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 Cronenberg on Sex and Gender: Rabid (1977)

Cronenberg on Sex and Gender: Rabid (1977)

As my Cronenberg journey continues I decided to watch Rabid, his 1977 film that came right on the heels of Shivers. The two movies are known for being similar zombie films, however, Shivers takes place in an apartment complex, while Rabid expands on this and shows a zombie apocalypse about to affect an entire city. The film starts Marilyn Chambers, a popular adult film star at the time, as Rose, a woman who is in a severe motorcycle accident with her boyfriend. She is brought to a Keloid, a plastic surgery clinic, because it is the closest medical facility around. After receiving some experimental skin grafts a penis grows from her arm pit and she is compelled to use this to penetrate her victims and take their blood, as a result her victims turn into mindless zombies who help infect more and more citizens of the city. There are some interesting elements to this film and a good deal to delve into but overall this one was a little boring which was strange for a film that was supposed to be expanding what Shivers started. This might have to do with the fact that the film was trying to do so much here that it didn’t totally commit to certain aspects of the story, but its surprising because one of the things I have really appreciated about Cronenberg thus far is how he is able to do so much in what is usually a film clocking in around 90 minutes. But anyway this film has many interesting commonalities with his other films especially in the realm of sex and gender. 

Cronenberg describes Rose as a modern day Vampiress and the film even describes her as a Typhoid Mary type, someone who is a carrier of a disease but does not show any signs of being sick, however those around her become infected. Not much is explained about the skin grafts and Rose kills the surgeon so early in the film that very little is explained about why she has grown this phallic appendage or why she is compelled to feed it with blood. Apparently there was a deleted scene where it is explained that the grafts were supposed to help grow new intestines that had been damaged in the accident, some of this information may have helped to understand more of the events as they unfold. But even then I would love to know more about these skin grafts and how they might affect other people.

Rose goes on to lure unsuspecting victims into her grasp so she can then infect them. She starts with several of the other patients in the building. First is a man who tries to help her when she wakes up screaming. She is completely naked and for the most part he seems to be a respectful man who tries to get her help. She goes on to infect a drunken farmer who attempts to rape her, the doctor who treated her, and a young woman in a pool. Surprisingly, many of the men seem to try to be respectful or helpful to Rose and she is often the dominant character in the situation. However, there are some cases like the rapist at the beginning and the creep in the movie theater where it feels like a woman taking control of a scenario where she would normally be portrayed as vulnerable. 

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The movie becomes a little confusing and jumbled as it goes along. Rose ends up staying with her friend in the city and goes out whenever she can to get more victims. Her boyfriend Hart and one of the doctors go on a mission to try to find Rose, but at the same time the city is delving into madness as those Rose has infected go on to kill and turn others into zombies. The city declares Martial Law and you see a few scenes of those who are infected being burned alive. Rose’s compulsion grows so much that she ends up killing the friend she is staying with. Hart finds her and lets her know that she is the cause of the havoc that has reached their city but she doesn’t want to believe him and she runs away. She locks herself in a room with one of her victims to prove they won’t turn into a zombie and is then killed once the body is reanimated. The film closes with the army finding her body and throwing her in the trash. 

Unfortunately much of that plot felt bland and uninteresting. Many of the classic images I recognized before seeing this; like the girl in the freezer or the train full of infected zombies aren’t as great as I expected them to be. Even the idea of Martial Law is not explored that much. I am not even entirely sure what Cronenberg is really trying to say here. The major thing I got was the idea that the one with the penis is the one with the power. I even wondered if the film was using the zombies to portray victims of rape in some way, but after having that thought I did not see much else that might support that. The most interesting aspects of the film are the portrayals of violence and Chambers’ performance. Once again, the other actors feel sort of bland, especially her boyfriend Hart played by Frank Moore, who feels more lifeless than the zombies. Chambers, however, is complex and interesting even though you really do not know much about her. 

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 In Cronenberg on Cronenberg the director mentions how he originally wanted Sissy Spacek for the role of Rose but she didn’t have the name recognition producers wanted (however later that year she would star in Carrie) and I have to imagine the movie would have been totally different if she had starred as opposed to Chambers who is seen as being more sexual and potentially aggressive. I think that ends up working for the film. Cronenberg mentions that feminist groups attacked him for showing women as sexually passive in Shivers and was then criticized by feminist groups later for Rabid which they felt made female sexuality look predatory.  However he also seems to be excited that people are able to debate his films, in the book he says that:

Horror films are so primal, and deal with such primal issues—particularly death and therefore also sexuality—they are automatically in the arena that has become the feminist arena. It’s a natural genre for the discussion of those issues. It’s fitting that a horror film should be attacked or defended by various feminist groups. It makes a lot of sense to me. In a way, it pleased me—and still does—not to be seen as adhering to anyone’s party line. That suits me temperamentally.

Cronenberg really hits on something that I appreciate about horror, a genre where these debates happen so frequently. I can see the argument for how Rose’s sexuality is portrayed in a way that is harmful but it could also be argued that she is being portrayed as empowered. I felt this especially in scenes where she takes control over uncomfortable situations that many women have been put into. The film reminds me of the 2007 movie Teeth where a teenage girl discovers she has vagina dentata which she eventually uses to kill predatory men. Thinking of that film made me realize that Rose does not realize her power or seem to obtain empowerment from her actions where in Teeth, the main character recognizes that she can use her other set of teeth to punish men who are harmful to women. Maybe this just shows the difference between female led horror over the course of 30 years. There are some things Cronenberg does in this film that he has done in others that I do find interesting. He shies away from showing depictions of female rape and alludes to violence involving women and children as opposed to showing those scenes play out. 

Cronenberg did explain he had some doubts about making this film, realizing it might be too crazy or something that would not really work out on film but he was encouraged to keep pushing forward and create a product for them to release. Maybe that is why it feels like it does not have the excitement or care that some of his other films seem to have. Of course already having seen some of his later work like The Brood and Videodrome, he does develop in some of these ideas that don’t seem to entirely work in this one. I was disappointed that I did not like this as much as his others but I am excited to push forward and see what else he has to offer. It is also worth noting that this is about to be remade in 2020, interesting that my least favorite Cronenberg so far is the only Cronenberg remake they have done. It is going to be directed and written by the Soska sisters and I am thrilled to see women taking on this film and I think this film could really work through a female lens. 

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