Though David Cronenberg has long left horror behind, he’ll forever be intertwined with the genre for the indelible mark he left on body horror. One of his earliest efforts was 1977’s Rabid, a film that centered around a woman who develops an insatiable thirst for blood after an experimental plastic surgery, which in turn causes a city-wide epidemic as her victims turn into rage-filled zombies. Over 40 years later, the Canadian born Soska twins pay tribute to Cronenberg while attempting to give his original story a modern update.
In this version, Rose is an aspiring fashion designer working for a renowned fashion mogul Gunter (Mackenzie Gray). Played by Laura Vandervoort, this Rose is meek, introverted and portrayed as a bit of an ugly duckling. Her adoptive sister and closest friend Chelsea (Hanneke Talbot), a model working at the same firm, tries to push Rose out of her shell by manipulating a date with Rose’s crush Brad (Benajmin Hollingsworth), a fashion photographer. When Rose finds out, she flees in embarrassment and right into the streets, which leads to a catastrophic accident that causes severe disfigurement. Luckily an experimental plastic surgeon reaches out to Rose, and offers up a unique stem cell procedure that turns Rose from ugly duckling to gorgeous swan. And comes with a host of bizarre side effects, including a hunger for flesh. Cue the outbreak left in Rose’s wake.
The Soska sisters biggest update to the story is giving Rose the agency she never had before. In Cronenberg’s story, Rose was a tragic figure who never had a say in her own life. It was her boyfriend driving the motorcycle involved in her disfiguring accident. It was her boyfriend who left her in the care of Dr. Keloid, who performed the experimental procedure that irrevocably changed her life for the worse. Rose never seemed to have a say, and the tragedy of that was compounded with the desperate struggle to grasp what was happening to her body. The Soskas and Vandervoort give Rose ambition, a firm voice, and a strong moral compass. She’s the one at the wheel of the accident. She’s the one that consents to the procedure, and she’s the one driving the entire story forward. That key update changes the entire trajectory; Rose doesn’t feel like a passive voice in this larger epidemic happening around her. Rose is the epicenter of the horror and we see it almost entirely through her lens. Whereas the original captured tragedy, the Soska sisters take aim at rage.
The downside, though, is that this change affects her relationships to the characters around her. Or rather, they’re extremely underdeveloped. Brad is the love interest that keeps trying to shove his way into Rose’s life and make amends, no matter how often she pushes him away. She’s so effective at it, that the emotional punchline of that relationship falls flat. The true emotional tether of the film is her relationship with Chelsea, the caring cheerleader perpetually in her corner. But Chelsea isn’t developed enough for this sisterly bond to resonate near as strongly as it should.
Whether through overt visual homages or subtle references in seemingly throwaway dialogue, the Soska twins play tribute to Cronenberg’s work throughout. From a minor Shivers mention to a major surgical scene that feels right out of Dead Ringers, they want to make sure it’s clear how much they respect and love the Canadian horror master. That respect and love extends to Canada, especially Toronto, as well. The city is a key character in this update, and they ensure its personality is on display. It’s reflected in the cast and crew, too.
Special makeup effects and vfx have come a very long way in the decades since the original film’s release, and so has the budget. Meaning, this is one major upgrade in the remake. With creature and prosthetic design by MASTERSFX and Steve Kostanski (The Void) serving as creature creator, you can expect the rabid outbreak to be far more ghoulish and gorier. Rabid takes some unexpected twists and expands on the mythology in exciting ways, though it never fleshes out those ideas as much as it should.
This is the slickest production by the Soska sisters yet. Jen and Sylvia Soska have worn their hearts on their sleeves in their love letter to Cronenberg and Canada, while giving their own spin to the story. So much of this update is funneled into Rose’s transformation and agency, though, that all other supporting characters are largely forgotten. Including the characters we’re meant to care about. The finale is an exciting promise of go for broke body horror that leaves you with more questions than you went in with. But the gore and makeup effects are worth the price of admission, and so is this new iteration of Rose. Unpredictable transformation, flaws, and all.