Last chance: David Cronenberg’s ‘Rabid’ – a viral plague on HBO Max

Rabid (1977), David Cronenberg’s sophomore feature, is another ingenious low budget horror film that reimagines disease as an evolutionary hiccup.

His earlier film, Shivers (1975), was a subversive horror about a genetically engineered parasite infecting a self-contained society to devastating effect. In Rabid, an experimental skin graft mutates into a bloodsucking phallus and turns the recipient (Marilyn Chambers in her mainstream movie debut) into a biological vampire turned Typhoid Mary.

With a phallic looking feeder located in her armpit, she embarks on a feeding frenzy leaves a virus in her victims, transforming them into a raving, ravenous, bloodthirsty maniacs. The entire city Montreal at Christmas erupts in green faced zombies foaming at the mouth and munching on bystanders as the virus spreads like an epidemic.

The roots of Cronenberg’s continuing fascination with disease, metamorphosis, and mutation are right here in this at times primitive but always inventive low budget horror film, and he’s ferocious in his portrait of a cannibal society reverting to pure, impulsive savagery. Chambers makes an anemic heroine, never really engaging the confused clash of human nature and primal survival instinct as she succumbs to the blood addiction while living in denial it, but even as Cronenberg bends over backwards to hide the sexual nature of her affliction he can’t help but appreciate the sheer weirdness of it all.

As for the rest of it, Cronenberg creates a horrific vision of society savagely out of control and an ironic ending that would be cynical if it wasn’t so damnably effective. The shopping mall scenes of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead may even owe a debt to this film, but Romero’s got nothing on Cronenberg’s Santa attack or the haphazard chaos of martial law’s armed response. If the feeders don’t get you, the trigger happy soldiers will.

Rated R

Leaves HBO Max at the end of January.

Add to My List on HBO Max, or watch free on Kanopy or on Hoopla, which are available through most public and college library systems.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Rabid [Collector’s Edition] [Blu-ray]
Rabid [DVD]

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The special edition release from Scream Factory, newly remastered from a 2K scan of the original negative, is more than an upgrade. It is definitive, or as close as we’re likely to get.

The commentary track by David Cronenberg is not new—it’s carried over from the 2004 DVD from Somerville House / Ventura—but it is great. Cronenberg is one of the most consistently introspective, observant, and informative directors on commentary tracks and he easily shifts back and forth from discussing production details (from the perspective of a veteran director looking back on the challenges of his first efforts—”The low budget horror films… were my film school, really”) to discussing the philosophy and ideas behind his stories (“Technology as an extension of the human body”).

There is a second commentary track from Cronenberg expert William Beard, which was originally recorded for the Arrow Blu-ray release in Britain, plus a new video interview with actress Susan Roman and a new audio-only interview with adult film historian Jill C. Nelson and Ken Leicht, who was Marilyn Chambers’ personal appearances manager, which plays sort of like another commentary track even though it focuses on Chambers rather than on the movie.

There is the 26-minute video essay “From Stereo to Video” from film historian Caelum Vatnsdal that focuses on Cronenberg’s early career up to Videodrome, plus archival interviews with David Cronenberg (21 mins, from the Somerville House / Ventura DVD) and producers Ivan Reitman (12 mins) and Don Carmody (16 mins), an animated gallery of stills and artwork, and a trailer, TV spot, and radio ads.

Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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