My two favorite David Cronenberg films are Rabid (1977) and Dead Ringers (1988). I like a lot of Cronenberg but I think he’s at his best when he’s at his kinkiest. Sex in Cronenberg’s films is almost always a reaction or symptom of societal pressures bearing down on his characters. Human sexuality is as fluid as it is constant, metamorphosing with the progression of the narrative. Unlike David Lynch’s puritanical approach to sex, Cronenberg accepts sexuality as a given and uses it in his films as a kind of mirror in which the viewer can perceive our world reflected in microcosm.
This is why the human body is so important to Cronenberg’s work. The body is the vessel through which desire is acted upon; as desires shift, so often does the body. On a technical generic level a number of Cronenberg’s films, including Rabid, could be categorized as “body horror”. It’s a vague label that, while being generally accurate, fails to articulate how essential human form is in Cronenberg’s films like Eastern Promises (2007) and A Dangerous Method (2011). In Eastern Promises the tattoos on Viggo Mortensen are as essential a signifier as the wounds that his body slowly accumulates. Likewise the gradual intensifying of the objectification of Keira Knightley’s body in A Dangerous Method serves as an indicator of the power transference and physical diminishment of Michael Fassbender’s own physical presence.
Biological metamorphosis, physical mutilation, and physical objectification are all central to Rose’s (Marilyn Chambers) narrative and the discourse within that narrative surrounding her in Rabid. With Chambers comes the stigma of pornography, with Rose comes the potential for mutilation and biological change, and with the basic circumstance of the narrative comes the intersection where all of these elements meet and explode into a literal pandemic. Cronenberg aligns these elements to articulate a distinctly late-seventies form of sexual anxiety in which female empowerment serves as a kind of social and political castration of the male. Ego and Id combat one another openly in the guise of the rabid population’s assault on those still unaffected.
These shifts in social and political power are treated as inevitable in Rabid. Cronenberg is content to reflect rather than comment or even steer the film so that it takes on an explicit message. The horror that exists in Rabid goes beyond the superficiality of the gore and to the notion that our bodies are as unknowable as our desires. Even then the horror aspects of the film are merely the dressing around the more encompassing themes of political upheaval.
If Rose is the catalyst for a chain reaction whose first link is the metaphorical castration of the patriarchy, the second link is the declaration of martial law by the government. This gesture is the ultimate expression of masculine power within the political complex. To forcibly subdue the population, though treated as a futile act by Cronenberg, is a source of potent images of fear, anger, and desperation. In a phallic-centric world the clash between the army and the citizens whom that army was formed to serve reiterates the hypocrisy of the binary and the abstract institutions that have formed around them to construct what is deemed popular society. For David Cronenberg there’s no more amorphous body than that of the collective.
So though Rabid is a very effective spectacle of terror and gore its meaning reaches beyond the limitations one generally associates with the genre. The best horror films, which includes Rabid, are not made with the pleasures of the genre as their focus or defining characteristic. As with any genre film a good horror picture must mine intellectual territories that exist beyond the borders of expectation and commerce.