DECEMBER 29, 2012
The most surprising thing about Rats: Night Of Terror (Italian: Rats - Notte di Terrore) is that despite coming from Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso (the guys behind Hell Of The Living Dead), it's actually not particularly gory or violent, and it saves its only truly batshit moment for the closing shot. Otherwise it's a pretty straightforward, somewhat too-slowly paced tale of a group of survivors who come up from underground to scavenge for supplies and end up trapped in a building with a bunch of bloodthirsty rats.
And by bloodthirsty I mean "occasionally the filmmakers will dump a bucket of the poor things on one of their actors". Those scenes are a delight, because it looks to me like they're actual live rats (not rubber) being tossed haphazardly over an understandably freaked out actor, but more often than not the actors will scream and fret about the rats, and then Mattei will cut to a shot of a bunch of the things just sort of chilling, sniffing around, crawling over one another... basically everything a rat can do EXCEPT advance or make any sort of threatening behavior toward the humans they're supposedly trying to kill. Sometimes they don't even bother with the cutaway; we just have to take the actor's word for it. To be fair, Mattei DOES use a bunch of rubber rats for one shot, where they're placed evenly on a conveyor belt or something and glide past the camera, so in comparison the real rats that are just hanging out look terrifying.
Now, this is the early 80s so obviously there's no CGI to use - but why did they opt for normal sized rats (actually guinea pigs painted brown/gray, according to an interview with Mattei on the disc) instead of giant ones, which they could use puppets or trick photography to give some sense of menace? I'm used to my Italian horror movies being silly, but not in this fashion - at no point did I feel they were in any real danger from the film's only villain. Even when they were just being dumped all over the characters, you can see the rats just sort of freaking out and scampering AWAY from their "target", so it all comes across more than a bit flat.
Otherwise, it's still pretty enjoyable. Mattei was going for a bit of a Night of the Living Dead thing here, so the survivors bicker fairly often, and one guy plays Cooper and turns on the others, but we have laid-back rats instead of zombies. Mattei stages a few memorable death (or, post-death) scenes, as the rats have a thing for crawling inside bodies and exiting when witnesses are around to see it - one crawls out of a woman's mouth, so you can use your imagination to figure out where it crawled IN, and at one point a body actually bursts apart as several of the things make their way out. They're also fans of propping corpses against doors and such like a slasher killer, so I found that pretty amusing even if it didn't make a lick of sense. It's not very gory (just about every makeup effect of note is seen on a corpse), but there's some variety to the 6-7 deaths all the same. And the hero is named Kurt and more or less dressed like MacReady from The Thing, so I'm completely on board with that.
It's also rife with bonkers dialogue, particularly from the character of Video (they all have stupid names), who bemoans never getting to play a real video game but yet can't recognize a computer when he sees one (he claims it needs "a kick in the balls" when he can't get it started). I also loved the bit where they find "food", which is mostly sugar and flour - a couple of them bite into sugar bags and eat it, which I kind of get (who hasn't eaten a sugar packet?), but when they do the same for flour I started getting confused (and also instantly began singing "Sal Tlay Ka Siti" from Book Of Mormon). This also has the movie's most delightfully weird bit, as a guy dumps the bag over the lone black member of the group as part of the celebration, and she immediately begins dancing around while shouting about how she's now whiter than the rest of them.
Well, 2nd weirdest. This movie has the odd distinction of having a totally bonkers final minute that I somehow managed to call 20 minutes before, albeit mostly as a joke. There's something admirable about it, to be sure, but at the same time it kind of diminished the power (lack of a better word) of the film's rather surprising social commentary, in that humans and rats had switched places. In our day, we ran the world while the rats were forced to live in the sewers, but now it's the other way around, and thus (considering the limitations described above) the rats spend the movie doing the same thing we do to any rats that surface just to find food or something - we exterminate it. And to some degree this is just hammered home by the finale, but does so in a silly way that puts the movie into full-blown Syfy movie territory as opposed to something more grounded (and thus more interesting).
Mattei doesn't talk much about the ending... or the actors, plot, etc on the 8 minute interview that serves as the disc's only extra of note (the typically overlong trailer - in which the movie is called Blood Kill - and a Mattei bio are also included). He only spends about two minutes on Rats before moving on to discuss Hell Of The Living Dead in greater detail, including the reveal that the infamous tutu bit in that movie was made up on the spot. It's odd that he doesn't have much to say about this film, since he's claimed its his favorite of all the ones he's made (early on in the interview he says his films are like his children, then later says he wishes he could reshoot them all - poor kids), but maybe the interview was conducted specifically for that movie and they just tossed it on here since he mentioned Rats a couple times. The bio is pretty good, giving some credit to co-writer (and co-director?) Fragasso, who worked with Mattei a lot back in his pre-Troll 2 infamy.
It's certainly no Of Unknown Origin, and probably a bit too slow and not violent enough for those accustomed to the gory nonsense of most Italian horror of this period, Rats is not without its own charms, and it's interesting to discover that Mattei and Fragasso once put together a movie that actually makes relative sense. If it's playing with something else at a repertory theater's double bill, it's worth sticking around for, but I wouldn't lead with it. I also wouldn't recommend watching it if you, like me, have been itching to play Fallout lately - underground dwellers in a post-apoc world coming up and encountering rats? Where are the stimpacks?
What say you?