Vampire films are perhaps the most versatile subgenre of horror. They can be just about anything: comedic, sensual, gory, whimsical, and/or gutting. The best are a blend of many of these elements, mapping cultural, often metaphorical, fear and fantasy onto violent virality. Think of Dracula (1931) with an arch but deliciously funny Bella Lugiosi at the center, Salem’s Lot (1979) with a window scene so iconic it haunted a generation of kids, and Let the Right One In (2008) where adolescence is tinged with a foreboding gloom.
That’s the great genius of blood-sucking. It can be so many things. Lust and sexuality. Intimacy and connection. Existential dread about what it means to be alive—or unalive. It makes sense, then, that one of our formative body horror maestros would tackle a vampire film. And in 1977, David Cronenberg did just that with his indie feature Rabid, a fascinating, pulpy, prescient, and undeniably the one of the strangest vampire movies that’s unlike anything you’ve never quite seen.
Because it’s Cronenberg, Rabid isn’t exactly a traditional vampire film. There’s blood-sucking, yes, but it transpires via armpit instead of mouth. The film centers on Rose, who gets into a motorcycle accident with her boyfriend in the opening moments. She’s significantly injured in the crash, which prompts a plastic surgeon named Dr. Keloid to perform a radical new procedure on her. Keloid uses morphogenetically neutral grafts on Rose, hoping to replace her damaged skin and organs. Instead, he accidentally triggers a mutilation that causes a stinger-like organ to grow under Rose’s arm. And the stinger is hungry for blood.
Cronenberg has been a fixture in genre filmmaking since his first feature Stereo in 1969. He’s best known for his transgressive body horror, displayed most evidently in films like The Brood, Videodrome, and the remake of The Fly. Rabid is his fourth directorial feature and operates like a bit of a test run for the ideas that would percolate and better render later in his career. It’s not just about a vampiric hunger, but also sits at the intersection of horror and sexuality—a Cronenberg specialty.
Beyond its premise making it one of the strangest vampire movies, Rabid is memorable because of how it acutely and radically examines its sexuality. Rose is played by Marilyn Chambers, one of the most famous pornographic actresses of the 1970s. Prior to Rabid, she was known for her work in adult films like Behind the Green Door. Cronenberg originally wanted Sissy Spacek for the part of Rose, but was convinced to hire Chambers because producers thought her adult fan base could attract an audience for the film.
But beyond the potential financial benefit, casting Chambers was a stroke of metatextual genius. Rose’s new appendage awakens a hunger from within. A hunger that appears out of nowhere like sexual lust. The scenes where she bites her victims at first play out like sex scenes. In fact, Rose is nude the first time she bites a fellow hospital patient. He caresses her, there’s intimacy, but then she brutally stabs him with her stinger, molten blood pouring from his side.
That Rose’s sexuality is used to source and maim victims is part of Rabid’s lasting appeal. It’s hard to watch the film today and not see all that it extrapolates from the cultural and societal fears of the time, as well as what it forecasts. The film predates the AIDS epidemic by four years, but the panic around sexual transgression is all over Rabid. Rose’s blood sucking begins its own epidemic, one that turns her victims into zombie-like vampires themselves. The contagion spreads quickly through Montreal, where the film is set, causing widespread anxiety. It feels like stark commentary on sexually transmitted disease and how marginalized people often take the fall.
Putting a porn star at the center of the film only highlights the film’s sexual politics. Chambers is a wonderful lead—demure, beautiful, curious. Rose’s characterization is a little flat—an issue in many of Cronenberg’s early films—but Chambers’ presence does so much of the work. There’s a confidence to her that assists the violence she both creates and endures onscreen. In one scene, she attempts to drink the blood of a cow before a drunken farmhand attacks her. He tries to seduce and then assault her, but she swiftly ignites her fanged appendage and stabs him in the eye. WIthout so much as breaking a sweat. Chambers is a master at this dance between seduction and predator. She uses her body like an instrument, playing it gently but with highly complex notes.
One seminal scene in Rabid even takes place in a porn theater. Rose enters the theater looking for a victim and quickly identifies one. Their interactions begin like flirtation before evolving to something sensual. But, of course, the moment ends with the man’s silent death. Rose leaves his body behind, propped up and positioned toward the screen playing out male fantasy.
Sexuality is intrinsic to the vampire genre, the origins of the gothic creature rooted in the perverse. One of the earliest examples of vampire fiction, John William Polidori’s The Vampyre, is a loose allegory for vampirism as seduction. Further novels, like Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Bram Stoker’s Dracula are similarly erotic. The interplay of sexual prowess and blood lust is as carnal as it gets, which makes for fertile ground in horror storytelling. This is certainly something Rabid is eager to explore.
But the most notable literary predecessor to Rabid is Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, about a pandemic that turns the world’s population into vampires. The book is arguably one of the most important horror works of the 20th century not just for what it contains, but for its lasting influence. It’s decidedly not sexual, but it shows interest in the intersection of viral disease and vampirism. In effect, this helped kickstart the modern zombie genre. Rabid, too, is arguably both a vampire story with zombie elements that make it a strange yet powerful movie.
And that’s again what makes it so prescient. It’s impossible to watch Rabid in 2023 without thinking of the COVID-19 pandemic, which corresponded with other forms of civil unrest, conspiracy, and sex panic. Those themes, so present in our everyday, are in Rabid, too. Cronenberg has a knack for this finger-on-the-pulse approach. It’s easy to see how this film serves as both homage and a precursor to other genre and exploitation films. There are shades of movies like Dawn of the Dead and They Live in Rabid. We also see shades of the Cronenberg oeuvre that would soon define and inspire body horror forevermore.
Rabid’s strangeness as a vampire film is many fold. It defies easy categorization, is transgressive in a way that is imaginative and incendiary, and has an element of counterculture punk rock coursing through its veins. If you’re looking for a strange and unique vampire movie that sits neatly within the genre—while also daring to expand and revolutionize it—Rabid is worth checking out. If nothing else, you’ll never look at armpits the same way again.
Rabid is currently available to stream for free on Tubi.