The central idea, much like in Shivers, is on the surface laughably b-movie. Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is seriously injured in a motorbike accident with her boyfriend and is rescued by a nearby cosmetic surgery who decide as well as keeping her alive, it would also be in her best interests if they try an experimental morphogenetic graft to replace her fire damaged skin and organs. Of course this being Cronenberg things don't necessarily pan out as chief surgeon Dr. Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) hopes, and whilst her body does accept the new tissue it doesn't just replicate what was there before but configures itself into an underarm orifice replete with phallic stinger that fills Rose with an irrational hunger for human flesh and blood.
If a beautiful quite often topless young girl with a blood thirsty parasitic phallic oxter (US: axilla) on the prowl wasn't enough for a good old fashioned horror film, Cronenberg embellishes proceedings further by having those she attacks not remember what took place and most notably, and hence the name of the film, having them infected by a virulent rabies virus that makes them want to join in the flesh and blood hunger games too. It's all a rather far-fetched and over engineered set up for what ultimately comes down to a zombie-esque outbreak but like Shivers with its parasitical sex leeches, Cronenberg manages to not just get the viewer to suspend disbelief but fully on board that the whole thing is plausibly terrifying.
Cronenberg is gifted with the remarkable ability to present the world and the ordinary as not only interesting and natural, but transient and hyper-real; like we're only glimpsing a part of a bigger picture and there's so much more between the cracks. Characters always feel like they have real depth and conversations / behaviour always intimates thoughtfully crafted motivation, though some may be alien or incomprehensible. The effect is to imbue the film with a natural esoteric complexity that's both captivating and disturbing, even putting aside angry armpit penises.
It's well documented now that I don't mandate actual physical deadness in my zombies so with that in mind I'm more than happy to label the rabies infected blood thirsty psychopaths that were unfortunately made by running across Rose as she went about her road trip as such. With frothing snarling mouths, insatiable hunger to hurt anyone in proximity and the apparent now total absence of any empathetic, compassioned or rational self that once occupied the body they're pretty nasty and dangerous crazies and undoubtedly an influence on Boyle's deranged cannibal psychopaths which came some twenty five years later. Rose is more vampire than zombie; her parasitical driver wills her to seek blood, and only human blood, to satiate its overwhelming hunger. She's zombie in so much as she seems unable to resist the hunger, but she's still vampire in still being very much her, with her memories, personality and feelings of guilt and regret.
For all that I enjoyed Rabid I still couldn't help feeling that it lost its way somewhat as the narrative wandered from an alien / Species / slasher to an apocalyptic pandemic in the moments of its inception. Both work as dark and disturbing ideas yet I'm not wholly sure both quite mesh together in as coherent and natural way as hoped. Very much of its time, this seventies horror is inventive, well-crafted with many iconic scenes, and an obvious influence on the zombie / infection craze which exploded. Whilst it doesn't quite hold together as well as Shivers it's still a gutsy, bloody not-dead zombie film that's never superficial or insulting despite a central premise that is quite audaciously daft, 6/10.