Director David Cronenberg has always been fascinated by the fragility of flesh. Who can forget Jeff Goldblum's mutation in 1986's The Fly, his body falling apart after a disastrous scientific experiment merged him with the title insect? In Rabid (1977), we see Cronenberg has always sought to transform the human body into a battleground of horror, and here, he offers a contemporary vampire story that reworks the mythos into an elaborate AIDS metaphor.
Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) are involved in a horrific crash while riding a motorcycle. While Hart emerges bruised but relatively unscathed, Rose is caught under the vehicle and severely burned, her internal organs damaged beyond repair. Taken to the clinic of Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan), she is subjected to an experimental form of plastic surgery, which saves her life but with an unintended side effect. She develops a fissure under her arm through which she needs to feed on human blood. Her victims, likewise, turn into rabid, bloodthirsty crazies, and soon, Montreal is under martial law to control an outbreak.
Although Rabid predates the emergence of AIDS in the public eye by several years, it's not hard to see parallels. A pathogen spreads through blood, infecting everyone it comes into contact with, and Cronenberg really drives home the sexual element. When moving in on her victims, Rose is very much a seductive being. When feeding, her mannerisms are orgasmic, complete with withering and moaning as she holds the various men (and one woman) in a tight embrace. Afterward, she cradles them like a lover, petting their hair and appearing at ease. Rose's condition bears similarity to drug addiction. When she and her victims go without blood, they shake violently and sweat profusely like heroin addicts in withdrawal.
Rabid also demonstrates effectively how no one is safe from infection. Dr. Keloid is set up almost as Van Helsing character, the one who will use science to contain the vampirism, but Keloid is infected by Rose early in the proceedings. In the film's best and most unsettling scene, he goes rabid while reattaching a woman's ear during plastic surgery, asking for scissors from a nurse, and then slicing off her finger when she hands him a pair. Like AIDS, this disease doesn't care about your status, wealth, gender, or job. Anyone can get it.
The AIDS connection also relates to where Cronenberg stages the attacks: hospital room, hot tub, truck stop, subway, and other locations which have connotations of being unclean, ripe with potential infections, and places where illicit sex occurs. For example, the attack in hot tub is overtly homoerotic because it is against Rose's only female victim (make your own jokes about truck stops).
Cronenberg also displays his fascination for flesh and its fallibilities. When we first see Rose, she's wearing full-bodied leather and a helmet, illustrating just how delicate the human form is because this is the level of protection it requires. The effort of doctors to counter the weakness of the body leads to the outbreak in the first place, and even before the mayhem begins, several patients wander around the clinic with bandages from multiple plastic surgeries. The human body is ultimately a weak entity that crumbles under pressure and rebels against the mind's desires.
Since this is early, low-budget Cronenberg, the acting is often wooden and amateurish, and the special effects are shlock. The script can't decide if Rose is aware of the harm she's causing, and while Chambers is fine in the role, her character is little more than a plot device; there's no sense of how she feels about her condition, and no one else really stands out. As a result, not much is frightening because there's a lack of character identification.
But Cronenberg infuses a lot of craft and invention, and it's rewarding to see how he approached his trademark themes at this point in his career. It's easy to tell at this point he was a talent on the rise. Now, he's making Oscar contenders with Viggo Mortenson and has abandoned the slimy tentacles, crazed infected, mutant flies, and whatever the hell was going on in Videodrome. So while Rabid is not one of his masterpieces, it's an interesting early look.