Attack of the Rats! – article

Showing alongside The New Avengers on TV in 1976 was Beasts, a horror anthology by Nigel Kneale, which included the episode During Barty’s Party. In this two hander, a middle aged couple find themselves besieged by ‘super rats’ (the titular radio show fills in what is happening in the outside world). We never see the rats in this story, the horror being effectively conveyed by sound effects and the growing panic of the couple.

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The 1922 Nosferatu had featured scenes of rat filled coffins that added to the general creepiness of the film (and similarly, 1931’s Dracula added rats to the creatures infesting the Count’s castle), but Werner Herzog’s 1979 remake emphasised the rat infestation much more, showing Dracula as, quite literally, the plague – the rats he brings with him spread disease just as much as the vampire does.

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In 1974, James Herbert’s novel The Rats had become a massive success in the UK, spawning a whole ‘animal attack’ pulp fiction sub genre and eventually leading to several sequels. This graphic and lurid novel about giant rats seemed ripe for filming, and in 1982, it was finally shot by Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse for Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest.

Relocating the action to Canada (doubtless for the tax breaks that encouraged many productions during this period), the resulting movie was decidedly less outrageous than Herbert’s novel, and proved to be a pretty ineffectual and slow moving affair. Things were not helped by the low budget, which didn’t allow for decent rat effects – notoriously, the giant rats were played by dachshunds in rat suits, which fooled nobody. In Britain, the film was released on video as The Rats, but elsewhere – where Herbert’s novel was less well known – it went out as Deadly Eyes, which probably just confused potential viewers more.

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Curiously, it wasn’t the only Canadian rat film at the time, as 1983’s Of Unknown Origin also features rampaging rodents, though this time on a more domestic scale, as Peter Weller (future Robocop) find himself becoming increasingly obsessed with catching a huge rat that is in his house, even if it means destroying the property in the process. As much an allegorical tale as anything (Weller’s character is literally caught in a rat race and his desperation to the marauding beast represents his ineffectuality in face of his desire to ‘own’ his own space), the film is well worth seeking out. For a more comedic version of the same story, check out the 1997 film Mouse Hunt.

Director Bruno Mattei had featured a scene involving a zombie rat in his entertainingly trashy Zombie Creeping Flesh in 1981, and he later expanded on the idea in Rats: Night of Terror, a post-apocalyptic tale where survivors of the nuclear holocaust stumble upon a village full of food and water. Unfortunately, it’s also full of mutant rats… deliriously trashy and gory, it’s no surprise that the film has built up quite a cult following over the years.

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Rats appeared briefly in 1982 science fiction mummy movie Time Walker, when two university security guards are startled to discover a cupboard overrun with the vermin.

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1983 horror anthology Nightmares featured the tale Night of the Rat’, in which a young couple argue over what to do about a rat that is apparently living in their house – Clair (Veronica Cartwright) wants to call in an exterminator, but Steven (Richard Masur) is convinced he can sort out the problem with rat traps. However, as things get worse, with huge holes appearing in the walls and the family cat vanishing, it soon becomes clear that this is no ordinary rat, but a giant variation. Directed by Joseph Sergeant, the film was originally made for TV, but was considered too scary for the small screen and so benefitted from a successful theatrical release.

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Giant rats were also among the horrors facing survivors in the post-apocalypse comedy Radioactive Dreams, made in 1985. This is a typical ’80s film as you could hope (or dread) to find, and the giant rodents are a mere aside to the action involving cannibals, mutants and roving bands of Mad Max-inspired punks.

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The same year saw Terror in the Swamp, in which a mutant cross between a nutria (a type of swamp rat) and a human, being bred for the fur industry, escapes and goes on a killing spree. Set in Louisiana, this is a classic example of a local horror production and is probably for rat horror completists only.

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In 1987, the spectacularly tasteless Ratman emerged from Italy, courtesy of director ‘Anthony Ascot’ [aka Giuliano Carnimeo]. Starring dwarf Nelson de la Rosa, this was the story of a homicidal rat/monkey hybrid creating by a mad scientist in the Caribbean, for reasons that are never made clear. Italian exploitation veterans David Warbeck and Janet Agren turn up in this bizarre effort.

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Epitaph (1987) features a scene in which a female psychiatrist is tied up and a metal bucket with a rat inside is tied round her waste. The psychotic mother heats up the bucket with a blow torch and so the rat gnaws into the poor woman’s stomach to escape (recalling a poorly-staged similar set-up in The Beast in Heat), only to emerge shortly afterwards.

Stephen King’s short story Graveyard Shift was filmed in 1990. The film takes place during the night shift clean up of an abandoned mill that has just reopened, where the workers find themselves attacked by rats… and something much worse.

The film invariably pads King’s original story out with ‘personality conflicts’ that add little to the story – you would be better served to stick to the prose.

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The third season of TV series Monsters, broadcast in 1990, opened up with Stressed Environment, where super-intelligent rats bred by scientists fight back against plans to close the lab and exterminate them, even crafting miniature weapons to attack their enemies with. It’s an interesting idea, but it’s rendered ridiculous when we see the rats, which are terrible stop-motion models. I’m not sure the sight of spear-carrying rats could ever be certain to cause shrieks of horror rather than shrieks of laughter, but the monsters here are especially rotten.

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1991’s The Demon Rat is set in the near future, when environmental pollution has reached new levels and toxic chemicals have created mutant animals, including a giant man-rat! This Spanish film mixes science fiction and satire in a fairly effective manner.

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4 Comments on “Attack of the Rats! – article”

  1. Glad this article reminded me of the TV show “Beasts.” Watched 2 stories on YouTube today and was well impressed. Deadly Eyes is pretty fun, Rats-Nights of Terror is a total B Movie must that every Italo fan should own. Kudos for mentioning Of Unknown Origin. That’s a good one. And I still have not seen Ratman.

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