70s Eco-Horror Double Feature: The Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977)

I have to confess that I’ve always had a soft spot for the cheesy 1970s eco-horror movies I repeatedly saw on cable growing up. There was just something about the concept of an ensemble cast of usually past-their-prime actors, pitted against a series of largely woeful special effects meant to convey armies of gargantuan critters bearing down on them, that made me feel all warm and cozy inside.

Movies about mutated animals growing to giant size and/or becoming exceptionally aggressive and attacking humans weren’t an exclusive product of the 1970s, of course; in the 1950s, you had the so-called “big bug” films like 1954’s Them! (featuring giant ants), 1955’s Tarantula (self-explanatory), and 1957’s Beginning of the End (featuring giant locusts), and as it was the age of anxieties about the atomic bomb, it was almost always radiation of some kind that had caused the crisis.

Then, in 1962, Rachel Carson published her seminal environmental work Silent Spring, which exposed the horrors of DDT and other harmful pesticides. The book was massively influential in kicking off the environmental movement of the 1960s, and was the main impetus behind the eventual banning of DDT in 1972. Part of the book’s larger impact included getting people to think more seriously about what all these chemicals were doing to our air, our water, and the plant and animal life that surrounded and sustained us; and as any film scholar knows, widespread cultural anxieties like this always find a way to bleed into a particular era’s horror films.

It took a while for the eco-horror movie boom to really find its feet, however. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds was released only a year after Silent Spring was published, but it was based on a Daphne du Maurier story from 1952, and didn’t really explain what had made the birds start attacking the humans. It wasn’t until 1972’s Frogs that the classic eco-horror narrative came into full flower: in short, a group of fairly unsympathetic rich folks and/or corporate types who are somehow raping the land get their deserved comeuppance when a bunch of pissed-off animals decide to open up a waste barrel’s worth of whoop-ass on the entitled humans and knock them a few pegs down the food chain. Despite its title, Frogs actually featured a bunch of different creatures—including snakes, spiders, leeches, lizards, alligators, birds, and even butterflies—turning the tables on the people, though none of them grew big or mutated in any way; they were just really, really mad.

That same year saw the release of the absurd but massively entertaining Night of the Lepus (about giant, adorably bloodthirsty bunny rabbits), and then came 1974’s Phase IV (ants again, but regular sized, though highly intelligent); Grizzly in 1976; Day of the Animals and Kingdom of the Spiders in 1977; Piranha (killer fishies), Long Weekend (a bunch of different animals), and The Swarm (bees) in 1978; and Prophecy in 1979, which was mostly focused on a mutated bear creature, but also boasted some big-ass fish and tadpoles, and some very aggro raccoons

A variation of the subgenre continued into the following decade, but after 1980’s Alligator, the films began to focus more on mutated people rather than animals, i.e. C.H.U.D., The Toxic Avenger, and The Stuff.

But two of the eco-horror films I remembered most from my childhood were the pair I’m going to be talking about today. Neither one of them are honestly all that great from an artistic standpoint, but there’s just something about their chintzy awfulness that I always found really appealing, a feeling that I should probably explore with a good therapist someday.

The first of these, 1976’s The Food of the Gods, is very loosely based on the first third of H.G. Wells’s 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth. It was directed and written by veteran schlockmeister Bert I. Gordon, who knows his way around a giant creature movie, having been responsible for such cinematic masterpieces as King Dinosaur (1955), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Earth vs. the Spider (1958), Village of the Giants (which came out in 1965 and was coincidentally also based on the same H.G. Wells novel), and the second movie in today’s double feature, Empire of the Ants (1977), which we’ll be discussing in a bit.

At the beginning of Food of the Gods, we meet our main protagonist, Morgan, played by Marjoe Gortner, who first rose to prominence as a child evangelist and later parlayed the fame he gained from an Oscar-winning 1972 documentary about his life into an acting career, starring in movies like 1974’s Earthquake and the lovably terrible 1978 Italian Star Wars ripoff Starcrash.

Morgan is a professional football player, and one weekend, he and a couple of his buddies go off to the wilderness for a relaxing hunting trip. While there, though, one of the men is stung to death by wasps the size of mallard ducks, or at least that’s what the plot synopsis would have you believe; in actuality, the poor man appears as though he’s simply thrashing around violently in the woods while painted-on smudges vaguely resembling large insects float harmlessly around on the film stock. Yeah, I’ll probably bring this up again, but the special effects, even for 1976, are pretty dire, and aren’t even as good as some of Bert I. Gordon’s work from the 1950s, which is really saying something.

While he’s looking for help, Morgan comes across an isolated cabin housing a suspicious older woman named Mrs. Skinner (played by legendary actor/writer/director Ida Lupino, who’s slumming here big time), as well as a barn with some enormous chickens, one of which goes ham on Morgan in a hilariously awesome scene. Morgan dispatches the colossal cock with a pitchfork while the humongous hens look on impassively, and then Mrs. Skinner lays some exposition on him.

See, Mr. and Mrs. Skinner are just some simple farm folk, dontcha know, and they’d been praying to God for…something or other, it isn’t really clear. And then, wouldn’t you know it, some weird ooze that sorta looks like eggnog starts flowing out of a rock on their farm. They’re excited at first because they think it’s oil (???), but after twigging onto the very obvious fact that it isn’t (I mean, haven’t they ever seen The Beverly Hillbillies? It’s called black gold for a reason), they decide to mix it with the chicken feed and give it to their animals. Because why not just stuff some random runoff down the gullet of your valuable livestock? It seems the most obvious thing to do.

So the Skinners (Mr. Skinner is already dead, by the way, though his wife doesn’t yet know this) have jars full of this runny oatmeal-looking shit in their house, and predictably, some other hungry little critters get into it, including some mealworms or maggots or something, which grow to the size of French loaves and chew on Mrs. Skinner’s hand; and then some rats, which of course morph into super-rodents about the size of Volkswagens. In fact, Mr. Skinner’s own Volkswagen Beetle got a flat tire and subsequently got stormed by the big-ass rats, who macerated the dude real good, hence why he never came home.

So after all this alarming information is conveyed, Morgan and his other hunting buddy (whose name is Brian I think) leave the third dead, bloated, wasp-stung friend with the coroner back on the island, and they take the ferry back to the mainland to return to their sportsballery. But for some reason, Morgan—who remember is a professional football player, not a scientist or a cop or an investigative journalist or anything like that—decides he’s going to travel back to the island and find out what’s going on in regards to all the abominations against nature and so forth. He also somehow persuades Maybe-Brian to accompany him, even though this whole thing really has fuck-all to do with them (I mean, other than their friend getting killed, I guess).

Once they return, they run into some more giant-rat fodder in the form of a pregnant woman and her boyfriend whose RV got stuck in the mud while they were on vacation. There’s also a greedy, hateful, corporate asshole looking to cash in on the FOTG (because he heard about it somehow), and his microbiologist assistant who can’t stand him (who’s played by Pamela Franklin, of The Innocents and The Legend of Hell House, also working considerably beneath her talents).

After the corporate douchebag is attacked by the deadly film-stock smudges—I mean giant wasps—Morgan and Brian go and successfully blow up their nest. But shortly thereafter, the rats start getting restless, and although the gang are able to drown some of them and rig up an electric fence that takes a few more of them out, eventually they’re forced to hole up in Mrs. Skinner’s cabin while the rodents overrun the area.

In between all of the giant critter action, there’s all kinds of other ridiculousness, like Morgan stepping in to take charge, bossing everyone around and seemingly knowing how to do pretty much everything, even though there’s absolutely nothing establishing why he would know all this stuff; Pamela Franklin’s character straight-up propositioning him for sex right in the middle of an impending rat siege; and the corporate dickhole spending ages scooping the FOTG out of the ground and into any receptacle he can lay hands on, all while waxing rhapsodic about how he’s going to grow giant chickens and cows and also grow jumbo-size plants to feed them with, without ever taking into consideration where exactly on the planet he’s going to fit all this shit, or what would happen if something went even more awry and he ended up with Cowzilla.

At the end of the film, after they’ve drowned all the rats, burned their corpses, and also torched all the remaining FOTG, it’s revealed that some of the substance actually escaped destruction and made its way into the surrounding streams, where it eventually ended up in the food and water of some local dairy cows. The very last scene shows a wide-eyed schoolkid drinking some of the tainted milk, and we’re left to wonder how long it will be before this child is lumbering down the streets of Anytown, USA like a baby-faced Paul Bunyan.

The script of this thing is just wretchedly bad, but I think that’s what makes this movie so entertaining to me. Characters just somehow know things without any explanation or preamble, say and do the stupidest things imaginable just because the plot demands it, and take the whole endeavor far too seriously, which makes it that much more hilarious.

One thing that isn’t all that funny about this film, however, is the way the rats appear to have been treated. I’m not sure if any of them were irreparably harmed, but there are some sequences where they’re supposedly being shot, and while I don’t think even Bert I. Gordon would have really plugged rats with a shotgun just for a movie (I hope…?), it does look like someone was at least throwing something red and squishy at them hard enough to send them flying. I’m also not sure if some of the rats were actually drowned during a few of the sequences, but again, even if they weren’t, there are times when they look like they’re struggling underwater, and that’s just really shitty overall, especially for a movie as crummy as this one.

If you love cheapjack 1970s schlock with terrible special effects and mostly decent actors doing things they’re not proud of, then you’ll probably be mightily amused by Food of the Gods, though I admit I had forgotten about all the violence—simulated or real—against the rats, and it all just ended up leaving a bad taste in my mouth. I can’t deny that the rest of the stuff with the humans was funny as shit, though.

Next up on this killer nature double feature is another Bert I. Gordon joint, 1977’s Empire of the Ants. This one isn’t as patently absurd and slapdash as Food of the Gods, which makes it considerably less entertaining in a so-bad-it’s-good way, and there are stretches of it in the middle section that seem like they take an eternity, even though the entire movie is only ninety minutes long.

When I started watching it, I admit I was initially confused when the hapless victims started being attacked by giant ants, when I was certain I remembered the ants being normal ant size. But I suppose I was thinking of the aforementioned (and far superior) 1974 movie Phase IV, which as it happens was also a loose adaptation of the same H.G. Wells story from 1905, which was likewise called “Empire of the Ants.” The ants in the original story, by the way, were regular sized but highly intelligent, not big fuckers like we see in the 1977 film, and on the whole, Phase IV is a much more faithful adaptation of Wells’s work.

At the beginning of the movie, we have a bit of documentary footage talking about how creepy it is that ants are so smart and organized, and the voice-over also mentions the effects of pheromones on ant behavior, taking great pains to emphasize that the chemical signals laid down by the ants must be obeyed by the other ants; in other words, they don’t have a choice in how the chemicals make them act. Keep this in mind for later, because it’s going to pay off in an awesomely ludicrous way toward the end.

There then follows a scene where dudes in red hazmat suits are merrily dumping barrels of toxic waste right into the damn ocean; the barrels have the very helpful suggestion “Do Not Open” printed prominently across the top, which are all the safety measures you need, really. Predictably, one of these barrels washes up on a beach minutes later, and starts to leak a weird silvery goo.

Then we get into the main part of the story. Our slumming actor this time around is none other than Dame Joan Collins, here playing a shifty land developer named Marilyn who has some “valuable beachfront property” she’d like to sell you. She takes a gaggle of prospective suckers out to an island where her company is supposedly building a fancy new resort, though at the moment there’s nothing there but some flags and a bunch of signs saying things like “Future Golf Course” and “Future Beach Club.”

Even though all of these people have ostensibly come on this “free vacation” to look into a land investment, the characters mostly act as though they’re on shore leave from the Love Boat; though in the case of one dude named Larry, played by Robert Pine of CHiPs fame, perhaps I should say the Sexual Assault Boat, as he’s introduced forcibly groping another young woman on the tour while his wife Christine (played by Jack Palance’s daughter Brooke) is over with the others, enjoying the subpar free booze.

Once the assaulted young woman (whose name is Coreen and who’s played by Pamela Shoop) knees Jerry in the balls and escapes his clutches, she immediately heads for the booze tent and starts laying the moves on another dude with a black plastic hairstyle named Joe (played by John David Carson), who initially resists her advances.

Meanwhile, an older woman named Margaret (played by Jacqueline Scott) is very clearly trying to jump on the dinghy of the gruff boat captain Dan (played by Robert Lansing) by essentially following him and repeatedly asking if he thinks she’s making the right decision by investing in this property, even though he doesn’t know her from Adam and strongly implies that he’d like her to fuck off. Despite the storied reluctance of both Joe and Dan to become entangled with their respective female pursuers, however, both couples will be interacting as though they’ve been soul mates for decades by the time we’re twenty minutes into the movie.

There are a few more characters here and there, like another guy named Charlie who works for the developer and apparently has a thing going with Marilyn (because everyone has to partner off in this film, apparently), Groper Larry’s aforementioned wife Christine, and an elderly couple named Harry and Velma. Oh, and there’s also another couple who I think are named Thomas and Mary; they’re the first ones taken out by the ants, so the only character development you get there is that Thomas wanders off from the group and discovers that a bunch of “water pipes” coming out of the ground on some of the future build sites aren’t attached to anything, leading him to conclude that this whole beachfront property investment deal is a scam. Which…duh.

Anyway, all the potential ant snacks—er, people—get on board a little golf cart tram situation, and Charlie drives them around the supposed future resort while Marilyn gives them the hard sell. Not too long into the tour, they start hearing a weird screamy/crickety noise that unsettles them, and then all the guests are appalled at seeing the bare foot of a presumed corpse sticking out of the trees (I don’t think it’s ever made clear who this is). Shortly afterward, they all realize that Thomas and Mary aren’t on the tram anymore (spoiler alert: the audience knows they’re already ant chow because we saw the whole thing happen), and Joe and Coreen are the only two people with enough derring-do to go look for the wayward couple.

At one stage, the big-ass ants crawl down the pier and onto Dan’s boat—the one everyone got to the island on, by the way—and Dan and some other dude who I don’t think was ever named swim to the boat to try to save it, but end up exploding the shit out of it when it gets overrun with the monster insects. Thus the folks are now trapped on an island with seemingly no way off.

One of the gang—Charlie or Marilyn I think—remembers that there might be another small boat somewhere amidst the swampy inland of the island, so they all set out to look for it. For the next section of the movie, we basically follow sets of characters as they tramp through the cloying Florida wilderness (this was mostly shot in the Everglades), either seeing the ants in a process shot and running away, or alternately getting mauled to death by gigantic ant puppets. The remaining people eventually find the other boat, and then there’s another interminable sequence where they just row through the swamp, looking dirty and tired and talking about random bullshit, seeing or hearing the ants every once in a while until finally realizing that the ants are actually herding them toward a specific destination.

Said destination is an entire town that seemingly no one knew about beforehand, even though it’s pretty decent sized and also contains a massive sugar refinery (uh oh, you know who likes sugar, right?). This whole revelation was really jarring to me, because previous to finding the town, it was implied that this island was empty except for the proposed resort, and the characters were certainly acting as though they were stranded in the middle of the Amazon rainforest and would perish in days without rescue. Maybe someone mentioned the existence of the town before they got to it, but if they did, I didn’t catch it; I’ll admit I did doze off for a couple minutes here and there, though.

Anyway, the relieved group checks into a motel to get cleaned up and reoriented, but everyone they encounter is a little bit off, and the gang are also mindful of a warning they received from a creepy older woman who lived with her husband in a shack on the outskirts of town: she told them to not let anyone take them to the sugar refinery. But of course that’s what ends up happening; the sheriff eventually strong-arms most of the survivors into the factory, where it’s revealed that—surprise, surprise—the queen ant resides in a dual-sectioned phone booth-type deal inside the refinery, where the humans come in every so often and get sprayed with pheromones that cause them to do the ants’ bidding, which appears to mostly consist of feeding them sugar and lots of it. The residents of the town have got a whole organized system going too; every week or so, everyone obediently lines up single file outside the phone booth, and then one by one they enter and get hosed with the queen’s mind-control mist.

Captain Dan isn’t having any of this commie-ass hive-mind horseshit, though, and when he’s forced into the booth, he busts out a conveniently stowed flare from his trouser pockets and sets the queen ant aflame. The rest of the gang then flee for their lives while the sugar refinery burns to the ground, presumably killing the rest of the ants as well.

As I mentioned, Empire of the Ants isn’t quite as exquisitely terrible as Food of the Gods; don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad, but it’s not as ostentatious as that latter film, and is therefore considerably less fun. The ant effects aren’t great, utilizing the same techniques—process shots for long distance, puppets for the close-ups—that Bert I. Gordon used in his 50s-era movies. In one priceless sequence, the giant ants are very obviously crawling on a still photograph of the sugar refinery, because a couple of them wander vertically onto the sky in the background; this made me look back fondly on the crickets clambering across a postcard of downtown Chicago in Beginning of the End.

As rudimentary as the effects are, though, they’re still much better than those half-assed brown film smudges that passed for giant wasps in FOTG, and Empire at least has the benefit that no animals (other than maybe a couple of ants) were harmed in the making of it, so I could enjoy it with a clearer conscience. Empire is mostly just dull, though; the strange seediness of the random character hookups at the beginning is funny, but it all goes on too long, and once the ants start attacking, the whole thing starts to become really repetitive. It doesn’t get hilarious again until the very end, with the whole queen-ant-in-the-phone-booth setup; I admit that I was really tickled thinking about Joan Collins being mind-controlled by an enormous ant.

I feel as though the 70s eco-horror film is such a rich vein to mine, so I may return to the subgenre with another double feature sometime in the future. Until then, though, try to avoid dumping any toxic waste in the ocean and laughing in the face of nature’s laws as brobdingnagian animals rampage across the landscape. Oh, and keep it creepy, my friends.

3 thoughts on “70s Eco-Horror Double Feature: The Food of the Gods (1976) and Empire of the Ants (1977)

  1. Aww, I checked, and neither of these were there. I would have liked to see Empire of the Ants, because I love the Everglades…they did have Piranha, which I’ve probably seen before, and they had The Long Weekend. 🙂


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