Warning: This post contains adult content!
When discussing a film like Shivers, it’s hard to avoid the similarities it shares with zombie films. Whether it fully qualifies as a member of the genre or not is a subject for rigorous debate, but it cannot be debated that this film kicked off the career of one of the most interesting filmmakers of all time and remains a cult masterpiece.
It was hard to predict from writer/director David Cronenberg’s first two short films, Stereo and Crimes of the Future, that he was destined to be the master of sci-fi horror; while his abbreviated entries explored sexuality, consciousness, and violence in a manner that is distinctly Cronenbergian, nothing could prepare audiences for his audacious first feature Shivers, also known as They Came From Within and The Parasite Murders.
In essence, Shivers is about a semi-futuristic self-contained apartment complex wherein a medical practitioner is conducting experiments to improve organ transplants. How, you might ask? By developing an organism that can be suited to assume the function of any damaged organ, Dr. Hobbes may well have been on the fast track to fame, but his personal philosophy that mankind is too far removed from its primal instincts gives his invention a catch: The organism is a parasite that induces uncontrollable sexual impulses in its human hosts.
No one could fault you for not remembering the importance of various characters, their names, and their functions, because what follows is both truly original and viscerally satisfying. A man’s stomach burbling with swatches of crawling slug-like creatures is certainly a moment to remember, but nothing elicits more screams or uncomfortable squirms than a parasite making its way along the bottom of a bathtub toward the open legs of an unsuspecting woman. In short, the films Night of the Creeps and Slither are almost as much remakes as they are homages, and zombie filmmaking legend Dan O’Bannon admitted to seeing the film and stating that it had an impression on him vis-à-vis his writing duties on Alien.
While Cronenberg’s early work is distinct for its ground-breaking violence, as anyone who has seen the cultural lynchpin of a man’s head exploding in Scanners can attest, it’s the subtext buried in his films that make them accessible even today.
True to form, Shivers is a virtual goldmine of subtext, and the commentary is easy to understand because of the uneven marriage of violence and consumerist satire. In Shivers, these young urban professionals and upper-class snobs are living in a bland, sterile, high-tech paradise, and they’re just fine with it. However, soon enough they’re succumbing to the sexual impulses they’d just as soon conceal and they flip over to the other side of the coin; they become hedonistic animals burning for physical contact and infecting everyone in sight. It may be another side, but it’s still the same coin.
Based on what you’ve read, you might ask which part of Shivers qualifies it to be lumped in with scores of other zombie films. Taken as a conscious meditation on changing sexual politics, Shivers shares a fair amount of social criticism with films like Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead; though the etymology of the word ‘zombie’ is tough to trace, it could be considered synonymous with everyday people for whom conformity is a dispassionate surrender as early as Dawn of the Dead, a film in which the idea that the zombies in the shopping mall were satirical representations of a consumerist culture. Taking into account that the word ‘zombie’ is originally a voodoo term, Shivers is broad enough to fit in with the spectrum.
With Shivers, Cronenberg fashions a quintessential cautionary tale about mankind’s endless quest for self-improvement through science and technology while touching on the aforementioned elements of social commentary prevalent in other zombie films, but his work is distinct in that his choice is to take the side of the virus and dwell in the possibilities of bodily transformation. Is Cronenberg saying that the sexual revolution was making slaves of people giving in to their primal impulses, or were those people reconnecting with a side of humanity that they nearly lost?
In truth, the answer doesn’t really matter. While science fiction has always been a genre of ideas, having it fused with horror often dilutes the possibility for true social examination. However, David Cronenberg’s films remain unique and relevant not just because they’re so unabashedly disgusting and tap into a realm of sexual horror that seems to make people uncomfortable, but because there is a brain buried under those gallons of blood.
Those desiring to obtain a copy of Shivers may be in trouble: one glance at the only North American release on Amazon attests to the film’s cult appeal, as even a used copy on DVD starts at $70.