Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is in a horrific motorcycle accident. After emergency surgery, she wakes up with a retractable stinger in her armpit that she uses to drink blood from innocent victims. The stinger infects them with super-rabies. Victims get green-faced and foam-mouthed. They bite other people. The epidemic begins.
I watched “Rabid” because of David Cronenberg, whose body-horror movies have long been on my list (and will appear again later on this month). I decided to start with “Rabid” because it was his first major movie. And it feels like his first major movie — rough, raw, unfocused and bizarre.
Rose tends to infect men who are attracted to her, and she seduces them with a quiet, sultry voice. You get the impression that whatever being has taken hold of her body is using her like a puppet. There’s a surprising lack of sex or nudity; her seduction is mere presence. Cronenberg focuses on the relationship between sex and violence to decent effect. That’s not uncommon for horror movies and is basically baked into the genre.
“Rabid” is noteworthy for Marilyn Chambers, who was trying to make a transition from pornography to mainstream cinema at the time. She made her name in ‘Behind the Green Door,” a classic of that genre and a hallmark of the golden age of porn. It was one of the few pornographic films to achieve mainstream notoriety as is apparently so psychedelic and controversial that it sounds a lot more interesting than “Rabid.” Idris Elba named his production company after it. I should watch it.
Chambers is great. She’s essentially playing two characters: Rose and Not-Rose. Rose is not aware of her own actions in spreading the virus, either in denial or as the result of temporary psychosis when she starts to feed. It’s a different take on the “infection” subgenre of horror, in that Patient Zero is completely unaware of her own role in the epidemic, and it works really well. Rose is tragic. Chambers terrifically plays that breadth of character — from seductive to terrified, sometimes conscious and sometimes empty behind the eyes.
She carries the movie because otherwise “Rabid” is a slow build with a lackadaisical payoff. Of course the action is pretty satisfying once the epidemic hits Quebec, with spit, splatter and green-faced crazies. It’s a bit grosser than, say, “Dawn of the Dead,” but not by much. The stinger is the most disturbing physical deformation. By today’s standards, it’s pretty tame. Compared to Cronenberg’s later work, “Rabid” feels positively quaint.
So “Rabid” didn’t do much for me. It was fun to see early Cronenberg work his bloody magic and the phallic armpit stinger is one of the stranger uses of sexual euphemism in an erotic horror movie. All things considered, a passable one.