and sounds excellent here in this high-def transfer overseen by the director himself.
On to the pathology lab of extras. 1st up are two commentary tracks, one with the director and another by author William Beard. There are four interview segments and in the first Cronenberg reflects back on the time and trials of making the film following government funding being pulled due to some press reaction to the ‘pornographic’ Shivers. He talks about the fact that he was by now much more confident learning all aspects of the film making trade but he had reservations with a crisis of confidence with the subject matter, suddenly thinking it was ridiculous and having to overcome this. Characters and actors are also talked about as well as metaphors within the film. It’s all very interesting. Producer Ivan Reitman a renowned director in his own right now, talks about his involvement with Cinepix the production company that were responsible for these early films and his involvement with the director at the time. Not surprisingly being Jewish he mentions not being a fan of the Ilsa films Cinepix also got involved with and wanting his name removed from anything to do with them. It does explain how that piece of music got from Rabid to Tigress too (glad I watch the extras after writing about the film). After seeing a naked interview on TV with Marilyn Chambers (why don’t we get TV like this) it was him that suggested her for the role and it was an idea that paid in spades. He also talks about the music and how he found the pieces from library stock and drew them all together. The original poster was down to him too and although I remember it on the underground at the time I bet it would not be displayed now.
Co-Producer Don Carmody is up next to talk about his involvement and the state of the Canadian film industry at the time. He has plenty of anecdotes about Shivers and Rabid which apparently the director decided he wanted to scrap in favour of a script he had literally just dreamt up about twin gynaecologists. He was going to have to wait another 11 years before that one came to fruition. A very jolly Joe Blasco gets an all too brief segment remembering his SFX work and I must duly note it’s an anus under the armpit not a vagina; whoops I got the wrong hole again!
There’s no shortage of Cronenberg documentary footage available, I have South Bank show and a ‘Cinema Of The Extreme’ piece amidst others recorded from television on video tape hoping they get an upgraded release. Here though we get an in depth hour long ‘Directors’ documentary from 1999 which chronologically takes in all his filmic oeuvre from beginning through to the just released eXistenZ and in anticipation of the then forthcoming Spider (2002). It’s a great introduction to his films and certainly anyone picking up his latest ‘Maps To The Stars’ who is not aware of his earlier work should definitely see this. For the rest of us, although we know much of what is covered it’s a great watch and really interesting as the director takes us through things with the likes of Marilyn Chambers, Michael Ironside, Deborah Harry, Peter Weller, Holly Hunter and William Dafoe, all discussing things, along with clips from the movies. It made me want things completed and to go the rest of the way taking his career up to date as well as giving me the urge to watch everything again in order; although I would probably skip The Fly (1986), I never did like that bloody film!
Finally there is a very relevant featurette on the lasting legacy of Cinepix which talks about their origins from ‘maple syrup’ softcore films through to jumping on the popular horror bandwagon and going with the more liberated times in Canada. The notorious Ilsa She wolf Of The SS is one that it sounds like they tricked people such as Blasco into working on by not letting him in on the whole script and what it was about. Yes it’s undeniably violent and offensive but there are some endearing feminist qualities about it.
As far as Cronenberg is concerned one thing evident from all the extras is that although none of the people spoken to knows quite what weirdness is going on in the director’s head, they all have nothing but total respect and admiration for him and his work. Again Arrow have come up trumps with this ultimate release, complete with the normal reversible sleeve art and booklet so snap it up, it’s a totally infectious release