By Daniel Lammin
5th May 2016

In the history of horror cinema, there’s never been anyone quite like David Cronenberg. Working with an aesthetic that somehow combines an independent arthouse sensibility with the tropes of classic horror, his films have delved deep into our most primal fears - that our own body can be violated and forced to betray us. He has many of the great horror classics to his name, including ‘Scanners’ (1981), ‘Videodrome’ (1983) and ‘The Fly’ (1986), but Via Vision have packaged three of his earlier films into a neat collection, which includes the Australian Blu-ray debuts of his first commercial successes ‘Shivers’ (1975) and ‘Rabid’ (1977), and an expanded release of his acclaimed Stephen King adaptation ‘The Dead Zone’ (1983).

At first glance, this adaptation of Stephen King’s acclaimed novel seems like an odd fit for Cronenberg. Rather than playing with sexual or body horror, it sits as a far more sombre character piece, wintery and melancholy. However, without the tropes we associate with Cronenberg, ‘The Dead Zone’ demonstrates his tremendous skill with character and tone, crafting a beautiful film that ranks as not only one of his best, but one of the finest adaptations of one of Stephen King’s novels.

Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) wakes up in a hospital to discover he has not only been in a serious car accident, but consequently in a coma for the past five years. For him no time has passed, but the world has moved on without him, including his girlfriend Sarah (Brooke Adams), now married and a mother. However, Johnny soon realises he has woken up with an unusual gift - an ability to see into someone’s past and future just by touching them. At first he tries to reject this new skill, but when he comes into contact with Senate nominee Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) and foresees a catastrophic future, he is forced to face his "curse" and act on it.

King is a master of character and storytelling, making him the perfect source material for Cronenberg. Working from a superb screenplay by Jeffrey Boam that streamlines the episodic nature of the novel and captures its unique sense of sadness and loss, Cronenberg builds ‘The Dead Zone’ around that loss of potential between Johnny and Sarah, making for a far more romantic film than you would expect. In many ways, this feels like a warm-up to his next and arguably greatest film, ‘The Fly’, another tragic romance played out against high-concept horror. Apart from the ingenious realisations of Johnny’s visions (all of which are executed with Cronenberg’s idiosyncratic brutality and texture), the film is surprisingly restrained, keeping its focus firmly on the characters. In this restraint though, the film really blossoms, revelling in the complex psychology that so many King adaptations foolishly leave on the page in favour of the shocks and the horror.

There is something deeply disquieting about ‘The Dead Zone’, certainly as Johnny’s abilities lead to interactions with men of violence and instability, but it never relinquishes that pervading sense of loss that follows Johnny, an ordinary man with ordinary dreams thrown into an extraordinary situation he doesn’t feel equipped for. Christopher Walken is superb as Johnny, in retrospect giving probably his finest performance. There’s a depth to him we don’t get to see very often anymore, and much of the success of the tone of the film comes down as much to Walken as it does to Cronenberg. Brooke Adams is also excellent as Sarah, far more stable and strong than just a lost love, and Martin Sheen is repulsive in the best possible way as Stillson, one of his few villain roles. He’s the perfect kind of actor to take on one of King’s delectable antagonists.

Stripped of his usual tropes, Cronenberg really shines in ‘The Dead Zone’, demonstrating just how skilled a craftsman and a storyteller he is. It’s a beautiful and haunting film, one that honours its source material while also improving on it in many important ways. Any other filmmaker might have watered down its melancholy or amped up its action or horror, but Cronenberg lays down each frame with precision and care, understanding that the heart of the film is in its loss and its sadness. ‘The Dead Zone’ is one of those rare and mature thrillers that stays with you long after the credits roll.

Via Vision have gifted ‘The Dead Zone’ a handsome 1080p transfer that betrays the film’s age but still captures a tremendous amount of visual detail. The only issue is that the film seems to have been reframed slightly, 1.78:1 as opposed to its original 1.85:1. The film was released on Blu-ray last year, but I’m not sure how this transfer compares to that. One area of improvement is that this disc comes with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track as opposed to a TrueHD track, and it’s a clear, well-balanced track that doesn’t blow you away, but represents the film well. I’m not sure where the video and audio are sourced from, but while they aren’t remarkable, neither detract from the enjoyment of the film.

Unlike the previous bare-bones release, this disc of ‘The Dead Zone’ features a number of fascinating extras. The film itself is accompanied by a commentary from screenwriter Stephen Jones and critic Kim Newman, neither of whom were involved in the making of the film but provide a lot of detail about the film, its production history and the original novel. There are also a series of featurettes, probably carried over from an earlier DVD release: ‘Memories from The Dead Zone’ (12:19), a general overview of the making of the film; ‘The Look of The Dead Zone’ (9:24), which focuses on its visual style; ‘Visions and Horror from The Dead Zone’ (9:43), a discussion about the function and execution of Johnny’s visions on screen; and ‘The Politics of The Dead Zone’ (11:33), which looks at the political overtones of the film and novel, particularly around Martin Sheen’s character. The set is rounded-off with an oddly-recent trailer (1:38).

SHIVERS (1975)
While Cronenberg had made a number of low-budget underground films beforehand, ‘Shivers’ was his first commercial film, and the one that made him an important name in the history of horror cinema. Released to much controversy in 1975, particularly in his native Canada, it was a low-budget surprise smash, and offered audiences a different kind of horror, one that wasn’t about a threat coming from without, but quite literally within.

The premise is pretty simple (residents of a luxury apartment building are terrorised by a grotesque parasite that turns them into sex-crazed maniacs), and like other debut horror classics ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (George A. Romero, 1968), ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre’ (Tobe Hooper, 1974) or ‘Evil Dead’ (Sam Raimi, 1981), it never quite steps out of its concept and metaphor into a logical and well-rounded plot. There’s no genuine protagonist, dialogue is mostly redundant exposition and the narrative just seems to move between its graphic set pieces. However, unlike Romero, Hooper or Raimi, what Cronenberg demonstrates from the first frame to the last is a lavish sense of style and composition. ‘Shivers’ might not have much to it, but as a technical feat it never ceases to impress. Cronenberg instantly establishes the objective visual lens that has become a feature of his work, detaching us from the action so we can only sit back in horror yet finding real empathy with the characters. It’s also understandable that audiences in 1975 were shocked by the film. The violence isn’t graphic as much as it is gross, but this is pre-‘Alien’, and no horror film had dealt with the concept of "body horror" to quite this extent. ‘Shivers’ is a shockingly sexual film, the parasites forcing their victims to engage in sexual acts that were taboo at the time (homosexual) and still taboo now (incest). In a way, it’s Cronenberg’s take on the zombie film, but rather than the victims being ripped to pieces, they lose all sense of propriety and become sex-starved monsters. It might seem like a silly idea now, but for a 70s audience this would have been uncomfortable, especially as the sexual revolution was beginning to spin out of control.

The performances aren’t much to speak of, the actors mostly at the service of the concept, but Cronenberg is certainly the star of this film. It might not be particularly sophisticated, and the young director certainly had a lot to learn about rhythm and narrative, but its execution is so beguiling and uncomfortable that you can’t help but be caught up by it. It also features some pretty special and stomach-churning set pieces, always balanced between black comedy and outright horror. For a casual audience, ‘Shivers’ might not offer much, but for those interested in the history of horror cinema (and Cronenberg’s contribution to it, in particular), it’s a valuable viewing experience.

For a film as low-budget as ‘Shivers’, it looks surprisingly good on Blu-ray. The 1080p 1.85:1 transfer is remarkably bright and colourful, and sharpness throughout is better than I would have expected. A title-card at the beginning credits the restoration to TIFF, and while there are inevitable signs of dirt and damage, there’s far less than you would expect. According to IMDb, the film was originally shot in 1.66:1, meaning that the image has been cropped, but this could have been Cronenberg’s intentions and how the film was finally released. Regardless, it’s a far better video presentation than I was expecting. Unfortunately, the audio is far from satisfactory, with the film accompanied by a Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 track. The film was released in mono, but this track lacks any real punch or clarity, making dialogue often difficult to hear. I imagine a lossless track would have worked much better, the track provided simply not strong enough to serve the film.

There’s a small set of substantial features included. The first is an introduction to the film from Cronenberg (7:58) that seems to have either been made for television or culled from a larger program. However, it ends up being far more informative than you would expect, Cronenberg speaking frankly and at length about the film and how it was received. This is built on in ‘On Screen: The Making of Shivers’ (47:38), a television retrospective that includes interviews with most of the cast and crew, looking at the making of the film and its legacy. Rounding off the set is the original trailer (1:26), a great example of how horror films were pitched to audiences at the time.

RABID (1977)
With ‘Shivers’ proving an unexpected box-office success, Cronenberg was able to aim higher with his follow-up feature ‘Rabid’, albeit with an even more ridiculous premise. With a bigger budget and more resources at his disposal, he conceived an ambitious film that combined the best of vampire and zombie films, and threw in some apocalyptic medical paranoia into the mix.

Rose (Marilyn Chambers) is seriously hurt when she and her boyfriend Hart (Frank Moore) end up in a motorcycle accident. To repair her burns, doctors put her through an experimental skin graphing procedure, but when she wakes up she discovers that the experiment has gone horribly wrong, resulting in a insatiable thirst for human blood, sucking from her victims through a strange parasite in her armpit. However, her victims end up contracting a strange variation of rabies, and this rage-inducing disease quickly sweeps across the country.

Even Cronenberg admits that the central premise of ‘Rabid’ is bonkers, but he still approaches it with great conviction, resulting in a film that works far better than it should. Having learned from ‘Shivers’, he now has a protagonist (played by one of the biggest porn stars in the world) and a narrative that, although sketchy, holds the film together, making it a far easier film to follow. It also continues to develop the style and tropes that would become his signature, gross and gooey body horror shot with careful composition and attention to detail. The commentary isn’t as clear here as it was in ‘Shivers’, but ‘Rabid’ seems like a logical continuation in his development, working on a bigger canvas with greater resources at his disposal.

The film begins as quite intimate, centred almost exclusively around Rose, but by the end that perspective has expanded to a city gripped in fear, large crowds running for their lives from rabid monsters attacking with primal glee. The horror in ‘Rabid’ is palpable and random, coming when you least expect it. The builds towards the set pieces are less obvious and more careful, and though many of them feel repetitive (especially Rose hunting her victims), Cronenberg finds enough variations within them to make them interesting and often affecting. Chambers is also a great figure to throw at the centre of the film, walking that line between sweet All-American girl and potential threat. It’s the first sign of Cronenberg’s skill with actors, something that was missing in ‘Shivers’.

Again, ‘Rabid’ is more a film for horror enthusiasts, but it’s another giant leap in Cronenberg’s development as a filmmaker and storyteller. That balance of artistic integrity and revelling in the grotesque seems to come a little into its own in ‘Rabid’, and even though it has trouble holding your attention, it never seems wasteful or indulgent. With ‘Scanners’ and ‘Videodrome’ just around the corner, it shows a great talent in cinema on the verge of finding his very distinctive and very powerful voice.

Unfortunately, ‘Rabid’ doesn’t look quite as good as ‘Shivers’ on Blu-ray, the 1080p 1.85:1 transfer marred with a bit more print damage and dirt. It still has its attributes (again, colour is surprisingly vibrant and clarity offers enough to capture some of the finer details), but it doesn’t have the pop that the earlier film does. It also suffers from another Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 track, that is a little stronger than the one on ‘Shivers’ but still makes the film difficult to hear at times, and flattens out the sound.

Much of the material that accompanies ‘Rabid’ is similar to that which did so for ‘Shivers’. We have a commentary from Cronenberg himself, which provides most of the background information on the making of the film. There’s also another introduction from Cronenberg (11:01), similar to the one on ‘Shivers’, albeit slightly longer. The rest of the extras look at Cronenberg’s career more broadly. ‘The Directors: David Cronenberg’ (59:05) is a vintage TV special from around 1999, and features interviews with many of the big names he has worked with, along with general biographical information on the director. Finally, there’s a set of interviews with Cronenberg (20:36) discussing ‘Rabid’ in retrospect as well as his other films.

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