“Don’t let anyone bite you”: Close-Up on David Cronenberg's "Rabid"

No body of work is so clinical and so salacious, or so Canadian, as that of David Cronenberg.
Meredyth Cole

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. David Cronenberg's Rabid (1977) is playing October 6 - November 5, 2017 in the United States as part of the series Prelude to Halloween.

David Cronenberg is not my favorite director, but he is my favorite Canadian. Google him discussing Ferraris. Google him appearing on hokey chat shows in his twenties, his name embossed onscreen in Saved by the Bell shades of neon. Google him talking, period. His voice, a learned, Torontonian drawl, is as soothing and understated as his early films are not. Leonard Cohen was Canada’s collective father. Cronenberg is our cool uncle.

No body of work is so clinical and so salacious, or so Canadian.  

David Lynch is the obvious Cronenberg counterpart. Both men have remarkable heads of hair and are named David, both luxuriate in texture, both concern themselves with the underbelly, although the underbellies Cronenberg explores are more likely to have something burst from them, reversed caesarian style. Broadly, one could say that Lynch is preoccupied with the deficiencies of Americana. Does being Canadian qualify Cronenberg’s similar preoccupations as Canadiana? Are his disintegrating societies particularly Canadian? In works like Rabid, from 1977, I would say yes.

But first, what is the difference between Americana and Canadiana? Cronenberg feels this difference more than anyone, the invisible shifts in sensibility that mark out the borders of a nation. Americana is a confusion of wholesomeness and sublimated guilt: baking apple pie in a cabin that does not belong to you, the real owners tied up in the basement. The exaggerated emphasis on goodness is an obvious overwriting of a darker narrative. Canadiana is similar, but our national affliction is not guilt (although it should be) but sleepiness. Canada, viewed from anywhere on earth, is a vast, unknowable threat, second only to Russia in sheer size yet ranking somewhere below Finland in terms of perceived daffiness. Politeness, kindness, slowness: Canadian stereotypes all speak to a mollifying impulse. Cronenberg looks at his country, also mine, with the clarity of vision that is consistently associated with his work. He sees, and shows, that Canadiana is humbleness overriding an inherent menace, a goofy Mountie with a growling husky.  

In Rabid, the city of Montreal suffers a rabies-like epidemic that turns its victims into bloodsucking, oozing zombies. It could be many North American cities, but the important thing is that it’s not. Of course, funding from the Canadian government played a part in keeping Rabid focused up north, but Cronenberg’s preoccupation with Canada’s specific horrors means setting the film in Montreal was more than a necessity.

Let’s look at a map; if America has a heartland, then Canada is naturally the headland of the continent. The fears Cronenberg teases to the surface are as icy and cerebral as you would expect from someone ensconced in the North. Canada is naturally seen as wilder, less populated and therefore, less known than the country we border. The unknown, or only sensed, is inherently scary. Cronenberg is a master of horror because, like Lynch, he mines the subconscious.


In Rabid, the specific, buried, fear is of an oppressed element gaining (or regaining) power. When Rabid was made, Quebec was still reeling from the FLQ crisis, a traumatic chapter that saw martial law in Montreal and a series of kidnappings, bombings, and manhunts all related to the question of sovereignty for Quebec. This history lends emphasis to several moments in Rabid: when a British representative of the World Health Organization (Dr. Gentry, one of the film’s many silly/great character names), recommends martial law. This outrageously Anglo character imposing violent measures on a mostly French city isn’t the subtlest reference to Canadian history, but nothing about Rabid is subtle, and it’s the better for it.

The film opens with a motorbike weaving down a melting, half-snowy highway. There is an accident; the driver and his girlfriend are both hospitalized. Rose, the woman, is hurt worse than Hart, her boyfriend, and a plastic surgeon decides that the only way to save her is to perform an experimental skin graft. This is a Cronenberg film, so the plastic surgery clinic where this takes place is both hilarious and terrifying. The surgery is a success, in that Rose lives. It is not a complete success, though. Rose wakes up with an inability to digest anything other than human blood and a new, phallic, appendage hidden in her armpit.

Rose begins the film as a victim, of a motorcycle accident and a medical procedure gone wrong. She wakes from her coma posed as a victim too, this time in a comically porn-y scenario, laying naked in a hospital bed asking a fellow patient to “hold her.” (The actress who plays Rose, Marilyn Chambers, was well known for appearing in the golden era porno Behind the Green Door.) Throughout, Cronenberg has a keen and sarcastic eye for the everyday leering and harassment women face. Rose, in her new vampiric iteration, uses this imbalance as a hunting ground.

In Cronenberg’s oeuvre, heads explode and are examined, but what of armpits? Often, and confusingly, we speak of the underbelly of a society as “the armpit” of that society. In Rabid, armpits are further confused; they are sexualized. Rose’s stinger hides in an opening in her armpit that looks like an anus but could also be a low-budget vagina. Rose literally penetrates her victims, and the act of consuming their blood is always sexualized, she strokes their hair and embraces them, as if lulling them to sleep. Late in the film, when her boyfriend bursts in on her mid-kill, the scene has all the hallmarks of an uncovered infidelity. 

The underbelly of society, on the sides of highways and in sleazy movie theaters, is where Rose (and her armpit) can go to get relief. But by reveling in the underbelly, Cronenberg shows that even respectable public spaces are a breath away from chaos. In one sequence, Rose hits the mall, a lurid, neon-Christmas rush. One moment of violence sparks a chain reaction and not even Santa Clause makes it out unscathed. In Cronenberg’s Canada (and arguably, the real Canada), it’s a false belief that some places are bad and others wholesome; things get horrible anywhere people gather.  

No one can speak of Cronenberg without mentioning bodies and “Body Horror.” In Rabid, body horror takes on two meanings: as a horror film focused on the potential of bodily contamination, and as a horror film with an erotic sensibility. The film’s producers were well known in Quebec for then-shocking softcore movies, and Rabid has fun with the curiously porous boundaries between sex and horror. Casting Chambers in the lead is the most obvious example of this slippage, but there are countless instances of eroticism taking a horrific turn. When Rose shelters from the rain in a barn and is assaulted by a drunk farmer, or when she kills a man who sits next to her in an adult film theatre, Cronenberg plays with the presuppositions that govern so much of the cultural script contiguous to sex. Rose, who is the original, immune carrier of the epidemic that sweeps Montreal, unsettles the social order by unleashing mayhem and disease. She does this again, and more subtly, by upending the victim/aggressor dynamic of the most formulaic male/female fantasies. Again, and again, when she is picked up by a truck driver for instance, her vulnerable position is exactly what enables Rose to be a successful killer.  

But, is she an especially Canadian killer? Perhaps, in the sense that she is (seemingly) innocuous and invisibly menacing. Naming the lead character Rose highlights her innocence, something representations of Canada are often intent on highlighting as well. There are, of course, exceptions, notably Lynch. In Twin Peaks, the northwest is a site of evil and goodness. But it’s fun to note that the only Canadian characters, Jean Renault and the crooked Mounties, are uniformly nefarious and some are in uniform. Interesting that Cronenberg’s contemporary, John Carpenter, made his famous film The Thing about an isolated, cold place where evil was not distinguishable from friendship. The plot of that film speaks to the uncanny aspect of people who are only slightly different from you, almost imperceptibly so, a state of affairs that could also be the crux of Cronenberg’s Canadian vision.  

Often, Cronenberg’s insistence on remaining in Canada, to live and often work, is lauded as a defiant gesture, a loyal move. What if it is something else: opportunism. What if, like Joan Didion mining the unique relevance of California in the 60s and 70s, Cronenberg was in the right place at the right time. Could a director pre-occupied with horror hope for a more perfect landscape of fear than the one he has?  

Cronenberg did more than anyone to make Canada cool, not by creating something new, but by teasing out the dark waves that already color the country. It’s cold up here, and spooky. Cronenberg’s gift in Rabid is exposing just how spooky. 

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