If you'd asked me whether this film would have made my zombie blog a couple of years ago I'd emphatically responded with a no. I'd feasted on the diet of rotting flesh supplied in abundance by Romero then maintained as a familiar western trope and was fully invested that dead meant dead. Today? I've come to embrace the notion that deadness is so much more than not having a pulse and being a great home for maggots; that the fundamental attribute of zombie is loss of will, of self, of control. That the concept is fluid and necessarily ambiguous and can be reasonably applied to all manner of people and situations where a new almost external hunger drives the host to behave in a way that's less than who they authentically are.
In 1975 a young Canadian film maker with a penchant for body dysfunction, infection, parasites and the blurring psychological with physical released his first feature film with partial funding from the Canadian Government. David Cronenberg's Shivers (aka Orgy of the Blood Parasites, aka They Came from Within, aka Frissons) was met with a mixed reception but also announced to the world the arrival of a daring and exciting young film making talent who wasn't afraid to challenge taboos or court the controversial.
Shivers is an exciting film full of avant-garde ideas, striking and disturbing images and real depth, yet the premise on the surface sounds simple and almost laughably b-movie. The brilliant yet disturbed Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin), has had an epiphany or total psychotic break down, depending on how you look at it, and has utilised his years researching parasites to cure mankind of its swing from flesh and instinct to rationality by introducing a cleverly engineered foreign organism into the wild.
The film begins with a brutal and disturbing scene of Dr. Hobbes attacking and overpowering his teenage concubine, stripping her, then slicing her open to pour (Hollywood) acid on her internals before taking his own life. The act seems malicious yet we learn it's the actions of a desperate man who has come to realise the parasite he has let loose actually does it's job too well turning them into sex crazed monsters and he needs to kill it before it spreads. This is cinema though, so of course he's too late.
Despite no corpses pulling themselves from the earth Shivers has all the hall marks of a zombie film. There's ground zero, there's the slow but exponential spread; there's confusion, screaming, violence and in the end total pandemonium and inescapable hopelessness. The parasite, a combination of venereal disease and aphrodisiac, on symbiotic infection consumes the host with an insatiable psychosis to procreate so that it can itself procreate. Those infected lose that which made them who they are, and are now for all intents and purposes mindless zombies driven by forces not of their own will. They retain their memories and knowledge, but that which stops from them acting against increasing physical and moral degeneration has gone. Sexual coercion turns into rape, rape turns into attacks, attacks turn into murder and cannibalism as the new hosts give in to deeper and darker primal desire, free from all conscience and societal consequence. Under Cronenberg's control the journey is dark, disturbing and utterly compelling. Never is it farce or amateurish but always tight, tense and intelligent.
Stylish, sumptuously crafted and always provocative and interesting. Characters have depth, relationships are complicated and dialogue is well crafted. There isn't a central story as such; Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton), the tower block's locum, his work colleague and lover Nurse Forsythe ( Lynn Lowry) and the accompanying ensemble are there to ensure the story is told and things are revealed at the right pace. There's no real heroes or villains and it doesn't matter. The narrative is the degeneration of the people of the tower and it's brilliantly realised. For a first time director with no real insight into how films were made Shivers is full of iconic imagery (the bath scene alone is timeless) and expertly crafted nuance and subtlety. Gritty, sophisticated, compelling and a triumphant début, 8/10.