Today’s article will be structured differently. Instead of a standard review, I will be contrasting two films, one being Rabid (1977) and the other being Rabid (2019) and seeing what film works better. The original Rabid was David Cronenberg’s sophomore feature and specifically into a topic that he would explore quite a lot in his career, body horror. It is not a classic but it has it’s fans among Cronenberg’s other works. The remake is directed by The Soska Sisters (who I actually got to meet and received a signed poster from at Frightfest, but that will not get in the way of my objectivity), who aren’t quite up to Cronenberg’s level yet but have made some decent low budget movies, from the flawed but unique American Mary to the trashy yet fun Vendetta.
Rabid (1977) follows Rose (Marilyn Chambers), a woman who gets into a motorcycle accident and is rushed into a hospital where surgery is immediately performed on her. It turns out that the doctors have implanted a parasite into her body that has a pincer which kills and infects people with a disease that turns them into mindless zombies. She escapes the facility and starts infecting people along the way, creating an outbreak and spreading chaos across Toronto.
Rabid (2019) has a similar storyline, only with a strong plethora of differences. It’s set in the modern day and around the fashion industry, the characters are completely different. There are other differences that I will describe as well.
The main story difference between both films is that the remake is much longer. As a result, the prologue is expanded upon quite a lot. The original opened with the motorcycle crash whilst the remake takes about 20 minutes to get to it. The rest of the remake is also stretched out more, with lots of scenes dedicated to character relationships and plotting. The structure of the original was simplistic, just being a series of escalating attack sequences, whilst the remake has a clear 3 act structure.
What holds back the remake’s narrative is how much less exciting it is. The story mostly just drags and drifts, not building much momentum and never fully coming together in a way that feels satisfying. It has plenty going on and a definite structure, but that structure does not compensate for the fact that it never becomes engaging. It operates at 5 most of the time and barely goes to a 7, when the original was often at a 9.
As for the background on Rose’s infection, in the original it was vague and ill-defined, just being a side effect of the skin grafting used to save her. In the remake, it is expanded upon, especially by the end where the motivations of Rose’s infection are fully explained by main villain Dr Burroughs, who deliberately infected Rose as an experiment. This approach works better in the remake because it goes perfectly with the choice to expand the narrative. The final moments of both films go for a deliberate downer ending and it works better in the remake as a final twist of Rose being captured and at the mercy of Dr Burroughs, whilst in the original Rose testing whether she had actually infected someone felt stupid and pointless, as it would not make the outbreak any better nor did it feel like an act of redemption.
Winner: It’s a tie. Both have their strengths and weaknesses.
Let’s start with Rose. In the original, she did not have much characterisation or backstory and the film couldn’t really work out whether it wanted us to fear her or sympathise with her. As a result, she was difficult to like and difficult to be scared of.
Rose in the remake is a big improvement. Her added backstory of being unpopular among her fashion peers and the victim of a childhood car accident already make her more sympathetic, as does showing how she can barely deal with her disfigurement. Even when she starts infecting people after the surgery, she remains worthy of sympathy due to clearly thinking that her killings are just dreams and still being a victim of the evolving parasite within her body. By the end, she tries to fight back against the infection and even kills herself in order to deny Dr Burroughs the chance to spread the infection further, yet the parasite within her brings her back to life. All in all, a pretty tragic and effective protagonist.
The supporting cast are also better in the remake as well. The only two characters of note in the original were Rose’s boyfriend Hart and Rose’s friend Mindy. The remake has a couple of stand ins (now named Brad and Chelsea) for these characters, but they are better here due to being far more fleshed out. Hart is changed from a decent guy who wants find Rose to a mole for Dr Burroughs who comes across as obsessive and controlling, whilst Mindy is changed from just being a random friend to her adopted sister that looks out for her despite making a mistake at the beginning. It also has new characters, such as Dr Burroughs and Gunther the fashion manager. Gunther is an entertaining enough character, but Dr Burroughs is not that intimidating and a totally obvious villain.
Winner: Rabid (2019). Every character is an improvement upon the original.
Marilyn Chambers gave a surprisingly strong performance in the original, as despite her background as a porn actress she showed off that she could carry a film by herself. She brought a lot of energy to the role and could balance being sexy and creepy, even if she did fall into over-acting by the end. The rest of the acting was not terrible, but not noteworthy either, as no one else in the cast was given anything substantial to do. Only Frank Moore as Hart had any material and even his acting was only okay at best.
Whilst Laura Vandervoort is okay, she’s weaker in her performance. She’s given more to do as a result of the expanded characterisation, but Chambers had far more of an onscreen presence. Though thankfully the supporting cast is an improvement, with Ben Hollingsworth as Brad, Mackenzie Gray as Gunther and Hanneke Talbot as Chelsea digging into their parts and getting a lot of mileage out of them.
Winner: Rabid (1977). Whilst the remake has a better supporting cast, the leading actress is where it counts the most.
Both films show off their low budget feel. The original has a gritty look that makes it feel somewhat dated and an overall simplicity that made it clear that Cronenberg was not being very ambitious whilst the remake is decently polished but similarly unambitious, with neither looking expensive enough to be worthy of a wide release. But the remake is smaller in scale and less effective in terms of it’s directing. The original had quite an epic scope to it, going to several different areas in Toronto and focusing on large crowds as well as showing the outbreak going from a minor incident to putting the city into Quarantine. It had a lot of intense and brutal death scenes, well done gore effects and a memorable main theme that created a sense of tension all throughout.
The remake chooses to downplay the scope of the outbreak to just a few isolated small attacks. These sequences are fine, with the effects being solid, but they aren’t really that memorable. There is sometimes an attempt at trying harder with the imagery, such as how Rose starts to sprout tentacles or how Dr Burroughs’s wife is shown to have been experimented on as well and has been mutated as a result. But it is held back by aspects such as the overly dark lighting and the limp climax that just consists of a few mildly gory deaths in a room rather than anything big or bombastic. On top of that, the editing, camerawork, music and overall tone is much more limp and dull than the original. The Soska Sisters can direct a movie well for directors who mostly do low budget Direct to DVD material, but they did not pull this off.
Winner: Rabid (1977). It feels like doing a lot with a little whilst the remake was doing the bare minimum with the bare minimum.
The original movie is not boring. Though it has flaws, it does a good job at being what it sets out to be. The remake succeeds in not being a carbon copy of the original, but it fails at keeping your attention. In fact, it ultimately bored me and left me feeling underwhelmed, despite a solid twist ending. Basically, the original is worthwhile, whilst the remake is not.
Winner: Rabid (1977)
Overall, I think that Rabid (1977) is the superior film. Neither of them are great, but whilst Rabid (1977) is memorable despite being thinly plotted, Rabid (2019) is overall fairly forgettable as despite its attempts to be a bit more complex story-wise, it ends up being far more boring and dull as an experience and just as a story on it’s own. Watch both if you are curious, but otherwise just see the original.