Color, 1977, 90 mins. 52 secs.
Directed by David Cronenberg
Starring Marilyn Chambers, Frank Moore, Howard Ryshpan, Joe Silver
101 Films (Blu-ray) (UK RB HD), Scream Factory (Blu-ray) (US RA HD) / WS (1.66:1) (16:9), Arrow Video (Blu-ray & DVD) (UK RB/R2 HD/PAL), Studio S (Sweden) (Blu-ray RB HD), Metrodome (UK R2 PAL) / WS (1.85:1) (16:9) / New Concorde (US R1 NTSC)
Following the success and controversy ignited by Shivers, David Cronenberg expanded his view of clinical, sexualized horror with Rabid, a chilly account of venereal disease gone absolutely haywire through Montreal. Most notable in the history books as the first attempt by hardcore actress Marilyn Chambers (Behind the Green Door) to go legit, the film has gained considerably in both meaning and chilling effectiveness in context with Cronenberg's later films.
A devastating motorcycle accident in the countryside leaves beautiful young Rose (Chambers) seriously burned and mutilated while her boyfriend, Hart (Moore), is thrown clear. Luckily employees at the nearby Keloid Clinic witness the accident and, using innovative new techniques in plastic surgery and tissue regeneration, manage to save Rose from certain death (or at least horrible disfigurement). Dr Keloid (Ryshpan) and his partner, Murray Cypher (Silver), feel their procedure has been successful, so Rose is left alone to recover. A month later she regains consciousness in a state of utter hysteria, causing one of her fellow patients to come to her aid. She embraces him tightly, an act which causes him to react with horror. Later the patient, bloody and dazed, staggers down the hospital hallways, but no one is able to treat him. One by one Rose seduces and attacks others in the hospital, draining them of just enough blood to satisfy her hunger. Keloid discovers a strange, vaginal growth in her armpit which hosts a horrendous side effect of her skin graft, one which is also capable of leaving its victims in a dangerous, rabid condition capable of spreading through the population like wildfire.
Though undeniably rough around the edges, Rabid is a strangely potent and haunting film. Chambers is surprisingly good in the role, which doesn't require much range but definitely exploits the mixture of pleasure and dangerous hunger lurking beneath her attractive features. As usual Cronenberg maximizes the chilly potential out of his sterile, angular settings and barren countrysides, while the city locales are cleverly manipulated to expose the dangerous underbelly of urban life. Chambers' visit to a porn theatre in particular and subsequent response to a horny fellow patron is a disturbing, multi-layered example of Cronenberg at his finest. The uncredited stock music is also eerily spare and well chosen, though it wasn't until Croneberg's next horror film, The Brood, that music finally took center stage thanks to Howard Shore. As usual the director also relishes throwing in some iconoclastic and often downright rude imagery, such as a shopping mall Santa Claus riddled with bullets and the grim, marvelously ironic coda, which relays most of its horror through the telephone rather than explicit gore.
Long unavailable on home video after an early, substandard appearance from Warner Home Video, Rabid has been remastered by Roger Corman's New Concorde. Like their other '70s restorations, this film has never looked so good outside of first run theaters. However, bear in mind that some sequences were shot in a deliberately desaturated and grainy style, while the opening credits were printed with dirt and specks embedded in the script overlays, so the visual flaws are actually supposed to be there. Like all of Cronenberg's early films, Rabid was shot open aperture and soft matted in theaters; the U.S. DVD contains the entire exposed image with (clumsily transitioned) 1.66:1 closing credits. The UK DVD from Metrodome features an improved and colorful anamorphic transfer which mattes off some information from the top; the increase in resolution is noticeable and quite welcome. The mono audio is adequate given the source materials and is free from distracting background noise or distortion. The U.S. disc also includes the gleefully dramatic US theatrical trailer, while the U.K. disc instead contains a Cronenberg intro, notes by Kim Newman, and an image gallery.
The first Blu-ray edition popped up from Arrow Video in early 2015 (as a dual-format edition with a DVD), featuring a decent HD upgrade that mattes the film to a workable 1.78:1. Extras here include a terrific Cronenberg commentary (including praise for Chambers, memories of the plans to cast Sissy Spacek, and notes about the original vampire-inspired concept of the film as Mosquito) and a second commentary with William Beard (author of The Artist as Monster: The Cinema of David Cronenberg) with more of a handy hisotircal approach to the film's importance in the director's canon. An archival Cronenberg video interview (20m26s) features the man himself chatting about the government investment in the film and the hostile reaction to his early films, followed by new video interviews with executive producer Ivan Reitman (12m28s) and co-producer Don Carmody (15m37s), a demo video and interview with makeup effects artist Joe Blasco, and the 1999 TV doc series episode The Directors (59m4s) dedicated to Cronenberg. Not to be overlooked is "Raw, Rough and Rabid: The Lacerating Legacy of Cinépix" (15m4s) about the pivotal Canuxploitation production company, featuring author Kier-La Janisse and Blasco. The theatrical trailer is also included along with a promotional gallery, and the set comes packaged with reversible artwork (featuring a new Nat Marsh design) and an insert booklet featuring liner notes by Janisse and relevant extracts from Cronenberg on Cronenberg.
In 2016, Scream Factory brought the film to U.S. Blu-ray with a fresh, much improved new 2K scan presented in a more opened up 1.66:1 aspect ratio with better color timing and detail throughout. The Cronenberg and Beard commentaries are ported over along with the Cronenberg, Reitman and Carmody video interviews, but you also get a new audio commentary with author Jill C. Nelson (Golden Goddesses: 25 Legendary Women Of Classic Erotic Cinema, 1968-1985) and Marilyn Chambers' personal appearances manager Ken Leicht about the star's life and career as well as the state of the adult film industry and crossover attempts at the time. Also new is "Young and Rabid" (33m5s), a video interview with actress Susan Roman about her memories of the production, her familiarity with Cronenberg, and her time in the Canadian film industry. "From Stereo To Video" (26m23s) is a fascinating and very enjoyable video essay by Caelum Vatnsdal (author of They Came From Within: A History Of Canadian Horror Cinema) about Cronenberg's progression from his striking early shorts through his Canadian genre film apotheosis with Videodrome. Finally you get the trailer, a TV spot, radio spots, and a photo gallery.
That brings us to the 2019 limited edition, two-disc Blu-ray set from 101 Films (#9 in its Black Label series), which once again features some exclusive extras to justify a double (or triple) dip. The transfer here is the same as the Scream Factory, which is good news, and it still looks great; as with the other releases, the DTS-HD MA English mono track (with optional English SDH subtitles) is very good. You also get the Cronenberg and Beard commentaries, the Nelson and Leicht audio interview, and the Roman and Cronenberg interviews as well as The Directors and the trailer. A new audio commentary by Jen and Sylvia Soska (presumably recorded around the time they made their remake of this film, which alters the story greatly to set it within the fashion industry and expand the scientific explanation) finds the filmmakers in giddy spirits as they extol the virtues of Cronenberg, practical effects, the early depictions of transhumanism, the empowering nature of Rose's attack methods, and more. On the video side, the new and lengthily titled "The Quiet Revolution: State, Society and the Canadian Horror Film Part One: Gimme Shelter: Cinepix and the Birth of the Canadian Horror Film" (69m33s) by Xavier Mendik is a very extensive look at the watershed genre movement from the Great White North with Carmody, Pierre David, William Fruet, Mark Irwin, Paul Lynch, Greg Dunning, and more laying the groundwork for how the nation (particularly Quebec) went through a sea change reacting against the influences of religion and the government. Great stuff, and the second half can be found on the Blu-ray of the Soskas' remake. The packaging also features an insert booklet including liner notes by Dunning and Alex Norris about the film itself and the common threads of Cronenberg's early cinema.
101 Films (UK Blu-ray)
Scream Factory (US Blu-ray)
Arrow Video (UK Blu-ray)
Updated review on November 24, 2019