Montreal played itself in a classic horror movie

David Cronenberg shot three films here in the late ’70s, but Montreal got the most screen time in Rabid.

Something awful is about to happen in the metro in Rabid

Alex Rose’s Made in MTL is a series exploring films from the vaults shot and/or set in Montreal.

The film: Rabid (1977)

Does Montreal play itself? It sure does! Although it takes its sweet time getting there (the first half of the film takes place in the very made-up town of Campbellburg, QC), the film very explicitly identifies Montreal as the hotbed of zombified madness.

Most egregious local landmark: It’s hard to pick between the butt-ugly brown apartment building at 2121 St-Mathieu, the front of Notre-Dame Hospital, the decrepit Cinema Eve (which was where Club Soda now sits) or the resplendent brownness of Cavendish Mall circa 1977. The parts set in the country were allegedly shot in Nuns’ Island; even though I spend 40 hours a week on that penal colony for the old, the rich and the Habs, it was so undeveloped at the time that it’s practically unrecognizable.

Notable local talent: Most of the supporting cast was local at the time (the leads being mostly working Canadian actors — except, of course, for Marilyn Chambers) but not that many went on to have illustrious careers. Rose’s last victim is played by Allan Moyle, then a roustabout making art films (Montreal Main, The Rubber Gun) around town; he would eventually go on to have some measure of mainstream success directing films like Pump Up The Volume and Empire Records. Ever-present character actor Vlasta Vrana plays a cop in one scene, and many of the actors would go on to work with Cronenberg again.

David Cronenberg’s success is often used to justify the laissez-faire attitude that Canada had towards its own national cinema during the tax shelter years. Sure, we made a ton of crap, but without the permissiveness to churn out crap, Cronenberg would never have come into his own as a purveyor of perverted cinematic weirdness. It’s not untrue — Cronenberg’s early films see him working through themes that would reappear throughout his career, but they remain trashy exploitation cinema for the most part. It’s more of a happy accident / coincidence that a major filmmaker grew out of such a relative dungheap than it is a measure of absolute quality of Cronenberg’s early work. That having been said, Rabid is an extremely solid example of pre-Halloween horror, warts and all.

Marilyn Chambers on Ste-Catherine

After her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) crashes their motorcycle during a ride out in the country, Montrealer Rose (Marilyn Chambers, best known up to that point for her porn career) winds up in emergency surgery in a nearby plastic surgery clinic. Sensing an opportunity, clinic owner Dr. Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) decides to test out a new skin-grafting method wherein the grafted skin can take on any form. It just so happens that the skin grafted in Rose’s armpit takes the form of a barbed, blood-sucking phallic appendage that pops out of a bloody orifice and attaches itself to victims, turning them into the bloodthirsty undead. Rose soon finds her way back to Montreal, where the vampiric armpit-dick turns the population into slobbering vampire maniacs.

The phalluses, bloody orifices and obsession with surgery will be instantly familiar to anyone with even a passing knowledge of Cronenberg’s work, but the truth is that Rabid has functionally more in common with the work of George Romero (though this actually beat Dawn of the Dead to theatres, and features an almost-as-memorable sequence in a gloriously earth-toned ’70s mall) in the same time period. There’s certainly a lot of subtext to the film (as there is in any Cronenberg film), but he had yet to perfect his cerebral take on body horror. It’s basically a zombie infection scenario done on a moderate scale — effective, but constricted by the limitations of the genre and of the commercial prospects that birthed it.

As far as junky, let’s-sell-this-in-80-territories ’70s exploitation goes, Rabid works. Chambers is a compelling heroine (especially when put up against Moore, who either delivers his lines like a child refusing to put on his snowsuit or yells at the top of his lungs), the armpit appendage just weird enough to seem original (Rose has to hug all of her victims in order to actually reach their skin, which is both hilarious and disturbing) and the film generally slicker and more entertaining than its ilk. More than anything, though, Rabid truly accepts its Canadian setting. Like a few other films of the period (Strange Shadows in an Empty Room comes to mind), Rabid doesn’t try to brush its setting under the carpet. I know not everyone is as gung-ho about trying to spot stretches of Ste Catherine in the background of 40-year-old movies as I am, but Rabid makes it seem almost sensible.

Cronenberg would go on to do the appendage-heavy, surgery-centric body horror thing better with Videodrome and Dead Ringers (and, to a lesser extent, eXistenZ), but he captured a sleazy side of Montreal that few others did at the time. ■

Rabid screens as part of the Cinémathèque Québécoise’s Nuit Blanche celebration (Cronenberg PQ, alongside Shivers and Scanners) at 335 de Maisonneuve E., on Saturday, Feb. 28, 10:30 p.m., free

Read about more films Made in MTL here