Monday, January 14, 2013

Rats – Night of Terror (1984) dir. Bruno Mattei

Logline: A group of post-apocalyptic fashion victims roam the barren landscape of Earth on the vehicles they stole from the set of The Road Warrior. After discovering an abandoned bar with a hydroponic garden in its basement, they think they've found a haven from the harsh realities of an irradiated world. That is, until the hordes of voracious rats show up for baths and a bite to eat...

Animal of Choice: Super-intelligent, beady red-eyed sewer rats, risen to the surface and hungry for human flesh.

Thinking Ecologically: The grim events of Rats - Night of Terror transpire in a world devastated by a nuclear apocalypse, in which time is now recorded in terms of "A.B.," or "After the Bomb." We're told in a narrated opening text scroll that the majority of humankind permanently retreated underground, but some humans chose to return to the Earth's surface after radiation subsided, creating two separate factions of "the second human species" who maintained no contact with one another. Our protagonists are a group of "primitives" living on the decimated surface of the planet. Their world is a stock apocalyptic desert landscape (read: a studio in Rome), which nonetheless keeps them outfitted in stylish and clean leather, provides them gasoline for their many rugged automobiles, and allows several species of animals to thrive (lizards, tarantulas, rats).
The most noteworthy ecological aspect of this earth is the flip-flop of species domains. Before the nuclear holocaust, the surface belonged to humans, who had forced the equally vast (if not vaster) rat population underground. After the radiation necessitated that humans move below ground-- essentially invading the territory that rats had already had forced upon them-- the rats were again compelled to switch domains by moving back to the surface. The rats, now comfortably established on the Earth's surface, decide that they won't stand for the intrusion of human groups like our ragtag heroes, who have again risen to reclaim what they believe is theirs, regardless of any preexisting occupancy. Here we're presented with another testament to assumed human superiority through the belief that all other animal populations should make way (and room) for us whenever we barge into an environment. These rats fight back, leading our humans to naively whine, "What do they have against us? We've never done anything to them."

Thinking About Animals: The rats in the film's world are treated poorly by humankind before they mount their attack. The casual cruelty extends from throwing objects at them and squishing them with brooms to threatening to eat them ("cook them in vinegar and they're fine"). One character, Duke (Henry Luciani), who eventually emerges as the film's villain, appears to offer some hope for human/rat relations when he laments that the rats are "poor creatures" who are "just born unlucky" while urging his companion, who is abusing one, to put himself in the rat's place. But almost immediately after saying this, Duke shoots a rat that nips at his hand. His attempt at empathizing seems flawed. (It's also worth noting that it certainly appears as if several real rats were harmed or killed during the production, which might provide evidence for the filmmakers' general indifference to the creatures as well).

The rats in question distinguish themselves by being super-intelligent. In fact, they're far more clever than the film's humans, who only succeed in aimlessly bumbling into their own deaths. We're never certain if they've been somehow mutated by the atomic radiation that was once on the surface, but we're assured that their "instinct to kill has been awakened," as they forsake their usual food sources (which may no longer exist) and instead munch on people.

Another rationale is given for the rats' aggression: rats refuse to accept strangers into their communities, and so generally kill any rats from other groups that intrude upon them. The implication here is that human beings, through their reckless consumption of available resources and invasion of occupied environments, are acting pretty ratty. The film's shockingly goofy denouement makes this cross-species association literal, forever earning a place for Rats in my hardened rat heart and demonstrating that it is (however clumsily or contradictorily) attempting to mount a critique of human behavior. The real rat is man.

Evaluation in Brief: A curious melding of the then-ripe-in-Italy post-apocalyptic sci-fi action film with the somewhat-past-its-prime animal terror flick, Rats - Night of Terror is more likely to please those fans of the latter genre, as the headbands, mega guns, and leather vests that the coiffed, nomadic protagonists wear are little more than window dressing puffing up a string of rat attacks. Directed by Bruno Mattei (Hell of the Living Dead (1980), Cruel Jaws (1995)) and scripted by Claudio Fragasso (Troll 2 (1990), Monster Dog (1984)), the film comes with what you might call "a pedigree," and anyone familiar with the films in those parentheses should have a distinct idea of what to expect (or not to). Though equipped with a mildly coherent narrative (how about that!), it's also dumb as rocks, the plot advancing through characters kicking machines and being unable to unzipper a sleeping bag. It's racially progressive too: after being covered in flour, the black heroine (named Chocolate (Geretta Geretta), of course), prances about the room chirping "I'm white! I'm white!" Regardless of these potential demerits (depending upon your tolerance), Rats is in many ways a trashy pleasure, and one of the only films in memory whose ending has sent me into a coughing fit as I began to choke on my beverage (though its closing revelation is telegraphed long before the final moments, the actual visualization of this surprise is far too magnificent for words).

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