How David Cronenberg’s ‘Shivers’ Challenges The Zombie Genre

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Genre filmmaking, especially in the horror genre, can be looked at as being like a parasitic relationship. In this scenario, the director is the parasite and the genre is the host. The director changes and reshapes the genre for their own designs to produce the best possible film. David Cronenberg’s Shivers is a shining example of such a relationship, placed squarely in the zombie subgenre.

Shivers follows the residents of an apartment complex realizing a man-made parasite is infecting each of them, turning them into sex-crazed fiends. I love many of Cronenberg’s films, especially the body horror films he mostly made in the ’70s, ’80s, and ‘90s. Cronenberg effortlessly makes the body a more horrifying thing than any high school biology class could imagine. Cronenberg’s take on the zombie subgenre in Shiversshows how someone with a strong creative vision behind the camera can create a unique film within a well-worn series of tropes. 

Cronenberg’s familiar tropes are a crucial factor in what makes Shivers such a distinct zombie film. Cronenberg’s first film, Shivers is where he establishes every trope seen throughout his later films. Shiversdisplays his motifs like scientific bodily alteration and disgustingly memorable imagery. Scientific bodily alteration is the clear Cronenbergian trope separating Shivers from other zombie and monster movies. In many ‘50s and ‘60s horror films, radiation accidents almost always create the main threat. Even a crashed radioactive satellite reanimates Night Of The Living Dead’s zombies. Similar to the telepods in The Flyand the Ephemeral drug in Scanners, the parasites alter human bodies in Shivers

The parasite derives its strangeness from a combination of the topical organ transplant connection and not being an overtly visible threat. This also lessens the parasite’s screen time and evokes more mystery around the creature by effectively using a variation of the “less is more” tactic. In Shivers, Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlein) creates the parasites as a twisted offshoot of his organ transplant research. It’slaterrevealed the parasite infected Nick (Alan Migicovsky), and the film progressively shows how Nick’s body changes to further spread said parasites. This process culminates in the parasites emitting smoke from Nick’s body before he’s killed. When Betts (Barbara Steele) infects Janine (Susan Petrie), the scene doesn’t explicitly show the parasite, but a practical effect implies the parasite’s movement between their throats.

When one thinks of zombie film tropes like lumbering, flesh-eating beings, brutal imagery, and social commentary, Night Of The Living Dead codified most of them. As I’m arguing Shivers is a distinctive zombie film, it’s only natural to make this point clearer by comparing Shivers to the film that built the subgenre’s foundation. Shivers was made at the same time other zombie films were filmed in the aftermath of Night Of The Living Dead’s release. It’d be expected that Shivers would strongly adhere to Night Of The Living Dead’s formula, like the dozens of Halloween-influenced ‘80s slasher films. But, Shivers doesn’t for the most part.

What makes Shivers’ zombie elements stand out fromNight of The Living Dead is in Shivers’ depiction of the infected. Shivers creates an equally scary threat in a different way compared to Romero’s zombie by portraying the infected as alive. They can talk and are often seen sexually assaulting uninfected humans. These differences couldn’t be better displayed than in scenes showing how Shivers’ infected and Night of The Living Dead’s zombies first threaten the main characters in their respective films.

In Shivers, the infected first attempt to sexually assault Nurse Forsythe (Lynn Lowry) when she opens the door on one of them. In contrast, the first zombie attack in Night of The Living Dead, emphasizes the zombie’s otherworldly appearance and mannerisms. Therefore, the sequence in Shivers is eerie because it creates horror from a brutal act of sexual assault, hitting hard with ‘70s audiences like the zombies’ cannibalism affected ‘60s audiences. Though Cronenberg doesn’t drag out these sequences in an exploitative way, it’s still terrifying. It feels almost mundane, as the infected committing these actions look as human as any other person.  

Shiversalso diverges from Night Of The Living Dead in Shivers’ examination of human nature and humanity’s psychological limits. Night of The Living Dead splits its human nature commentary between Ben (Duane Jones), Barbra (Judith O’Dea), and the other survivors struggling to work together, including setting fires and accidentally killing each other. Shivers approaches the topic through the eyes of the infected and what they do under the parasite’s influence. This is apparent in a scene towards the end where Roger St. Luc (Paul Hampton) avoids the infected by hiding in an apartment, finding an infected father and daughter embracing each other. Both films tackle human nature and what has to be done to survive. But the way Shivers explores the normalization of the infected’s horrific actions successfully adds a lot more to the film’s surreal atmosphere.   

After Shivers was released, Cronenberg followed it up with another zombie film named Rabid. While it’s an obvious choice to mention Rabid instead of an unrelated zombie film, excluding Rabid would feel like something’s missing from emphasizing Cronenberg’s relationship with the zombie subgenre. Discussing both films further cements how a director’s relationship with a genre can be seen as a parasitic one. 

Cronenberg’s Rabidis a more straightforward zombie film, with the infected resembling a typical zombie. Though Rabid is not as engaging as Shivers due to two different aspects: The infection’s source and the storytelling’s scale. Looking at the infection’s sources, Shivers’ parasite is brought to life by a special effects prop.  Rabid embodies the infection in Rose (Marilyn Chambers) and the phallic stinger in her arm. Shivers’ parasite is more compelling since it’s just a special effect without human characteristics, making the parasite an ideal medium for harrowing imagery. This is epitomized when in the midst of attempting to escape the infected, Forsythe tells St. Luc an ominous story about an erotic dream she had. As her monologue makes it clear she’s infected, a shot of the parasite inside her mouth like a twisted tongue punctuates the scene.

It’s a missed opportunity in Rabid to not take advantage of the infection’s source being an actual actress and deepen her characterization in regard to how she processes the events around her. Throughout Rabid, Rose walks around and infects people, with little insight into how these actions affect her personality from before she became patient zero. The closest Rabid comes to developing Rose is in her tragic interactions with her boyfriend, Hart (Frank Moore). 

Rabid utilizes its bigger budget to show the infection’s effect across Canada, best displayed in a scene where minor characters realize a rabies vaccine doesn’t affect the infection. Shivers’ contained focus of just the apartment complex works better because the action stays squarely on the central characters. Thus, Shivers’ small setting strengthens the cast’s characterization. Shivers effectively portrays this in the subplot revolving around Nick’s neglect of Janine. These scenes successfully create the complex’s mundane atmosphere, while keeping the scale at a point where it doesn’t distract from St. Luc’s attempts to stop the parasite.

The burning question between both is why Shivers would be far more fascinating than Rabid? It boils down to Shivers’ low-budget filmmaking ingenuity and the lack of freshness when a filmmaker produces successive works in the same genre. 

What makes Shivers a thought-provoking zombie film is because of the nature of a Cronenberg film. The way Shiversinfected break from the zombie established by Night of The Living Dead strengthens this belief. The intention to ground Shivers infected in far more real, violent acts while also commenting on human nature through these acts is what makes Shivers’ zombie elements so original. The difference between Shivers and Cronenberg’s later film, Rabid, epitomizes a director’s creative limits when they work in genre filmmaking and innovation’s importance. A filmmaker can make a great genre film once, but replicating the same success in a particular genre requires more complex usages of genre tropes.

Cronenberg’s motifs ensure Shiversisn’t like other zombie films in delving into topics Cronenberg’s clearly fascinated by like organ transplants that weren’t frequently discussed in other ‘70s horror films. AlthoughShiversisn’t one of Cronenberg’s most well-known films, he’s still impacted by its release since his vision set the stage for his future successes

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