Morbidly Beautiful

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Released April 8, 1977, David Cronenberg’s fourth film, “Rabid” is as relevant now as it was in the era in which it was released.

David Cronenberg is the forerunner in the bio-horror genre, a category adopted by his son, Brandon Cronenberg (Possessor). Other notable names include Frank HenenlotterBrian YuznaStuart GordonLloyd Kaufman, and Clive Barker

His fourth feature film, Rabid, earned two awards from Sitges – Catalonian International Film Festival 1977. Accolades included Best Screenplay for Cronenberg and Best Special Effects for Al Griswold.

In a controversial casting decision, actress Marilyn Chambers made her mainstream debut in the film as the lead role, Rose.

Ironically, Sissy Spacek was considered but passed on because an adult film star had been deemed a more marketable choice by producer Ivan Reitman. At this point, Ms. Chambers had four skin flicks under her belt, including the infamous Behind the Green Door.

Aside from her previous credits, Chambers did not entirely lack legitimate acting experience. The player had enjoyed success in The Mind with a Dirty Man, a 1974 dinner theater production. Before her break-out role in Rabid, 1976 saw Marilyn Chambers’ first failed movie attempt due to no fault of her own. The project was City Blues, and the film never came to fruition due to director Nicholas Ray’s substance abuse issues.

Rabid comments on the rising popularity of plastic surgery in the 1970s through its unapologetic use of Canuxploitation to explore the repercussions of meddling with one’s biology.

Cronenberg beautifully employs satire with the aid of trademark horrific, overtly sexualized, and symbolic extremes. 

Rabid also takes jabs at the Elizabeth Taylor film Ash Wednesday, released four years prior (1973).

The extreme abscission uniting pain and beauty in the Taylor picture empowered a woman to seek and regain herself as she seeks to retain a fading lover. Cronenberg grotesquely flips these themes, leading the audience down a dark path and challenging them to consider the adverse effects of body alteration. 

The mockery shows in the naming of the clinic Rose is taken to post vehicle accident.

The epithet Keloid Clinic for Plastic Surgery is a subtle reference to the fibrous phallic protrusion Rose develops due to an experimental procedure. The phallic siphon protrudes from a vaginal-like opening inside one of her underarms that is used to feed upon her victims.  

Perhaps the name Rose may also be scrutinized. The name is symbolic of purity and angelic presence, yet Rose becomes the matriarch of Hell, delivering zombiesque offspring into the world.

Rose is the bringer of an unstoppable plague, sending all those who encounter her to meet their maker — giving the film a chilling present-day relevance.

Rose’s wake of destruction originates in the countryside of Quebec and reaches its conclusion in Montreal, where a disbelieving Rose succumbs to a product of her affliction.

Upon release, the film earned one million dollars, making this the highest-grossing Canadian film. But its lasting influence and relevance transcends its commercial success and mainstream marketability. 

The film delivers a potent skewing of our cultural obsession with consumerism and corporeal perfection — no less relevant in the age of social media and filtered idealism than it was during the rapid rise of cosmetic surgery in the 70s — while simultaneously challenging ideas of normative sexuality.

Happy 45th, Rabid!

You can celebrate the film’s anniversary by watching it for free with ads on The Roku Channel, streaming it on Cinemax or DIRECTV, or renting it on most VOD platforms. 

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