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Both a precursor to the "Golden Age of slasher films" (1978-1984) and part of the "Golden Age of porn" (1969-1984), David Cronenberg's early film Rabid (1977) overlays key elements of 1970s cinematic horror with the decade's feminist debates about sex onscreen. Unlike the horror films of the past, which were distinctly European, the 1970s-'80s were dominated by the North American horror film. Themes of unsafe suburban homes and schools, the mysteries of space, women's sexual liberation and unpredictable experiments in technology abounded. Cronenberg stands out, in part, for being a particularly Canadian auteur whose style recasts and remixes these themes, lending commentary on the body, often grotesquely transforming it, to test its social, psychological and physical limits. Rabid, for instance, features Rose, a female motorcyclist who, after an injury, is treated at the "Keloid Clinic" in Quebec. It's not a regular hospital, but a corporate facility specializing in plastic surgery. After her operation, Rose awakens with an orifice under her armpit, containing a phallic stinger with which she uses to feed on human blood. Soon, those that she feeds upon become infected, rabid zombies whose bites spread the disease, causing so much chaos that Canada's prime minister is forced to call for martial law.
With Rabid, Cronenberg recasts the archetypal male serial killer who uses phallic bladed tools, such as those men in Psycho (1960), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) and, later, Halloween (1978), Friday the 13th (1980) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), as female - a Rose with a deadly thorn. Moreover, Cronenberg gave the role of Rose to famous pornographic film star Marilyn Chambers, inviting audiences to read her performance in Rabid in light of her work in the increasingly popular adult film industry, which was read by some feminist critics as a visual platform for violence against women and by others as a medium for female sexual expression. Yet in a 1979 interview with Canada's Public Broadcaster, Cronenberg cheekily says that there is "very little nudity and almost no sex" in the film, encouraging spectators to question what they believe is erotic on screen in the first place.
Tropes of adult filmmaking make their way into Rabid's slasher plot line in more ways than one. Firstly, several of the attacking scenes recall the near-comical, now clichéd seduction intros of pornographic film. Early in the movie, a bare-chested Rose seduces a fellow patient at the clinic before piercing him with her stinger. Later, she does the same with another woman in a whirlpool. Secondly, Cronenberg creates several layers of meaning when Rose actually goes to see a pornographic film, which were often screened in theatres at the time, hoping to find a man whom she could seduce and then feed on. Lastly, the film's theme of infection recalls the nascence of the disease that would later be called AIDS in the early 1980s, a sexually transmitted disease that while not taking many lives involved in adult film, certainly caused a scare. And socially, many believed the disease was a punishment for sexual deviancy, including promiscuity, a theme in adult film, echoed in the many people Rose attacks.
Another way to approach Rabid is via a not so subtle Freudian citation in the film. A young woman at the Keloid Clinic flashes her book, a copy of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's theories, at the camera as if to tell spectators that there are intentional references to the concept, "castration anxiety": men's overwhelming fear of damage to or loss of their penis. In Rabid, as Rose pricks men with her armpit stinger, it is clear that she has a more powerful phallus than the men around her, robbing them of their sexual prowess and ability to penetrate.
Rabid was a low budget film made for just over $500,000 and distributed by Canada's Cinépix Film Properties (now Lionsgate) and New World Pictures (effectively defunct). It remains rather eclipsed by Cronenberg's subsequent films, such as his other horror movies with sci-fi feminist themes: The Brood (1979), his cult-hit The Fly (1986), his mega award winner Crash (1996) and his more recent mainstream blockbusters A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007). Nevertheless, the cultural impact of Rabid lingers. Its complex portrayal of gender, sexuality, infection and violence seems to resonate with a new generation of filmmakers as Canada's own Soska Sisters embarked on a remake in 2018.
By Rebecca Kumar