The Dead Zone
aka, RAGE. 1976



Director: David Cronenberg

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl

For a Few Cronenberg More

Rabid Closely resembling a zombie flick though like Night of the Living Dead (1968) never using the term, in David Cronenberg's Rabid (1976) an extreme form of rabies is rapidly infecting the population. Staggering mindless victims just want to bitte, infect, & suck the blood & eat the flesh of their victims.

Starring Marilyn Chambers, she was a porn star who hoped a lower than low budget horror film would provide her a rung up & out of the porn industry. Which is kind of pitiful if you think about it, the dregs of the film industry looking upscale from her perspective.

Despite announcing her intent to leave adult movies for good, better options were not forthcoming, & she spent the rest of her career in porn. At least her audience was faithful, as she was still making dirty movies in the new millenium, though old & fat.

But really she deserved greater success. She turned in a first-rate B-horror performance in a role that went well beyond scream queen, since she was simultaneously the victim & the monster.

After a motorcycle accident with severe burns, Rose (Chambers) is subjected to experimental skin graft surgery that has unexpected side effects.

After a long period in a coma, she wakes up screaming & thrashing & horny & assaults the first man she can get her ever loving arms around.

RabidHer first victim is found bled from one armpit, & is paralized on the same side of his body, with no memory of the assault.

Slipping out of the hospital she attempts to feed on a cow but the blood makes her sick. She needs human blood, & a drunken farmer soon obliges her.

The skin graft in her armpit has turned into a sort of anus from which her "stinger penis" comes forth to drain blood & leave behind the zombification infection or super-rabies.

As Rose continues to assault & bleed victims, they afterward turn into flesh eating zombies, or, rather, foaming rabid loonies eager to infect others. Hitching to Toronto, Rose feeds & spreads the suepr-rabies as she goes.

RabidAs the disease spreads it's open season on rabid humans. The official government stance is that gunning them down is the only possible "treatment" for the epidemic. Meanwhile Rose continues feeding & infecting anyone she can seduce or grab at random.

Emulating George Romero's satiric bent, there's a bit of humor like accidentally blowing away a Santa Claus while machine-gunning rabid zombies, but it's in the main totally pokerfaced horror.

As a follow-up to the veneral disease horror film Shivers (1975) with its penis-monsters, Rabid has been interpreted as another venereal disease horror. It really seems only a zombie variant with a "queen bee" creating zombies without herself losing her intelligence.

As one of the formative zombie movies Rabid should be more famous than it is. This was pretty darned gross for 1976; today, it's kind of lowkey for gore content, compared to where horror his since gone.

But it's not less effective, with reasonably good storytelling art imbedded in it, well constructed & acted, & real independent B horror panache. It's miles above the increasingly gorey zombie flicks it forshadows.

The Dead ZoneCronenberg has been at least two kinds of great director during his long career: the guy who made low-budget horrors like Rabid & yet managed to tell good stories & get good performances from his actors, & the well-funded Hollywood director who can make a sleek commercial film without becoming too milquetoast to appeal to the fans of seedier horror.

Actors seem to have known from the start how good he could be, as he was no powerforce when he got James Wood to do Videodrome (1983). Before the 1990s, when horror films began to be considered entirely worthy of A-list actors, Cronenberg was already getting actors like Jeremy Irons for Dead Ringers (1988), Jeff Goldblum & Geena Davis for The Fly (1986), Jennifer O'Neal for Scanners (1981), Oliver Reed for The Brood (1979), & Christopher Walken for The Dead Zone (1983).

The Dead Zone from a novel by Stephen King is Cronenberg's most family-friendly anti-gore horror film. Whether it's one of Cronenberg's best films or not is hard to say; it is certainly way up there in quality. But in the vast array of Stephen King adaptations, it is even more certainly one of the best King films, understanding as it does that King's appeal is his humane concern for family life, not the usual heartless delight in picking off characters one by one for the fun of it.

It's also a very fine role for Walken, who wasn't yet typecast as the cutesy bad guy he nowadays nearly always plays. He started out as an actor of varied roles, & in this one he's a decent family man coping with an ability that is outside his control, & which will destroy his own life if he follows his new power where it is taking him.

The Dead Zone Johnny Smith (Walken) awakens from a five year coma & discovers he has a headache-causing ability to forsee catastrophes. When this permits him to save his son's life from a drowning accident, the blessing of this gift is clear.

But what percentage of his ability is brain damaged madness & what percentage is absolutely reliable foretelling?

A popular presidential candidate (Martin Sheen) really hasn't a chance in hell of not winning. But behind the trust-engendering charm is a maniac with a plan. Johnny at first a supporter gets to shake the man's hand, & sees the world-destroying nuclear holocaust the man will spark for no goddamn reason at all.

It's not an allegation that's going to get a depressive unemployed recently comatose hospital patient a congressional medal of honor. And Johnny finds himself in that classic situation: If you knew someone was the future Hitler, could you kill him before he'd done anything wrong?

To do so, Johnny knows he must give up everything in his life that he treasures. Even supposing he gets his Manchurian Candidate shot at the president, & supposing the Secret Service doesn't gun him down immediately, he'll never afterward be a free man.

His choice to give up his own life to save the world is sad & heroic. Walken's performance can wring tears from the viewer, & the suspense is just about non-stop thanks to the emotional content instead of the usual action-gags & gore-gags that are more commonly required to keep horror films from going too awfully limp.

Cronenberg proves himself a humane, dramatic director even in a horror film context, as if those of us who'd been watching him from his beginnings didn't already know that.

Oliver Reed plays the maniacal "doctor of psychoplasmics" in Cronenberg's The Brood (1979). Whether his experiments are strictly psychological & he has merely discovered one human anomaly (who wasn't anomalous before he met her), or whether as seems more likely the science of "psychometrics" caused the human transformation, is never credibly shown at any time during the film.

The most we get to learn about psychometrics is it resembles a lot of pop-psychology methods in which you let all your negative feelings out. In this clinic such ordinarny pop therapy causes zits on the body, as manifestations of the mental illness escaping.

The BroodWe keep waiting to see what the sinister doctor really does behind closed doors that causes zits, but from all the film tells us, it's really nothing.

This missing information -- the lack of the potentially gruesome or cool sequence of psychiatry gone mad -- renders much of what procedes throughout the film not merely inexplicable, but flat-out random & dumb.

There seems to be the seed of a very cool cheapo horror film in here someplace, but it only begins to bubble to the surface when we reach the climax.

Husband Frank (Art Hindle) has been cut off from any contact with his wife Nola (Samantha Eggar) who is in Dr. Raglin's psychiatric care. Though Frank is not allowed to see her, Nola is permitted weekly visits from her daughter Candy (Cindy Hinds), who has clearly been physically beaten with huge bruises on her back.

Yet the script demands that we believe "the law" is on the doctor's side & if he says the child must be allowed visits to be beaten black & blue in the clinic, then the father will lose custody. Franks own lawyer instructs him it's true, nothing can be done to save the child.

The BroodWe're also required to believe that if Frank has good reason to believe something untoward is happening to his wife in the clinic, & demands to see her to know if she's all right, there are absolutely no legal channels permitting him to see her, to stop or know anything about her treatment, to interfer with a mad scientist's work in any way.

The first hour of the film is chalk full of this kind of nonsense. When the film at long last gets round to showing us some gory bits & an ugly little dwarf (or a child in a cheap halloween mask) commits a slasher-horror murder, at least it finally has some exploitation value, but it's still not all that intriguing.

Beating grandma to death with a meat mallet in the kitchen is tepid by today's standards but gory enough for the 1970s. We know from the title of the film that this is probably not the only child in a cheap halloween mask, but from the story-context up to now, nothing makes a bleeding ounce of sense, & the story is more frustration than mystery.

When the police get involved they don't notice the tiny bloody handprints we saw being made. They find no clues at all. When Grampa soonafter gets wacked by one of the dwarves, armed with a paperweight, our hero Frank shows up in time to catch the murderous little devil, which suddenly drops dead while he's wrastling it.

The BroodThe dead goblin has no belly-button so couldn't've been "born" by any normal method. Nobody knows whose radically deformed little kid it could've been & once again the cops make no attempt to find out. The cops are just irrational extra presences helping bad out this turkey, doing nothing that police would actually do.

So nothing dealing with the doctor or cops really works in this story. It's just weird to think Cronenberg did write the script himself rather than got it from some thirteen year old cousin he mistook for precocious.

Meanwhile Dr. Raglin expells all his patients except Nola with whom he is obsessed. Slowly we're allowed to find out that the Brood, which is kept in a shed behind the clinic, are Nola's rage-children. Apparently psychoplasmics doesn't give her zits, it gave her an exterior womb. The brood grew in population throughout her treatment occasionally. Now & then one would escape, driven by the rage & paranoia of their mother with whom they are in telepathic communication.

The children don't need to be fed but live on an egg-sack on their back until it is depleted, then they die. When Nola is not in a paranoid state, the brood is somnombulant & does not use up their sac.

After killing Candy's schoolteacher to appease mom's jealousy (a successfully shocking sequence only because a schoolroom of little tiny kids are permitted to watch the slasher-horror cliche event), two of the brood kidnap Candy & take her to the shed out back. Then they all go to sleep, including Candy though she's not supposed to be one of the brood.

When we finally reach the climactic scenes, the Cronenberg touch at last arrives, playing out his disgust with bodily function, this time the birthing process.

The BroodLast time Frank saw Nola she was merely a bit nutty needing psychiatric care. Now she's a veritable termite queen giving birth from an external womb dangling from her side, which she tears open, pulls out her newest rage-infant, & eats the afterbirth & licks off the blood.

Samantha Eggar was a beautiful actress not entirely without talent & she naturally had wild-looking eyes. She does great work as a crazy rage-driven mother of goblins. It's only too bad the film surrounding her performance was so needlessly awful.

The doctor meanwhile is trying to get Candy safely out the shed, while Frank tries to keep Nola calm so that the brood remains asleep. When he is horrified to discover the transformation which the doctor somehow failed to mention while warning him not to make her paranoid, the brood awakens & good riddance to the mad doctor.

It remains only for Frank to strangle his wife to death before the brood kills Candy. He flees with his child from the site of so much horror, with the clear implication that Candy will grow up to be like her mum.

There's fifteen minutes or so of a good horror film mixed in with a lot of completely unsuccessful nonsense. Certainly Eggar as the "creature" is extraordinary both in yucko concept & in execution, a pay-off that makes the crummy rest of the film worth slogging through.

The gobliny kids, however, for most of the film look like Kenny from the cartoon South Park, until we see them in their pajamas in the shed, when they look more like kids wearing plastic Lion King masks from Disney World. Their being duds might not have seemed so bad if all the framing story was not so inadequate, with the presentation of mundane realities more irrational than the fantastic parts.

I frankly wondered if Cronenberg wasn't going through some personal crisis at the time & just wasn't paying attention to the basic requirements for the sort of well-done low-budget horror film expected from him early in his career, for a total rewrite was needed of just about everything but Eggar's role.

And it turns out indeed he was going through a very sloppy divorce that year. The reason the horridness of Eggar's performance as enraged termite is the only thing that really works is because Cronenberg infused that part of the story with his own feelings about his ex.

See also:
A Fistful of Cronenberg
(Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly, Videodrome,
Shivers, Existenz, Crash, Naked Lunch

& see reviews of Cronenberg's:
Spider. 2002
A History of Violence. 2005

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl

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