By the mid 1970s, the Canadian Film Development Corporation was one of the primary sources for independent movie financing. But in 1977, the CFDC was not happy with director David Cronenberg.
In 1975, they had subsidized the making of his first film, Shivers (also known as They Came From Within). Now they found themselves under attack for its "pornographic and repulsive" content, as reviewed by Robert Fulford, one of the country's leading and respected film critics.
Still, Shivers - Cronenberg's very weird parasitical/sex allegory - had been a financial success. And where there's a will, there's a way. There may have been an uproar over the idea of any taxpayer dollars backing such works, but there was an undeniable sense that Cronenberg was a talent ready for more.
Aided and encouraged by John Dunning, the head of Cinépix distribution, and co-executive producer Ivan Reitman, Cronenberg put the negative backlash behind him and moved forward.
With friends and business associates in the right places (as well as some creative financing), Cronenberg put the finishing touches on a treatment for his next film, tentatively titled Mosquito.
While not a sequel to Shivers, the director considered his new idea "a solid companion piece" to the former. Both films involved diseases that spread and cause great havoc.
But the diseases that fascinated Cronenberg do much more than that. They make people kill. (This is the business of horror films, after all). So, conjuring the image of a once-friendly dog now turned mad killer, Rabid seemed like a much more apropos title than Mosquito.
After considering Sissy Spacek for the lead, Reitman settled on Marilyn Chambers, an actress/model who had gained notoriety as a porn star, most famously in Behind the Green Door (1972).
Chambers had tried to go legit before. Her image was seen on boxes of Ivory Snow - but hopes for a more respectable straight career came to a standstill when her past came to the attention of the general public.
Working with a budget of approximately 560,000 Canadian dollars, Cronenberg shot Rabid in and around Montreal and the outskirts of Quebec.
At the Keloid Clinic, which specializes in cosmetic alterations, Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) discusses the possibility of a franchised operation for plastic surgery resorts with his doctor wife Roxanne (Patricia Gage) and his business partner Murray Cypher (Joe Silver).
Murray has found an interested group of investors and Roxanne is open to the idea. But Dr. Keloid is skeptical, saying he doesn't want to become the Colonel Sanders of his profession.
Meanwhile, Hart Read (Frank Moore) and his girlfriend Rose (Marilyn Chambers) are riding through the Canadian countryside on a motorcycle. While turning around a winding road, the couple has a near-deadly crash when they swerve to avoid hitting a family of campers.
Hart is thrown off into the distance, but Rose suffers the brunt of the impact when the cycle lands on top of her and explodes.
Two patients of the Keloid Clinic view the accident in the distance and alert Dr. Keloid. An ambulance is dispatched and the doctor himself rushes to the scene where he determines that Hart has a broken hand, a separated shoulder and a concussion.
Rose is in much worse condition because of the burns and severe bleeding. In order to save her life, Dr. Keloid brings her directly back to his clinic for major surgery. It's an unorthodox decision. But the nearest hospital is three hours away...and Rose only has about a half-hour to live unless she is tended to immediately.
In a procedure that would seem to anticipate stem cell research many years later, Dr. Keloid decides to use a new technique involving the neutralizing of skin tissue. Grafted skin from Rose's thigh is removed, treated - and then placed in the areas affected by the crash.
A month passes. Rose remains unconscious. Her body is still in a state of shock. Because of this, she cannot be moved to a city hospital. Dr. Keloid tells Hart the grafts are doing well and there is new tissue growth in Rose's abdominal cavity.
Having recovered enough to be released from the clinic, Hart visits Rose and plants a kiss on her lips before being driven home by Murray.
Soon after, Rose finally gains consciousness. She sits up in her bed screaming, as if she had just woken up from a nightmare. She removes the IV feeding tube.
Lloyd Walsh (Roger Periard), a perennial patient seemingly addicted to plastic surgery, hears her. He enters Rose's room and tries to calm her down. Rose has no recollection of the accident...but she's cold (and completely nude) so Lloyd allows her to embrace him for warmth.
Suddenly, he feels a sensation under his arm of being cut by something. Blood seeps through his clothing. Dr. Keloid examines him - but cannot figure out the cause of the wound since the bleeding won't clot and Lloyd can't recall what happened. Perhaps he had a stroke and fell?
Nurse Rita (Julie Anna) summons Dr. Keloid to Rose's room where everything is in disarray. She tells the doctor she believes Lloyd tried to molest Rose while she remained in a coma. There is no evidence that Rose had ever been awake. Lloyd is sent to the general hospital for further observation.
That night, Rose secretly leaves the clinic and walks down the road to a farm. She plops herself down beside a cow and puts her arm around the animal. Rose has come to a startling self-revelation - and hoping to prevent herself from killing humans, she attempts to drain the poor animal of its blood. It doesn't work and Rose throws up.
The intoxicated owner (Terence G. Ross) finds Rose and tries to force himself on her. Rose fights the farmer off by puncturing his eye with a grotesque phallic-shaped organ that comes out of her armpit, a mutated byproduct of the original grafting surgery!
Rose has become a kind of vampire. And while not explicit in the screenplay, Cronenberg explains it thusly: the injuries from the accident destroyed Rose's intestines and unable to consume food, she must take in human blood for survival.
Doctors have not been able to figure out what happened to Lloyd, so he leaves the hospital. While in a taxicab on his way home, he suddenly begins to foam at the mouth and assaults the driver, causing the vehicle to crash and killing them both.
Back at the Keloid Clinic, Rose desperately calls Hart but he doesn't hear the phone ringing. She then attacks an unsuspecting patient named Judy Glasberg (Terry Schonblum) in the Jacuzzi. Rose reaches Hart at last and tells him to come get her but Nurse Rita cuts their conversation short.
Murray, who is at home taking care of his newborn, tells Hart not to worry. Rose is probably just frightened and confused.
It is now obvious to the staff that Rose has awakened from her coma and Dr. Keloid gets a good look at the skin grafts. It's ghastly but the doctor doesn't flinch. There is a slit under her arm that resembles a vaginal opening - from which the phallic growth emerges.
Rose says she has been conscious for several days and feels strong - despite the fact that she is refusing to be attached to the IV nutrient bottles. "They have to be your only source of food," he says. "They're not," she answers before grabbing him and draining his blood.
Now Dr. Keloid is infected. While performing a delicate surgery, he begins to act strangely. His wife passes him a pair of scissors. He takes them...and cuts her finger off before sucking the bleeding stump. There is pandemonium in the operating room and throughout the clinic, as Rose takes the opportunity to make a hasty exit.
The epidemic starts to spread. The infected farmer bites a waitress in a diner before being subdued and dying of "unknown causes." Fear grips Montreal as news of the strange events are broadcast in the media.
Murray and Hart arrive together at the Keloid Clinic and Murray sees Dr. Keloid in the back of a police van, the disease now having turned him into a convulsing lunatic.
Rose is nowhere to be found and Judy Glasberg's unidentified body is discovered in a freezer in the basement.
A truck driver named Smooth Eddy (Gary McKeehan) picks up Rose, who has been hitchhiking. He offers her a bite of his sandwich but Rose's body doesn't react well. She vomits up her lunch, before infecting him. Eddy goes berserk in the warehouse receiving department of his company.
It is clear that some form of rabies is rampant. Claude LaPointe (Victor Desy), a rep from the Quebec Bureau of Health, goes on television to explain that many of the symptoms are unfamiliar, and that there is a fast incubation period of 6-8 hours.
Rose has made it to the apartment of her best friend Mindy Kent (Susan Roman), who has no inkling that she has taken in the virus's carrier. Needing nourishment, Rose prowls the streets at night and contaminates a patron in a porno theater.
Fear turns to panic. An infected officer in the local prison is gunned down before he can do harm. A car transporting Mr. LaPointe is ambushed; the driver is impaled with a drill and bitten. Mindy witnesses a rabid woman on the subway bite a straphanger, the poor man losing a chunk of his ear in the process.
All hell breaks loose...martial law is imposed and the Prime Minister declares a state of emergency. There is a vaccine for those who are free of the disease...but persons who receive it must carry an identification card. Citizens line up in droves for their shots.
Restless, Rose goes to a mall and meets a young guy (Greg Van Riel) who she then sees attacked by a rabid shopper (played by Basil Fitzgibbon). During the frenzy, the mall's Santa Claus is shot to death by a careless officer.
Murray is not exempt from the violence that has taken over the city. He returns home one evening and finds that his baby has been killed by his wife...who then leaps out of a closet and frantically lunges at him.
Further news reports indicate that there is a modern-day "Typhoid Mary," a person who incubates and transmits the virus but who is immune to it. Who could that be?
Mindy does her best to take care of Rose, who seems ill most of the time. When Rose tries to leave the apartment once again, her friend stops her. "I don't want it to be you," Rose pleads. But indeed, Mindy becomes yet another fatality.
Hart finds Rose crouched over Mindy's body. He realizes the truth and says, "its you...it's been you all along. You carry the plague...you've killed hundreds of people!" Hart tries to convince his girlfriend to go to the police or a hospital - but she breaks free of his grasp.
Now faced with her own accountability for the deadly events, Rose formulates an experiment. She picks up a healthy man (Allan Moyle) and goes to his apartment. After locking herself in a room and infecting him, she waits to see what happens.
While on the phone with Hart, the guy regains consciousness and slowly walks towards Rose. Hearing Rose scream (and in a twisted homage to a classic Barbara Stanwyck moment in 1948's Sorry, Wrong Number) Hart is helpless to stop her demise.
The next morning, Rose's body is picked up from a heap of trash outside the apartment building and disposed of in a garbage truck. She appears to be just a random victim in a long list of casualties.
Rabid is remarkably illustrative of the "multipurpose zenith" that horror films could achieve in a post-Night of the Living Dead world. Almost ten years after George Romero's classic 1968 zombie epic assaulted audiences, the genre was finally embracing the freedom to make sociological or political statements.
It's true that horrormakers had been using fright films to make such statements for decades - veiled, subtle or sometimes overt. But by the late '70s, by the time of Rabid, a door had been broken down completely.
One of the obvious inspirations for Rabid would seem to be another virus-happy thriller, Romero's own Crazies (1973). But Rabid is the better of the two. For Romero often revels in a paranoia about the evils of the military complex, an approach that can sometimes have a short-sighted range and offer limited opportunities for dramatic tension.
Cronenberg generally avoids overt politics. With Rabid, his interest is clearly sociological. Here, the ancient myth of vampirism translates nicely into a modern-day metaphor for biological viruses and STDs. The plague that brings panic to the city also reveals severe deficits in man's ability to cope, and shortcomings about his capacity to sympathize with his fellow man.
In fairness, Cronenberg isn't entirely exempt from making unnecessary and obvious statements. He admits freely that the scene in the plaza mall was his way of sticking it to the Christmas holiday...and the "fake joviality" and commercialism that surrounds it. It's an overdone sequence that could have been toned down. Really, we could have done without Santa Claus dying in a hail of bullets to make a point.
Yet, Rabid proves wonderfully flexible. There's no pretense about it's messages. Tired of academic analysis? No problem. For Rabid gives way easily to a straightforward horror viewing, if that's what's desired. There's grue aplenty, a moody Canadian vibe, and the premise is strange enough to keep any viewer enthralled.
If Cronenberg often returns to the same central themes in his films, the physical settings he chooses for each of his movies are always unique, striking. With regard to Rabid, he explains it this way: "I've always been fascinated by the kind of enclosed world of a hospital or clinic. A retreat where people are being treated in isolation for some kind of condition that separates them from society as a whole."
About the creepy cosmetic surgery world of the Keloid institution, he adds, "I really thought of this clinic as being something like that, where everyone was sequestered from normal society."
An interesting trivia note: the word 'keloid,' spelled the same way but pronounced kee-loyd, means "an excessive growth of scar tissue on the skin."
The casting of Marilyn Chambers as Rose would seem a net plus. There is a charming amateurish quality to her acting. It's a shame she didn't go on to do more that didn't involve taking her clothes off. And Sissy Spacek? She gets a cameo of sorts: as Rose is walking down a street in one scene, a poster for Carrie is shown hanging prominently in a movie atrium.
Stock music was used, and under the supervision of producer Ivan Reitman, it is wonderfully evocative and melancholy. The score serves Cronenberg's bleak atmosphere well and is both reminiscent of John Carpenter's score for The Fog, mixed in with strains that recall the theme from the television soap The Young and the Restless.
Incidentally, Reitman would go on to direct several mainstream blockbusters, including Meatballs, Stripes and Ghostbusters.
Cinépix producers John Dunning and Andre Link stayed in more familiar territory. Among their numerous horror credits are Death Weekend, My Bloody Valentine and Happy Birthday To Me, all exemplary products of the then-proliferating Canadian horror film industry.
Within the genre, Cronenberg's followup would include an established cast and a bigger budget, in 1979's more polished - and scarier - The Brood. It was to be his boldest expression yet, and his remake of The Fly aside, many consider it to be his finest and most original "mutation" opus.
Sadly, Chambers passed away on 12 April, 2009 at her home in Canyon Country, California. The cause was a cerebral hemorrhage and aneurysm related to heart disease. She was 56.