Director: David Cronenberg
Release Date: 1977
This is an unusual film in many respects; firstly it is kind of a vampire/zombie genre crossover – though the zombie aspect actually falls into the disease infected sub-genre explored in such films as “28 days later” (2002). Secondly there are no fangs; our vampire feeds through a probe like organ that emerges from her armpit. Thirdly the focus of the film is on the vampire, who also happens to be the patient zero or Typhoid Mary of the plague, of course it is not unusual to focus on the vampire but it seems unusual, in the more zombie type films, to focus on patient zero. Finally the lead actress is Marilyn Chambers, famous as a porn actress, in her only (as far as I am aware) none-porn film. This was a brave move by Cronenberg, who reveals in the DVD extras that he had wanted a name (Sissy Spacek being discounted because of her accent and freckles) in order to sell the movie, but couldn’t afford a big Hollywood star. Chambers was his ‘name’, therefore, and I actually think her acting is credible and any failing on her part is, I believe, down more to poor scripting.
The film starts with Chamber’s character Rose and her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) on a motorcycle. They crash and, whilst Hart is thrown clear, Rose is pinned beneath the bike when it explodes. Luckily the crash has occurred very close to the Keloid Clinic, a private plastic surgery clinic and the film is, as a sub-text, a damning indictment of the emergent (in 1977) fad of vanity driven plastic surgery, Though, having said that, this social commentary only occurs during the start of the movie and is not as well presented when compared to the social commentaries that Romero was able to inject into his films.
The couple are rushed to the clinic and, as Rose’s injuries are so severe, they operate on her there. Head of the clinic Dr Dan Keloid (Howard Ryshpan) tries an experimental skin graft technique on her. In order to help the skin graft take, her thigh tissue (used in the graft) is treated in order to make the tissue “morphogenetic neutral”, in other words the graft will become like the skin of wherever it is grafted – its medical techno-babble of course and worryingly so as it is the premise of the whole film and yet it means very little.
One month later Rose is still in a coma and Hart seems to have made quite good friends with the clinic staff, especially Keloid’s business partner Murray Cypher (Joe Silver).
In the night Rose awakens and her screams are heard by a patient, Lloyd (Roger Periard). He goes to find her and she asks him to hold her. We hear his pained groans as blood seeps between them. The next day he has no memory of events and is bleeding, suspecting a stroke (given he has no real feeling on the injured side of his body) he is sent to the general hospital. It appears, to the staff, that Rose is still in a coma and there is a suggestion that they suspect Lloyd attacked her – something that the film does not follow up.
The next night she gets out of the hospital and tries to feed on a cow, though at this point we still do not see the hows and wherefores of her feeding, just a thrust of her armpit. Within seconds she is throwing up blood, it appears that bovine blood does not sit well with her. A drunken farmer comes into the barn and tries it on with her. She thrusts her armpit towards him (it sounds odd but it’s true) and gets away, back to the clinic, where she feeds on (and simultaneously drowns) a female patient in a Jacuzzi and still we do not see the method of feeding.
Several things happen here. We have seen Lloyd discharge himself and get in a cab. He attacks the taxi driver, whilst they are moving, causing a big pile-up. Rose calls Hart, setting the young man on a film-long quest to find Rose, with the help of Murray, and Keloid discovers that Rose is awake and goes to see her.
Rose says that she is hideous and a monster. When Keloid examines her armpit he discovers a pulsating orifice. She has refused her IV, tells him that she has another way to feed and attacks the doctor. Here we see the tube like proboscis for the first time.
The next day we see the farmer go to a truck-stop for food. He is bleeding from behind his sunglasses (it appears, later, that Rose got him in the eye). The farmer is ravenous and steals a trucker’s food, when attacked he goes for the waitress and bites her. Meanwhile a groggy Keloid is in surgery. He asks for scissors and cuts off a nurse’s finger than attacks another member of staff by trying to bite him. All Hell breaks loose and Rose sneaks away through the chaos, trying to hitch to Montreal.
When Murray and Art arrive at the clinic the police are there in force. Several officers have been bitten and have been given rabies shots and Murray is taken to a police van to identify Keloid. He is pallid, foaming at the mouth and growling – it is the first time we see one of our zombie-like victims in full rabid mode.
The film goes on like that, with Rose feeding and the plague spreading. We learn about the disease through news reports. At first they believe it is a version of rabies, its incubation is quicker and its effects very different however. Victims become sweaty and shaking, foaming at the mouth. They then become violent, attacking anyone nearby. Eventually they slip into a coma and die. Later we discover it is not a strain of rabies, though it might be related, it is transmitted through saliva and that the rabies shots are pointless as the disease, once someone is infected, will still run its course. A vaccine is developed that only works for the none-infected and eventually Montreal is placed under martial law, the only solution to the problem being a policy of shooting the infected.
The infected themselves are much more cognisant than your run of the mill, returned from the dead, zombies. Despite their blood lust they can use tools; we see two infected workmen use a heavy duty road drill to break into a car in order to get the driver. The infection leads to some good set pieces including an attack on a tube train that is rather effective and an infected man in a mall who is shot by a policeman, who also manages to shoot Santa in the crossfire.
The big problem, however, is that we are never too sure about what has happened to Rose, due to lack of exposition, and we don’t really have a focal point we care about in order to carry the movie. There was, allegedly, a scene shot that explained what had happened to Rose but Cronenberg cut it for pacing reasons, yet the film is severely lacking without it. When we see Rose in a bathroom, sweating and in agony, we are never sure why. Is it hunger, or the disease she spreads affecting her or something else. Rose is an odd focal point, Chamber’s plays the part well enough with the material she is given but the character wanders (seemingly aimlessly) through the film knowing that something is wrong with her and yet never realising that she is the source of all the chaos. Because of the lack of exposition we are left neutral to her plight. We do not care enough to want her to survive nor do we hate her enough to want her caught, she seems a pleasant enough lady, if you ignore the armpit blood-sucking and plague carrying, but that is about it.
The rest of the acting is functional enough, in the main, but no-one shines and it never carries us anywhere either. Hart, for example, is a character we should have cared about but we simply do not, Moore’s portrayal is below average (which doesn’t help) but much of the problem lies with the script and its refusal to offer us anything to make us care. Essentially we see the big picture, plague and martial law, but the film never offers the minutia that allows us to develop an emotional attachment and would allow the director to build the tension that is sorely lacking. All in all, this is not necessarily a bad basis for a film, but it doesn’t grab you and make you pay attention as it should.
There are some who may argue that this is not a vampire film but, to me, it clearly is. Rose has a need to consume blood, she essentially dies but it is modern science that brings her back and (though not explicitly stated) causes her ‘condition’ and her month in a coma is a death like sleep. When she awakens from the coma she awakens at night, feeds and then seems to go back into her coma during the day (for the first little bit of the film) until night falls and she awakens again. She is the plague carrier, which has overtones of nosferatu (1922), and yet she seems to draw men to her throughout the film, much in the way the sexuality of the vampire is often portrayed. This very modern, and very clever, take on vampirism has – in fairness – probably raised the score.
A below average 3 out of 10 then for a film with such an unusual premise that it should have been something special.
The imdb page is here.