On May 21, Bruno Mattei died. He was the director of uncounted low-end Italian exploitation films, occupying a niche of horror and sex (frequently both) not unlike that owned by Joe D’Amato. It would be stretching the truth rather too far to say that he left us some good films, but he did leave us some entertaining ones. Viewers wanting a taste of his work should steer clear of Hell of the Living Dead, a zombie film that unfortunately is as dull as it is ludicrous. But Rats: Night of Terror (1983… out on DVD from Anchor Bay) is a different animal altogether, and as party movies go, this one is hard to beat. Be warned now, there are spoilers ahead. If you want to hit this film cold, stop reading now and go track it down.
A barely comprehensible crawl informs us that we are some two centuries after nuclear war. Our heroes are a group of bikers foraging for food and shelter in an unnamed metropolis. The movie is nothing if not a shameless pastiche of other (wildly disparate) flicks, and our first bit of artistic theft is from The Road Warrior. Or, at least, that is what the audience is meant to think. But these bikers are hardly threats either to Mad Max or to the Humongous. Their costumes are so varied and silly, they appear to have been lifted from several different movies. Add in the fact that, in this post-apocalypse world, copious amounts of hair care products and eyeliner are still available to both men and women, our bad-ass group appears to consists of Chuck Norris, Olivia Newton-John, Janet Jackson and the Village People.
Anyway, deciding to stop for not particular reason in one spot of the city, our heroes break into a building and orgiastically feast themselves on the food they find there: sugar (which – ewwww – is yellow) and flour. Yum. During the night, one couple goes off for some rumpy pumpy, and then when they part, they are individually killed by rats (the woman, hilariously, is killed by a single animal that crawls into her sleeping bag while the zipper is stuck.
From this point on, the film follows established lines. In the interview included on the disc, Mattei explains that his primary inspiration was Night of the Living Dead (which itself strongly echoed The Birds), and the format of the bickering characters under siege is certainly there, only now hopelessly inane. The dialogue often climbs to heights previously reserved for Ed Wood, the editing is disorienting (why, exactly, does Mattei keep showing us meaningly shots of building facades?) and the effects are priceless. The rats (again according to Mattei) are actually guinea pigs, and though they are visually fairly convincing, their attacks are not. For the big money scenes, actors stand under raining buckets of vermin, are leapt at by silly puppets, or simply stare offscreen and scream. There is also the unforgettable moment when a horde of rats is represented by plastic figurines moving along some sort of conveyor belt mechanism. Classic. The gore effects aren’t as frequent as they are in Hell of the Living Dead, but when they show up, they make up for in hilarious invention what they lack in quantity. The bursting-out-of-the-back sequence is something you’ve never seen before (for good reason). And then there’s the final twist: a group of gas-mask clad rescuers reveal themselves to be giant rats. This is a denouement that makes no sense at all, but is very much of a piece with everything else in the film.
So a terrible film by any measure. But one whose awfulness is consistently inventive and consistently novel. There is a great deal of charm here: the film is never boring as it never ceases to reach for the ludicrous. A toast, then, to Bruno Mattei and his guinea pigs.