[Women In Horror Month] – Female Rage as Infection in Rabid (2019)

Last August, The Sosksa Sisters debuted their remake of David’s Cronenberg’s 1977 film, Rabid. Staring Laura Vandervoort, Ben Hollingsworth, and Ted Atherton, this Canadian horror film tackles issues of anger, autonomy, and infection, all while tying it to the female form under the lens of mass hysteria and a fast-moving epidemic. While the original film paints Rose, our protagonist, under a veil of tragedy, The Soska Sisters gave her a face-lift—pun very much intended—and not only gave her agency through sovereignty, but also through rage. This version of Rose is independent, she’s in control (even when doesn’t appear to be), and if we’ve learned anything over the past couple of years, hell hath no fury like a woman… about to smash the patriarchy.

Now I am a die-hard Cronenberg fan. In fact, his work in horror, body horror especially, is one of the reasons I decided to get involved in this industry, and while he tackles themes of the monstrous feminine in his work (see: The Brood, Dead Ringers, Rabid), his women remain at the mercy of men, a submissive to the self-identified god who tinkers with their bodies, shapeshifts their faces, relabels their identities. While those motifs are still present to some extent here, what The Soska Sisters did was inject it with a feminist reimagining that made the woman equivalent to the man who tried to command her. As such, the film becomes both a love letter to Cronenberg and a deposition on female hunger: hunger for equality, for compassion, and most importantly, for choice.

When the film opens, we’re introduced to Rose Miller (Laura Vandervoort) at her place of work: Haus of Gunter. She is desperate for the attention of both her boss, and her colleagues, particularly Brad Hart (Ben Hollingsworth). However, despite being clearly talented, she’s constantly looked over due to her quiet personality and passive demeanor, and it’s clear that the scars on her face from a childhood accident aren’t doing her any favors in the fashion industry. We see this clearly when she heads to an afterparty one evening, and upon entrance, is stopped by the bouncer while a group of younger, seemingly more attractive and confident women head right in. The bouncer searches for her name, all while silently questioning why someone like her would be at a party like this.

For me, setting Rose up in the fashion industry was a brilliant choice. It showcased the stress and pressure society places on unrealistic and often unattainable beauty in the female form. Couple that with the fact that the line Rose is specifically working on, Schadenfreude, is a nod toward the shadow self, i.e. the versions of ourselves that remain hidden in the dark, all those animalistic, feral, desires and habits we mask from the public on a day-to-day basis. With that dichotomy of the true self versus the shadow self set up, it’s easy to see how the scale will be tipped and turned once Rose suffers at the hand of yet another accident. This time, she is left horribly disfigured as she questions her new identity and place in the world.

When Rose wakes up after surgery, her face is wrapped in a thick gauze that hides her wounds. For fans of the horror genre, this scene was a perfect nod to Veronika Franz’s 2014 Australian film, Goodnight Mommy, which also dealt with themes of scarring, loss of identity, and self-transformation. But fan service aside, here is where viewers got their first juicy glance at the horror beneath the wrappings and let me tell you—it does not disappoint! I really have to hand it to the special effects, makeup, and costume teams who worked on this film, because all the gory, blood-soaked moments were not only terrifying, but disgustingly delicious as well. Plus, they collectively worked together to send the message that body horror doesn’t only affect the body, but the mind, too.

It’s at this point in the film when the line is drawn between woman and monster. Barbara Creed, author of The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis, talks about how this category of monstrosity is defined through terms of sexuality, and as Rose deals with heavy doses of dysmorphia, it is then that viewers start to see evidence of the shadow self drip through the blood and bone as her rage at God, at man, and at society permeates through her wounds, which she now displays externally rather than internally. Furthermore, now there is fear surrounding her, where before there was only pity. Can she be desirable if she looks like this? Can she be a mother, a lover? Has she become a threat rather than a place of safety and nourishment?

When women become incapable of carrying out the roles and expectations society has placed on them, one questions if she is still in fact a woman or if she becomes something else, something other. When Rose decides to go to the Burrough’s Clinic to inquire about experimental stem cell treatment, she is at war with herself and her body. This abjection that she’s dealing with forces her to agree to the surgery in an attempt to reconcile with her reflection and the space her body functions in, and when she wakes up and wears a new mask of perfection, confidence, and assertiveness, viewers have to ask themselves what the catch was to signing on the dotted line.

Because if she was hungry before, now she’s starving.

Throughout the rest of the film, viewers continue to play voyeur to the ever-changing identity of Rose Miller and her insatiable cravings both in her career and in her stomach. She becomes swept up with designing a new line for her boss and breaks her recovery plan by forgetting to take her pills and drink her protein shakes. Now with not only a need but a want to devour blood, she’s found at the fridge, ripping open a pack of raw meat and drinking and licking up the blood like an animal. This scene becomes pivotal as it acts as her first blood, her metaphorical menstruation scene. By giving in to this animalistic need, she has awakened something inside her, and it’s in this liminal space that she exists as both woman and beast, doing what she needs to do both to survive and feel fulfilled.

This concept of self-fulfillment is juxtaposed nicely against a scene in the film where a man is catcalling a woman, who rolls her eyes and excuses herself from the scene. In a fit of rage and self-entitlement, the man continues to go after the woman and verbally abuse her, and when Rose inserts herself into the scene, something she never would have done or felt comfortable confronting in her old skin, she flips the dynamic to become predator rather than prey. We see her use her sex appeal to seduce the man only to eventually feed on him in an act of eat or be eaten. Viewers hear a primordial growl before hearing her rip the man to shreds under the light of a full moon.

What’s truly magnificent about the remake is how her hunger, and eventually her bite, leads to an infection that transforms the victim into a zombie, which essentially sets up Rose to take on the role of creator and destroyer, mother and killer. But the question here is what is she passing along? The film mentions a flu epidemic, an outbreak. But this fierce nature to survive and control and both accept and retain autonomy over oneself leads me to believe that Rose is acting as an agent of something so much more than a disease. Rabid becomes a protest sign, a warrior’s scream, and the x factor that Rose is infecting everyone with isn’t rabies…it’s rage.

The final scenes show us Rose being confronted with Dr. Burroughs (Ted Atherton) back at the clinic. People are dying and she’s uncertain about her part in it, and trusting her doctor, she walks into a room where she’s told she will find the solution to death. Once she’s behind closed doors, she finds herself trapped, on display, and at the mercy of his demands and his vision for how the female body should be both defined and used. In a final act of defiance and strength, she refuses to perform and turns away from the male gaze by slitting her own throat, her death the final statement about a woman’s right to choose. And if the horror of finding herself pitted against the choices of existing for male pleasure or taking her own life weren’t horrible enough, the final message of the movie is one of abject terror as we see her wake up, fresh as a daisy in a clean, white dress, still locked in a cage and under Dr. Burrough’s advisement.

This ending acts as a rally cry for women to break through the literal (and metaphorical) glass ceiling while also making the statement that no matter how far we’ve come, there’s still work to be done, because we’re not free until all of us are free: free of expectation, of stereotypes, of violence.

And if that need and desire for peace and solidarity makes us a monster, then so be it.

RATING: 4 out of 5 Blood Bags

Creed, Barbara. The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, and Psychoanalysis. New York, Routledge, 1993.

Stephanie M. Wytovich is an American poet, novelist, and essayist. Her work has been showcased in numerous venues such as Weird Tales, Gutted: Beautiful Horror Stories, Fantastic Tales of Terror, Year’s Best Hardcore Horror: Volume 2, The Best Horror of the Year: Volume 8, as well as many others.

Wytovich is the Poetry Editor for Raw Dog Screaming Press, an adjunct at Western Connecticut State University, Southern New Hampshire University, and Point Park University, and a mentor with Crystal Lake Publishing. She is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an active member of the Horror Writers Association, and a graduate of Seton Hill University’s MFA program for Writing Popular Fiction. Her Bram Stoker Award-winning poetry collection, Brothel, earned a home with Raw Dog Screaming Press alongside Hysteria: A Collection of Madness, Mourning Jewelry, An Exorcism of Angels, Sheet Music to My Acoustic Nightmare, and most recently, The Apocalyptic Mannequin. Her debut novel, The Eighth, is published with Dark Regions Press.

Follow Wytovich on her blog at http://stephaniewytovich.blogspot.com/ and on twitter @SWytovich. 

Published by Dead Head Reviews

Dead Head Reviews is a platform that promotes authors, publishers, film makers, and just about anyone you can think of in the horror community. They mainly focus on the book industry, but if something is horror-related, they want to get their hands on it.

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