When I first reviewed the 1974 oddity Phase IV, I noted that the film was very different from what I would have expected from a sci-fi movie about killer ants. When I pictured the film in my mind I imagined the gigantic monster insect movies from the 1950s, when everything from leeches to adorable bunny rabbits were blown out of proportion by atomic radiation and turned into Godzilla-type suburban threats. Phase IV turned out to be a much stranger film than I pictured, but my hunch wasn’t far off. The 1954 creature feature Them! is widely credited as the very first of the 1950s nuclear monster movies as well as the first “big bug” movie ever. Them!, like Phase IV, also happens to be about murderous ants. It turns out that the tiny pests have served as an endless source of cinematic fascination over the past 60 years, racking up eight feature films and several television episodes since Them!’s initial release. There are definite patterns & tropes common to the way killer ants, often called “marabunta,” are portrayed in cinema, but the quality of the tactics & results vary greatly from film to film. Them! & Phase IV certainly represent the apex of the killer ants genre, but they don’t capture the full extent of its capabilities.
If Them! is the very first nuclear monster & big bug movie of the 1950s, it was an impressively prescient one. So many of the films that followed borrow so much from its essential elements that it basically serves as a Rosetta Stone for the marabunta genre. For instance, the film opens with a child in danger. A young girl, newly orphaned, roams the desert alone, in a state of shock after witnessing her family being murdered by “Them! Them! Them!” (a titular line she shrieks in horror when prodded for details). Children in peril is a surprisingly common theme for a lot of the marabunta films to come, along with the desert setting, and their roots are established in Them!’s opening minutes. Other tropes, like attempting to destroy the hive by attacking the Queen’s chamber, the use of nature footage as a scientific lecture on ant behavior, the ants’ high-pitch squeaks, and the blaming of pollution (in this case nuclear fallout) as the cause of the ants’ size & maliciousness would be frequently echoed in the 60 years that followed. What was most prescient of all, however, was just the basic concept: killer ants. No killer bug movies (as we know them) preceded it, but plenty followed and Them! is truly the pioneer of them all.
When I first imagined what Phase IV might be like, I was actually imagining Them! I pictured late night, black & white schlock (in the same vein as The Brainiac or Frankestein Meets the Space Monster) about giant killer bugs with a flimsy atomic age metaphor attempting to justify its true purpose: giant ant models, hairy like gorillas & eager to kill. When a scientist opines in the final scene, “When Man entered the Atomic Age, he opened the door to a new world. What we may eventually find in that new world, nobody can predict,” it feels more like an afterthought than anything else. The gigantic ant models were obviously a point of focus for the filmmakers and it paid off well. They look fantastic, never to truly be topped by the killer ant films that followed. It’s also a testament to Them!’s quality that the tension-building atmosphere in its first act is still strikingly effective despite modern audiences knowing what the “they” in Them! are long before they grace the screen. Them! may be the standard execution of what a killer ants movie would look like, but it’s extremely well crafted for its pedigree and deserves to be respected as a pioneer in the natural horror genre at large, much less marabunta cinema.
Ant size: “They” are gigantic.
Fire delivery method: In almost all of the marabunta movies, the ants are attacked with fire through various methods. This practice, like many other tropes mentioned, can be traced back even to the original marabunta movie, Them! In Them!, fire is initially delivered to the giant ants through bullets & rocket launchers, but it’s the use of flame throwers that ultimately save the day, as will become a popular choice as the genre marches on.
The Naked Jungle (1954)
If Them! is the Rosetta Stone of marabunta cinema, The Naked Jungle is its furthest outlier, the most difficult film to read in the context of the genre. Released the same year as Them!, The Naked Jungle refuses to play along with its killer ants compatriots even in the most basic terms of genre. Instead of working within a horror context, The Naked Jungle is an old-fashioned big studio romance epic where the killer ants are a natural disaster not very distinct from a flood or a landslide. The movie is mostly a vehicle for (a mostly shirtless) Charlton Heston & (a similarly undressed) Elanor Parker, who star as a South American cocoa plantation owner and his mail order bride (shipped to him via New Orleans!) whose personalities are too big & too stubborn to mix cohesively. Their initial hatred of one another is palpable in quips like “I’m trying not to irritate you.” “I noticed that. I find it irritating,” and in a key exchange when Heston is upset that his new bride is a widow instead of the virgin he requested. She retorts “If you knew more about music, you’d know that a piano is better when it’s played.” This dynamic, of course, gradually shifts from hostile to sensual and the sweaty (it is South America, after all) tension between the two drives a lot of the movie’s runtime.
Then, in the last third of the film, the ants arrive. Millions of ants. Not the gigantic, atomic ants of Them!, but rather a hoard of regular army ants, marabunta. They’re described in the film as “40 square miles of agonizing death” that operates as an organized, trained army. The initial horror of the ants picking a skeleton clean is a bit goofy & melodramatic, but once you get to the real shots of real insects crawling all over actors’ very real skin, it actually gets pretty disturbing. Some of the painted backdrops & dialogue in The Naked Jungle are unfortunate. Its depictions of native savages that depend on Heston’s white man knowledge to survive are especially disappointing. However, it’s a mostly enjoyable movie that, thanks to Heston & Parker’s love/hate dynamic, feels like a Tennessee Williams play drowning in marabunta, which distinguishes it from every other film in the genre.
Ant size: Regular.
Fire delivery method: There’s some torch tossing & explosives use, but the fire that matters the most in The Naked Jungle is the fire burning in the two leads’ loins.
Outer Limits: “The Zanti Misfits” (1963)
As if murderous insects made gigantic by nuclear fallout weren’t strange enough, this is where the marabunta genre takes a bizarre left turn. In its inaugural season of television, The Outer Limits tried to prove itself to be more than just a hard-sci-fi answer to the much looser The Twilight Zone. Its hour long episodes often had enough big ideas & practical effects to support a decent feature-length B-picture if they had just been stretched a little further. The episode “The Zanti Misfits” certainly had potential to support a longer runtime based on the scope of its ideas alone. At the very least, it came up with a creative reason as to why its killer ants would be so murderous & destructive in the first place. No other marabunta picture I’ve seen put nearly as much thought as to the ants’ motivation for killing.
Well, “ant” is a little bit of a misnomer in this case. As the story goes, a superior extraterrestrial race named The Zanti demands that Earth host a penal colony for its most undesirable criminal population, in other words, its misfits. The Zanti are very much ant-like in their appearance, but with the enlarged size of an average rodent & the horrifying detail of their humanoid faces. Most of the Zanti population are supposedly a peaceful group, but what arrives on Earth is their criminal throwaways, so, of course, chaos ensues as they attempt a prison break & the U.S. military guns them down. Discontent to merely thank Eathlings for doing them a favor, Zanti officials instead gloat that they’re far superior to our bloodthirsty nature as “practiced executioners” and any gratitude that could be detected is severely muddled. With its stop-motion animated humanoid ants, hand-made UFO models, and oldschool sci-fi moralizing, “The Zanti Misfits” is a neat little addition to the marabunta genre, as well as one of its strangest concoctions.
Ant size: About the size of a rat.
Fire delivery method: Liberally tossed hand grenades.
Doctor Who: “The Web Planet” (1965)
Two years after Outer Limits introduced the world to the ant-like Zanti, BBC’s Doctor Who decided it’d be nifty to see what life on the Zanti’s home planet might be like. It’s not fair to say that “The Web Planet” is a direct knockoff of “The Zanti Misfits”, but it’s highly likely that it was at least somewhat inspired by the episode. The basic idea of an ant-like species from an alien planet is there, at least, and its’ far too easy to draw comparisons between the names “Zanti” & “Zarbi” (at least the Outer Limits one had the word “ant” in its name). The premises, while far from identical, do share the idea of a far away planet at war with itself using humans to resolve their internal conflicts. To be fair, the differences between the two episodes are also readily recognizable. Not only does the Doctor Who series actually travel to the ant planet, but the ant-liens in “The Zanti Misfits” are only slightly larger than Earth ants (not to mention their grotesque, human-like faces), while the ant-liens in “The Web Planet” are slightly larger than humans. In fact, they’re roughly the size of a hunched-over human actor wearing a large, ant-like costume, their human actor legs fully visible to the camera.
Part of the reason I’m talking about “The Web Planet” strictly through comparison is that when considered by itself, the mini-series is a total bore. Told through six half-hour episodes, “The Web Planet” (and presumably the 1960s incarnation of Doctor Who as a whole) feels like a hangover from the era of the radio play, its televised format going almost entirely to waste. In the mini-series, Dr. Who & his dedicated crew attempt to negotiate a truce between two warring species of insectoid aliens– the anti-like Zarbi (duh) & some kind of humanoid moth/bumblebee hybrid. The Zarbi are convinced that the Who Crew are scouts for a soon-to-arrive Earthling invasion, which complicates the negotiations. To resolve the issue, Dr. Who sidesteps the conflict altogether & finds the answer to the situation in some kind of gigantic spider thing. Look, the specifics don’t matter. The whole thing is amateurish & over-long. The few delights to be found in “The Web Planet” are restricted to its half-assed missteps: an “alien planet” set that could’ve been lifted from a well-funded highschool play; ditto the ant-lien costumes that restrict the actors’ costumes view so much that one bumps into a cameraman, annoying squeaks of communication between the Zarbi that sounds like a child’s toy raygun, etc. Otherwise, the three hour “The Web Planet” can o only offer a neat-o, oldschool Doctor Who theme song & an expansion of what was already delivered in “The Zanti Misfits”.
Ant-size: Roughly the size of an actor, hunched over & wearing a giant ant costume.
Fire delivery method: None! Justice is delivered here through negotiations & thinking on one’s feet, which isn’t nearly as exciting as a grenade or a flamethrower, all things considered.
Phase IV (1974)
I’ve already dropped almost 700 words on Phase IV, so I’ll try to keep it brief here. It’s almost as much of an marabunta outlier as The Naked Jungle due to its reluctance to adhere to a traditional monster movie format. However, instead of framing itself as a romance epic, Phase IV is posited as psychedelic sci-fi. Droning, loopy synths accompany the movie’s expertly manipulated nature footage to create a strange world where ants evolve at astounding rates, learning to systematically destroy their predators (including humans, of course), dismantle electronics and weaponize reflected light. In most films listed here, the nature footage is less-than-seamlessly integrated into the plot by means of scientific lectures or Ed Wood-esque asides, but in Phase IV it’s integral to the film’s narrative. The extensive, close-up ant footage provides a disturbing authenticity to the film’s story of an insect takeover. In a lot of ways the ants in Phase IV are much more convincing actors than their human co-stars.
There’s some campy appeal to the pseudo-science of Phase IV’s bleep bloop machines and (its somewhat prescient) hazmat suit aesthetic, but the film is for the most part genuinely successful in being a sci-fi creep-out. The killer, droning synths are a large part of this success, as they add an otherworldly atmosphere to the already alien-looking close-ups of the marabunta. Also unnerving is the film’s somewhat open ending, which was cut short by the film studio for its pessimism & psychedelia. The threat of the ants in Phase IV feels truly insurmountable and, well, it very well may be.
Ant size: Regular.
Fire delivery method: No fire at all, which very well might explain the pessimism of the conclusion. In fact, the ants deliver fire of their own when they all-too-wisely convert a pick-up truck into a homemade bomb.
Empire of the Ants (1977)
If Them! & Phase IV are the prime examples of the heights marabunta cinema, Empire of the Ants is an entertaining sample of its depths. With production, direction, and visual effects all provided by schlock peddler Burt I. Gordon, Empire of the Ants shares a lot with the (much more fun) killer rabbits movie Night of the Lepus, both good & bad. For example, the exact dimensions of the ants fluctuate from scene to scene, depending on the technique used to make them appear large (which includes over-sized props and rear projection trick photography). That variation in the ants’ exact size & shape does wonders for the film’s camp value, but the dialogue that surrounds it (including a performance from why-are-you-here? Joan Collins) deflates a lot of its charms. It also doesn’t help that there are no killer ants in the first third of the film, so the dialogue is all you have to chew on. Much like with Night of the Lepus, Empire of the Ants has a disturbing habit of playing into old-fashioned genre clichés, but in this case it tips the film firmly in the direction of pure boredom. It’s incredible that Empire of the Ants was released three years after the much more experimental Phase IV, as it feels like an ancient dinosaur by comparison.
As far as hitting the marabunta genre touchstones goes, Empire of the Ants is fairly sufficient. It gets the nature footage requirement out of the way as soon as the opening prologue, with an off-screen narrator warning the audience, “This is the ant. Treat it with respect, for it may very well be the next dominant lifeform on our planet.” Much like with other marabunta movies, the ants were mutated into their monstrous form through radioactive waste, there’s a reliance on a hazmat suit aesthetic to lend the film sci-fi authenticity, and there are a multiple shots taken from the ants’ perspective, or “ant cam” if you will. In this film, the ant cam is represented as concentric circles, as opposed to the honeycomb look employed in Phase IV, but the effect is more or less the same. There are even some innovations to the marabunta genre in the plot’s focus on the queen ant’s obedience-inducing hormones that command humans to do her evil bidding. I also appreciated Empire’s pedigree as a shameless Jaws knock-off, with not so subtle nods to the Spielberg film’s infamous score in its soundtrack. Despite how entertaining all that sounds, however, Empire of the Ants mostly feels like a slog, struggling to recover from the opening segment where the dialogue endlessly drones on about valuable real estate and all kinds of other who-cares nonsense. As a collection of alternately impressive & inept practical effects, it’s an entertaining mess; as a feature-length film it’s a chore.
Ant size: Gigantic, but seemingly fluctuating from scene to scene due to the varied methods of Gordon’s visual effects.
Fire delivery method: Explosives used to blow up the sugar mill where the ant queen prefers to dine. Pretty smart.
Ants! (also known as It Happened at Lakewood Manor & Panic At Lakewood Manor) marks the beginning of the killer ants’ genre being tethered to the small screen, a format it’s been unable to escape for nearly 40 years running. A made-for-TV movie starring Suzanne Somors, Ants! is an admittedly awful film, but one with enough melodrama and laughably bad acting to make it work as a campy pleasure. It plays like a Lifetime Original Movie about a family struggling to hold onto their hotel resort in the modern business word (with swarms of killer ants playing mostly as an afterthought). In addition to the new made-for-TV-movie format, Ants! also introduces the marabunta genre to a new plot structure, framing its story as more of a disaster movie (like Towering Inferno or Airport 1975) than a creature feature (like Them!). The ants that plague Lakewood Manor are treated collectively as a natural disaster (something only hinted at before in The Naked Jungle), not an aggressive hoard of tiny monsters. As explained by a mid-film science lecture (again, with accompanying nature footage) this widespread disaster was created by the ants’ exposure to increasingly strong pesticides. According to the film’s resident killer ants expert, “We’re the ones that forced them to live in a toxic world,” which prompted the ants to absorb our pesticides and weaponize them as their own poisons. His one-woman audience’s horrified reaction to this news? “I don’t like it.” The film’s ridiculous dialogue saves it from the doldrums of Empire of the Ants, even though Empire had much better practical effects for its marabunta. If only they had combined those two elements, we’d have a veritable cult classic on our hands.
As cheesy as the dialogue is in Ants!, the sheer swarms of insects that accumulate actually make for an unnerving climax. The characters’ plan to survive the natural marabunta disaster is to remain motionless, allowing the bugs to crawl all over their skin. It’s legitimately terrifying (and more than a little gross) and I hope the actors were well compensated, even if those were sugar ants. There was also a return to endangered (and, for the first time, harmed) children in Ants!, something that’s rare in any horror film and hadn’t graced the marabunta screen since the likes of Them! On the cultural relic front, there’s an unexpected appearance from Brian Dennehy and it’s surprisingly entertaining to watch ants crawl all over a near-nude Susanne Somers. Ants! is far from the most memorable film in its genre, but it does have its own corny charms as a made-for-TV trifle that features bugs crawling over a Three’s Company castmember’s half-dressed body. Blech.
Ant size: Regular
Fire delivery method: A flaming, hand-dug pool of gasoline meant to keep the ants at bay.
MacGyver: “Trumbo’s World” (1985)
What can I say? I’ve never seen a MacGyver episode before “Trumbo’s World” so I have no idea how its quality compares to others. MacGyver’s preposterous, makeshift gadgets were amusing, there was some hilarious pseudo-science in lines like one describing a substance as nitroglycerin’s “chemical kissing cousin”, I genuinely loved the nifty soft synth soundtrack, and there were a couple great one liners like when MacGyver drowns a gang of “bad guys” and quips, “Chances are, those guys are all washed up.” For the most part, though, I still consider myself more of a MacGruber guy at heart. There just wasn’t much here worth going out of your way for, especially since the episode plays like a cover version of The Naked Jungle.
At first I thought the similarities to The Naked Jungle were incidental, due to the shared setting of a South American wilderness and, of course, the swarms of killer ants, but as the coincidental resemblance started to build I began to notice exact images borrowed wholesale from the Heston-Parker romance epic. The plantation-owner-refuses-to-leave-without-a-fight plot, the fleeing animals, the increasingly uncomfortable (still, 30 years later) depictions of native savages were all way to close to The Naked Jungle to be pure coincidence, but then exact footage lifted from the film, including both ant attacks and action shots of Heston-from-behind, sealed their connection. I’m not sure if all MacGyver episodes are cover versions of old movies hardly anyone remembers, but I’ve definitely seen the likes of “Trumbo’s World” before—and not that long ago.
Ant size: Regular, same as The Naked Jungle.
Fire delivery method: Flame thrower. Solid choice.
Skysurfer Strike Force: “Killer Ants” (1995)
In sharp contrast with the I’ve-seen-this-all-before familiarity of “Trumbo’s World”, the animated television show Skysurfer Strike Force plays like nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life. Its 1990s Saturday morning cartoon aesthetic is certainly familiar to me, especially as a decorated survivor of such dire properties of that era as Street Sharks and Captain Simian & The Space Monkeys, but there’s still something special about Skysurfer Strike Force’s lunacy in comparison. It’s one of those total shit-shows whose basic concept is difficult to capture in critical description so I’ll just urge you to see it for yourself in the YouTube clip of its intro and this Wikipedia-provided plot description: “The show featured five heroes, named the Skysurfers, which protected the world from the vile Cybron and his bio-borgs. The Skysurfers used technologically advanced watches that transformed them from their casual clothing to their battle attire and weapons, similar to the Choujin Sentai Jetman. During the transformations, their cars transform into rocket-powered surfboards that they can ride in the air.” It’s wickedly entertaining in its unnecessarily complicated mythology & complete detachment from reality.
As promised in its succinct title, the episode “Killer Ants” finds Skysurfer Strike Force joining the marabunta genre. Early in the episode gigantic ants (as in the size of dogs, not elephants) attack an unsuspecting truck driver on a mysterious late night highway, foreshadowing the evil Cybron’s world-domination-scheme-of-the-week. You’ve got to hand it to Cybron; for a cyborg supervillain he’s got some fresh ideas. Must be the stolen computer-brain. His plot to rule us all with killer ants was conceived as the perfect crime, as everyone would assume the ants were a natural disaster that he himself could not be blamed for. Pretty smart, as well as a wholly unique approach in the marabunta genre. The episode adds other unique details like the ants communicating through vibrations (instead of the usual pheromone route in other titles) and that instead of being killed when eventually conquered, they’re made to perform as circus animals. Skysurfer Strike Force may on the surface seem to be a half-assed children’s show bankrupt of any nourishing value, but it’s actually packing an excess of ideas & face-value virtues that add a surprising amount of new developments to both the marabunta & half-baked 90s children’s cartoon genres.
Ant size: Gigantic, but not too gigantic. Mid-sized giant ants.
Fire delivery method: Rocket launchers & tanks.
Goosebumps: “Awesome Ants” (1998)
Goosebumps gets by on charm more than it does on fresh ideas, bucking the unexpected quality jump in Skysurfer Strike Force. A live action television show based on the popular children’s book series, Goosebumps fits snuggly among the ranks of several sub-X Files monster of the week children’s properties of the 90s—shows like Eerie, Indiana & Are You Afraid of the Dark? In the episode titled “Awesome Ants” the monster of the week is, you guessed it, gigantic killer ants.
Ordered through the mail from a nefarious back-of-a-magazine company, a child’s ant farm science project gets out of control when he overfeeds his population (despite a pamphlet’s specific warnings not to, of course). The resulting killer ants are surprisingly well visualized, using a multi-faceted, Empire of the Ants kind of approach that combines over-sized props and green screen gimmicks to create the menace. This is all mildly amusing here or there, but what really sets this episode apart from any other installment in the marabunta genre is its wicked, Twilight Zone conclusion where (spoiler) the kid wakes to find himself as part of a human farm run by even larger ants, the tables having been turned. I gotta admit, that is pretty “awesome”.
Ant size: Gigantic, and then even more gigantic.
Fire delivery method: None, which again might explain why the ants won.
Legion of Fire: Killer Ants! (1998)
Starting with the Suzanne Somers melodrama Ants!, marabunta cinema has seemingly been banished to television purgatory for its sins of repetition. Not helping the case for the genre at all is the made-for-TV snoozer Legion of Fire: Killer Ants! (also known simply as Marabunta). Legion of Fire was not made for just any TV, mind you; it was made for late-90s Fox, which has to be the most tasteless era of television in this writer’s (admittedly limited) memory. Getting some of that trademark Fox Attitude (as well as the nature footage trope) out of the way early, the film opens with the gall to claim that “This is not science fiction. This is science fact. The story you are about to see could happen tomorrow.” It could. It most likely never will, but I guess it could. It already takes some considerable hubris to posit a made-for-TV monster movie starring “Skinner” from X-Files & “that dude” from Caroline in the City as “science fact”, but the claim becomes even more preposterous as soon as the first kill, which features a newlywed couple on a hike being physically dragged into the depths of an over-sized ant pile. Nice. Even in its opening minutes Legions of Fire can’t decide if it wants to be a believable scare film about South American ants (likened to the era’s similarly-feared “Africanized bees”) or an absurd sci-fi monster movie. Frankly it fails to be entertaining as either.
Legion of Fire’s dialogue is mostly of the dull, Empire of the Ants variety, with a couple isolated gems like “I never met a bug I didn’t like,” and “And my mom used to say that being an etymologist would be boring . . .” There’s also some limited camp value in a few action scenes like when an (endangered!) child is dragged into a hive or a when a pilot thrashes about as if the film’s CGI ants are actually eating his face, leading to one of the most slowly-progressing helicopter crashes I’ve ever seen in a movie. Speaking of the CGI, Legion of Fire’s most depressing development is that the golden era of practical effects is firmly in the rearview, giving way to shoddy CGI ants carrying even faker-looking human body parts on their not-real-at-all backs. It’s no surprise, then, that the most fun the film has with its premise is in the practical effects when the killer ants drag people into the gasoline filled holes meant to set the colony ablaze, followed promptly by explosions. If I could pick out one thing Legion of Fire needed more of, it’s people being dragged into holes and then exploding, not Windows screensaver-quality insects “crawling” all over some nobody’s horrified face. Legion of Fire is a disheartening low point for the marabunta genre, easily the most unimaginative feature film in the bunch—even if it is “science fact”.
Ant size: Regular, but seemingly fluctuating from scene to scene due to the cheap CGI.
Fire delivery method: Flame throwers & exploding, gasoline-filled holes.
The Bone Snatcher (2003)
The Bone Snatcher was a promising improvement from the dire viewing experience of Legion of Fire (which is one I hope to never repeat), but it’s an ultimately disappointing film when considered in its own right. It was the first & only marabunta movie not made for television in the near-three decades since Empire of the Ants, but since it was released straight-to-DVD it’s somewhat of a hollow victory. The Bone Snatcher is an Alien-esque creature feature that opts more for tension building than it does for a body count, which is a frequent mistake for low-budget horror. Look, everyone loves Alien, but there’s a reason why it’s one of the most memorable horror/sci-fi films of all time. It’s an extremely well made and handsomely budgeted film that a lot of independent horror movies just aren’t going to be able to replicate. The Bone Snatcher’s failed attempt at Alien-levels of tension instead of a high body count gore fest is particularly disappointing because the film’s creature looked so cool and was obviously cheap to film (thanks to CGI). There just wasn’t enough of it onscreen to make the film recommendable.
The creature in question here is a gigantic sasquatch-looking specter that, upon closer inspection, reveals itself to be a collection of highly-organized killer ants that collect to form a single gestalt being, a “bone snatcher” if you will. The title of “bone snatcher” is afforded to this ants-monster through its affinity for using the remains of its victims as a structural support for its gigantic, undulating body. Sometimes the bone snatcher even wears the face of its victims (literally), which is disturbing enough even when that face isn’t spitting out a stream of ants. The unnerving & clever physical attributes of the bone snatcher itself made want to love the film that surrounded it, but there’s just not much there to love. Borrowing some of the hazmat suit & militaristic desertscape aesthetic from marabunta pioneers like Phase IV, the film has a little bit of spooky atmosphere to work with, just not enough to carry the film on its own.
There are also some new touches added to well-established marabunta tropes, like picked-clean bones (common as far back as The Naked Jungle) now being stained red from blood and the ant cam POV (offered in Empire of the Ants & Phase IV), now looking like a sepia-tone brethren of the Vin Diesel sleeper Pitch Black. There’s also some disturbing gore that arrives with the appearance of the bone snatcher, including skin being carried off by endless floods of ants and muscle melted off the bone by their toxins. The problem is that it’s too little too late and much of the film’s action is pushed off until the final half hour of the runtime. The tension-building atmosphere is competent, but not nearly entertaining enough to carry a film whose best quality is its creature design. If the film had let its freak flag fly and given the titular bone snatcher more time in the sun it could’ve been something really special. Instead it was mostly a well-intentioned bore with a few admirably disturbing ideas.
Ant size: Regular, but coming together to form a gigantic gestalt creature.
Fire delivery system: None. The bone snatcher’s victims opted for stabbing instead, probably due to limited resources.
Atomic Betty: “Atomic Betty Vs the Giant Killer Ants” (2004)
If Legion of Fire is the moment when CGI unfortunately makes for lazy live-action filmmaking in the marabunta genre, Atomic Betty is where it similarly sinks animation. Taken at face value, I appreciate that there’s a children’s show (and we’re talking super-young children) within which a female moppet of a superhero periodically saves the world from 50s style B-movie plots, taking her assignments from a talking fish. If there were an actual 1950s movie called Atomic Betty Vs the Giant Killer Ants you’d be safe to bet I’d be eating that schlock up greedily. As a lazily-animated, mid-2000s cartoon the prospect is less tantalizing. There’s really nothing of interest added to the marabunta genre here. Betty is told by her fish boss that there are some killer ants on the loose (made gigantic by “multi-plasma nectar”), she flies over, and then puts a stop to the threat post haste. I hope it was riveting for its pint-sized target audience, but for our purposes here it doesn’t have much to add to the marabunta genre, outside of maybe the “multi-plasma nectar”. I’ve never heard that one before.
Ant size: Gigantic, duh. It’s right there in the title.
Fire delivery method: None. Nothing of interest here at all.
The Hive (2008)
There was a truly disheartening quality to the arrival of the CGI slog Legion of Fire. It felt in a lot of ways like the party was over, like it was the end of an era where campy practical effects can save an otherwise hopeless affair like Empire of the Ants from devolving into sheer boredom. The Bone Snatcher teased the possibility that the marabunta party was indeed still raging on, putting the CGI to good use by creating a physically impossible gestalt monster out of millions of computer-generated insects. There just wasn’t enough of the monster on screen to fully make it an essential piece of marabunta cinema. Made just five years later, The Hive seemingly learned from that mistake, pushing the ridiculousness allowed by CGI to its full limits, throwing out as many ridiculous ideas as it can, given the time & budget. Where The Bone Snatcher held back on the on-screen ants and mistakenly attempted atmospheric tension, The Hive knows its limits and offers as many cheap thrills as it possibly can while it lasts.
The most surprising thing about The Hive’s likeability is that it was not only made-for-TV, but it was made specifically for the Syfy Channel, which has a long record of offering bland, empty CGI schlock that features long stretches of boring dialogue and a few short scenes of sci-fi action. The Hive, by contrast, bends over backwards to entertain. It might not be the most unique film listed here, but it borrows so much from so many sources that it’s a very fun experience, one that feels well informed of its marabunta ancestry. For example, just like in other marabunta films, The Hive features children in danger, but it goes a step further by featuring the youngest endangered child yet: a baby. In the opening scene a baby is successfully eaten by a swarm of killer ants. It’s quite the introduction. The movie also plays off of the hazmat suit trope and includes the genre’s required nature footage (this time with mixed with news reports about rampaging swarms of killer ants). Best of all, it returns to the collective, gestalt creature of The Bone Snatcher, but this time the ants form all sorts of shapes: tentacles, constellations, functioning computers, and most entertaining of all, a gigantic ant made of tiny ants.
The Hive survives on the charms of its excess. It just has so many dumb ideas: liquid nitrogen cannons, ants controlling people’s minds, an evil corporation called Thorax Industries, and the idea that the marabunta are controlled by an insect spirit from outer space (seriously). Most important of all, though, it has an excess of ants, easily the most ants out of any film listed here, so many ants that they just fall from the sky in solid blankets of ant rain. Legion of Fire felt like the death of marabunta cinema, while The Hive felt like its unexpected (and so far unanswered) rebirth. It was the rare occurrence in cheap horror where CGI allows the film to push itself do so much more, instead of getting by on doing less.
Ant size: Regular, except for that gigantic one made of regular ones.
Fire delivery method: Flame throwers & a suicide bombing
Phineas & Ferb: “Gi-Ants” (2012)
Just as formally inconsequential as Atomic Betty, Phineas & Ferb at least one-ups the computer animated competition in the freshness of its ideas. In the episode “Gi-ants” the titular stepbrothers gather their neighborhood cronies (I really know so little about this show) together to come check out their latest quixotic scheme (again, so little): a gigantic ant farm that the kids can tour as a sort of museum. The purposefully-created “gi-ants” in this ant farm never become murderous despite their incredible size. Instead, their presence is menacing only because they mutate at an alarming rate, evolving from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one to their own Industrial Revolution to the information age to total transcendent enlightenment (which I doubt is what’s next for us), all in the space of a single afternoon. The episode just barely qualifies as part of the marabunta genre if you squint at it the right way, but it’s a mostly harmless, cute diversion with a couple unique ideas within marabunta cinema. I especially appreciated how far they pushed the idea of rapidly evolving ants, first introduced in Phase IV, to a ludicrous point where the insects transcended space-time. That was nifty.
Ant size: Gigantic. Giant. Giant ants. Gi-ants. Oh, I get it.
Fire delivery method: Not necessary; the ants have evolved past the stage of petty human wars, instead opting to travel to the next dimension or outer space or something along those lines.
American Dad!: “The Shrink” (2015)
I may have been a little too eager to poke fun at the Phineas & Ferb wordplay with “Gi-ant”. It was at the very least more clever than the pun in the title of the American Dad! episode “The Shrink”. In the episode, the protagonist Sam Smith is assigned to see “a shrink” in order to deal with his anxiety, but he finds a much more satisfying therapy in “a shrink ray” that allows him to trap his family in a homemade miniature that he believes he can exert better control over. Shrink, shrink ray, haha. Ha. After his extraterrestrial housemate spills some red wine (in an exhaustingly aimless B-plot) some ants are attracted to the miniature, where they terrorize Smith & his family in the episode’s third act. There’s really no reason to track this episode down unless you find Seth MacFarlane’s brand of humor particularly funny (God help you), but it was the most recent example of marabunta cinema I could find & it was mostly harmless outside of being desperately unfunny.
Ant size: Normal, but with even tinier victims to terrorize.
Fire delivery method: This time they opted for water, something that hadn’t been done since “Trumbo’s World” (a.k.a. The Naked Jungle Jr.)
It would be fair to assume that over eight feature films, seven television episodes, and a mini-series the marabunta genre would be exhausted for new ideas, but there are some glimmers of hope for unexplored territory in projects like The Hive and The Bone Snatcher. If anyone’s looking for a fresh angle for their own killer ants movie, I’m going to offer you an idea on the house: humans transforming into ants once bitten, like the pseudo-zombie transformations in films like Black Sheep (2006) & Zombeavers. There were at least three films on this list (Phase IV, The Bone Snatcher, and The Hive) where I suspected that a poisoned human was going to make the full transition into humanoid ant, but they never reached their full marabunta potential.
In the wonderful 1993 Joe Dante picture Matinee, John Goodman plays a William Castle type who is peddling a B-movie called Mant! As a movie within a movie, Mant! unfortunately didn’t quite make for a proper entry on this list, but it does deserve a mention at the very least for exploring the ant transformation teased in The Hive & The Bone Snatcher. Utilizing gimmicks like Atomovision & Rumble Rama as well as taglines like “Half man, half ant, all terror” & the same fluctuating ant size as Empire of the Ants, the clips of Mant! featured in Matinee feel like a blueprint for the ant transformation film that the marabunta lovers of the world need & deserve. For those who would claim that there’s no fresh territory left for marabunta cinema, I offer that concept as the next frontier, with Joe Dante already having penciled in most of the details.
I also would like to note that I did not include Antie from 1989’s Honey I Shrunk the Kids on this list because Antie was a true hero whose name shouldn’t be soiled by the likes of killer marabunta. For a full length eulogy recognizing Antie’s bravery & accomplishments, I suggest reading the “Remembering Antie” piece from MTV.com. Similarly, in this year’s MCU action comedy Ant-Man there are swarms of heroic ants that help save the world from certain doom, but none deserve nearly as much praise as Ant-Man’s flying sidekick Antony, who gave everything he had so that we could live in peace, bless his insect heart.
The only other film I can think of with marabunta content that wasn’t included here was Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. There is a very brief sequence about 90min into the movie where some killer ants disintegrate a few Soviet baddies in the heat of an extended car & foot chase. Amongst all the other mindless spectacles of the film (which includes some space alien silliness & the infamously laughable scene where Indy survives a nuclear blast by chilling in a refrigerator), the marabunta aren’t much more than a brief diversion. Honestly, the whole film is sort of a bland wash of difficult-to-remember action, so even if the whole movie were crawling with killer ants, I probably still would’ve forgotten to give it a proper listing above.
If there are any other killer ants you think I’ve missed, please let me know and I’ll be sure to hunt them down.