Shivers is the debut feature film for Canadian director David Cronenberg who would practically create an entire sub-genre with his body-horror (it is exactly what it sounds like) style films. A crazed mix of sexual content and violence that introduces the potential of a director who has been shocking audiences and impressing critics for his entire career. Plenty of controversy surrounded this film - much of it coming from an article by Canadian journalist Robert Fulford that attacked the Canadian Film Development Corporation for using tax-payer's money to fund such an explicit film. That controversy would make it challenging for Cronenberg to get funding for feature films. Compared to his future films, Shivers' violent content is surprisingly tamed, but bursts of gore and low-budget visuals don't coexist very consistently.
Following the pandemonium that erupts within a highly modernized island community when a violently and extremely infectious parasite begins rapidly spreading. This new breed of parasite is created by Dr. Emil Hobbes (Fred Doederlin) who uses a young former student as his guinea pig, but when the parasite gets out of control he must kill the student and then himself; done in pure Cronenberg fashion. Dr. Hobbes' intentions for the parasite are for it to replace organ transplants (great idea), but it his other intentions that are the real kicker. He is one of those freaks who believes everything is erotic and every moment in life is sexual, so he makes it to where his parasite, once inside someone, can take control of the person and turning them into an ultra-aroused zombie - Dr. Hobbes' intent is to create "one giant orgy."
When infected the victim indeed does become a sex zombie. On rare occasions, like the ending, they are shown to have intelligence and minds of their own. But the pool scene at the end of the film is so reminiscent to a zombie film and the similarities are easy too find - the way they walk around in mobs and grope around like someone who is returning from a lobotomy. That makes me wonder if this film would have been better if it was a zombie film. Maybe, but that just isn't Cronenberg's style.
Among the many trying to survive the outbreak of community-wide sexual violence is Dr. St. Luc (Paul Hampton) who pointlessly tries to stop something he knows nothing about. Then there is the Nicolas (Alan Migicovsky), a willing victim who presumably allows himself to be infected and suffers more extensive symptoms before fully turning. His blubbering wife (Susan Petrie) is infuriating and worthless. The only other people who have any sort of effect on the film is Dr. Luc's nurse/girlfriend who is just a typical horror female character - Lynn Lowry's does what she does best, scream. Then there is Dr. Hobbes' ignorant assistant Rollo (Joe Silver) whose sole purpose is to inform us about the specifics of the parasite.There aren't any characters to cling to, the best performance is Paul Hampton's typical horror lead role.
For his first feature film, Cronenberg puts the film on his shoulders and gives us a good taste of what his future films would be like. Shooting on a low budget what he could do with his original idea was greatly limited. This film isn't anywhere near as visually impressive than his future body-horror films would be, yet still as gruesomely violent. I never was bored at any point during this film; although, I never was particularly impressed either;. the plot is basic and Cronenberg's talents are raw. The way he works the paranoia of the residents is satisfying, but the idea has weirdness surpassing intelligence and overshadowing interest. Virus outbreaks and infectious creatures running amok is not as fresh as it was back in 1975. A parasite causing people to become sex zombies is an idea that should have been saved for a porno. Why not just make the parasite turn them into rabid killers? Maybe that is too cliche. The wonderfully horrifying bathroom scene is one of those moments where Cronenberg's direction is at its best; his tense gore-filled direction still is impressive. Fortunately we can relate this messy film to some of his future works - Videodrome (1983) mostly - which allows us to see the ideas and talents forming. His sickening visuals would become more impressive, his social studying plots would become more inspired, and his violence would become even extremer, but used much more effectively.
I am a sucker for watching early films by great directors where you can see their talents quickly coming together; Shivers is no exception. This was a brand new look at horror when originally released, we tend to forget that Cronenberg's body-horror style didn't just appear out of nowhere. He had to test it out and introduce it to audiences who had no idea what they were in for. For a debut Cronenberg's film has aged solidly and even it today's standards it is still a violently disturbing film that is worth a look.