The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

The single-camera mockumentary has become such a common genre over the past couple decades through sitcoms like Arrested Development, The Office, and Modern Family that it’s hard to remember a time when it was more of an outlier than the norm.  We’re familiar enough with the mockumentary format now to immediately understand the way they play with our perceptions of authenticity, but there was a time (let’s clock it as pre-Best in Show) where the genre was more subversive.  There are a lot of urban legends about audiences taking early mockumentaries at face value, believing Spinal Tap to be a real band, the cannibals of Texas Chainsaw Massacre & Cannibal Holocaust to be real cannibals, the Blair Witch to be a real witch, etc.  I never really knew how sincerely to take those stories until I read that The Hellstrom Chronicle won the 1972 Oscar for “Best Documentary Feature” despite being an obvious parody of the documentary format instead of the real deal.  I assumed that factoid was a prank Wikipedia edit, but then I confirmed it on the Academy of Motion Pictures website.  A mockumentary indeed won the most prestigious industry award for documentary films, which has got to be some implication of how novel the genre used to be before Jim met Pam – novel enough, apparently, to make moviegoers believe in witchcraft & killer insects.

The Hellstrom Chronicle is a drive-in era exploitation horror about the inevitability of insects taking over the planet, recalling 1950s B-pictures like Them!, Tarantula, and The Deadly Mantis.  It just happens to be delivered in the style of a David Attenborough nature documentary, hosted by the fictitious Dr. Nils Hellstrom, PhD (credited as a performance by actor Lawrence Pressman in the final scroll).  Hellstrom lectures for the entire 90min runtime in deliriously overwritten, Ed Woodian dialogue about how bugs are “gruesome robots” and an “infectious virus” that will soon violently overthrow humanity for planetary dominance if we don’t act soon.  These rants are illustrated by hi-fi nature footage of insects eating, mating, and waging war in the wild, scored by arhythmic drums & winding strings to emphasize their gnarly brutality.  The opening credits thank well-respected universities and research institutions to feign an air of legitimacy, but by the time Hellstrom is opining about how termite mounds are primitive computers built to calculate our collective doom, it’s so outrageously over-the-top that it cannot be taken seriously.  Screenwriter David Seltzer (The Omen, Willy Wonka, Bird on a Wire) is obviously just amusing himself with how far he can push the film’s central conceit without fully tipping into comedic parody, and it’s a pure-trash joy to tag along for the indulgence.

To the Academy’s credit, The Hellstrom Chronicle did eventually prove to be prescient of where documentary filmmaking was heading, at least the version of documentary filmmaking you’ll find on basic cable.  It particularly recalls the ominous pseudoscience of Discovery Channel & History Channel programs, where facts are allowed to be fuzzy as long as they freak out the audience enough to keep them hanging on through commercial brakes.  Pair that basic-cable sensationalism with William Herzog’s deadpan rants about the cold cruelty of Nature, and you pretty much have The Hellstrom Chronicle‘s basic blueprint.  It’s not actually useful or even functional as an educational tool about the resiliency of insects, nor does it really pretend to be.  Halfway into the runtime, it gets bored with sticking to pure nature footage and takes self-amusing detours into classic horror movie clips and candid camera pranks.  It’s less appropriate for the classroom than it is for late-night “Bad Movie” parties, so you can have a laugh making your roommate paranoid about killer ants between bong rips.  Phase IV might as well have won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.  They’re working with about the same level of authentic, scientifically presented nature footage, and the one that was featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is likely the one that’s more realistic about the collective killing power of ants as a species.  Not for nothing, they’re also both great films.

-Brandon Ledet

Genocide (1968)

It would be a reductive understatement to point out that the people of Japan were emotionally & spiritually fucked up by the events of World War II—particularly the US’s deployment of the atom bomb—but that was still my foremost thought while watching the 1968 eco horror Genocide (aka War of the Insects). Nature striking back against humanity’s nuclear ills had already been a cinematic fixation dating over a decade prior to films like Godzilla & Them!, but there was something exceptionally troubled about the tones & emotions of Genocide that taps into an even deeper well of ugly post-War fallout than even those superior works. Opening with images of a mushroom cloud and mixing discussions of Hiroshima, Auschwitz, and military men’s PTSD with real-life war footage throughout, Genocide feels more like a cold-sweat nightmare about nuclear fallout than it does a proper feature film. There’s nothing unique to it in a thematic sense (as it often plays like a Mothra film with increased sex & violence), but there is a soul-deep discomfort to it psychologically that breaks through that familiarity.

A military airplane transporting an H-Bomb is downed on a Japanese island when attacked from the outside by a swarm of insects and from the inside by a solder suffering PTSD flashbacks. Western military men & Eastern Block spies race each other to recover the bomb first while two simultaneous mysteries develop around its disappearance: a murder trial involving a local man’s affair with a white tourist & the scientific explanation for the actual murderers responsible – poisonous bugs. It appears that all the insects of the world have joined forces to end humanity as retribution for inventing the atomic bomb. Their mission is accelerated by a mad-scientist Holocaust survivor who is blinded by her hatred of mankind due the torture she & her family suffered. None of these storylines cohere into a satisfactory, purposeful statement on the evils of War, but they do reflect a general psychological hurt across Japanese culture in their own jumbled, disoriented way. Genocide is a panicked nightmare of an eco horror where the killer bugs themselves are almost an afterthought in the face of humanity’s own colossal fuckups.

I don’t know that this picture is fully satisfying as a horror film. It does its best to unnerve the audience with the small-scale scares it can muster on what had to be a limited budget: model airplanes catching fire, Phase IV-style closeups of insect pincers pulling at flesh, nasty makeup work on victims’ festering wounds, a solitary psychedelic sequence of someone tripping on bug venom, etc. The real menace here is more deeply rooted in the psychological fallout of the War than the threat posed by the bugs, however. The way the insects organize, swarm, and gnaw flesh is never quite as eerie as the moment when they sing the word “genocide, genocide, genocide,” to torment their human foes. Genocide saturates the air in post-War Japan, as it’s presented here, to the point where Nature whispers it back to us in a creepy sing-song nursery rhyme. No matter where else the film may stumble in establishing a horrific mood (most notably in its limited scale and its occasionally shortsighted race & gender politics), that direct vocalization of a nation’s subliminal hurt is genuinely, impressively chilling.

-Brandon Ledet

Stung (2015)


three star


A lot of people were harsh on last year’s winking-at-the-camera B-picture Zombeavers for being a little too try-hard & calculated. Personally, I’m a little more forgiving on silly, made-for-cult-audiences trifles than most, so I enjoyed its SyFy Channel-type camp well enough. What saved the picture for me more than anything was the handmade beaver puppets. The film’s dialogue was never quite as amusing as it wanted to be, but the slightest appearance of a zombie beaver puppet could have me howling.

Toeing the exact same line between terrible dialogue/acting & delightful special effects is the recent horror comedy Stung. The directorial debut of German special effects artist Benni Diez, Stung is a fairly basic creature feature about mutant wasps that brutally disrupt a stuffy garden party. Much of the film is bland & sloppily slapped together, but a few bonkers plot twists in the third act & a refreshing focus on handmade practical effects save it from feeling like another hopeless CGI-heavy cheapie like a Lavalantula! or a Sharknado 3. If you have little to no interest in monster movie creature effects, you’re likely to spend most of the film bored & frustrated in the wait for bodies to drop & the credits to roll. The only attraction featured here is the giant mutant wasps themselves.

Remove the mutant wasps from Stung & you basically have the world’s worst episode of Party Down. A small catering company handles a quirkily pathetic garden party while experimenting with a will-they-won’t-they romance that no one could possibly care about. The lead is a painfully unfunny physical comedian with a whiny “But I’m a Nice Guy”/friendzoned approach to romance. His love interest is a Type A Bitch we’re supposed to deride for caring more about her flailing small business & personal survival than getting laid by a bartender/clown/employee. The best bet for finding a worthwhile character is among the party guests, since the leads are such dull wastes of time. My vote for MVP (or maybe Only Valuable Player in this case) goes to genre film veteran Lance Henriksen as a drunken small town mayor.At the very least he gets a couple decent one-liners out, like when he quips “This party needs an autopsy” (before the killings start) and when he responds to the correction, “Those are not bees, those are wasps” with “Who gives a shit?” Even Henriksen’s world-weary irreverence does little to liven up the proceedings, though, and most of the film’s time that’s not filled by killer wasp mayhem feels like a huge waste of effort.

It’s a good thing, then, that there’s so much killer wasp gore to (excuse the expression) chew on here. Stung‘s gigantic mutant wasps click & screech like insectoid pterodactyls. When they sting their prey they use the victim as a flesh vessel to incubate even larger wasps. These transformations are massive, wet, disgusting, and above all else entertaining. The mayhem gets even more gnarly from there, especially in the film’s go-for-broke third act stupidity. Gigantic nests, wasp-controlled human drones, wriggling larvae, and flaming monsters all make for a wickedly amusing good time as long as you pay more attention to what the creatures are up to than anything said or done by their entirely-forgettable victims. Stung is to be enjoyed for its Them!-style monster puppets & 80’s Peter Jackson gore, not for its sense of narrative or tonal nuance. About the only thing that qualifies as a successful joke in the film is when one character carries around a can of bug spray as an in-vain mode of protection, but even that gag qualifies as a triumph of the costume department. Stung is all about its puppets & gore and nothing else. That just happened to be enough to make it worthwhile for me.

-Brandon Ledet

Phenomena (1985)



I approached this movie with ambiguous feelings. Since beginning this journey, I’ve cited Phenomena as my favorite Dario Argento movie in several reviews, and as its time in the spotlight grew nearer, I felt some trepidation about whether or not it would live up to my memories. I hadn’t seen it in over five years, and I was concerned that my recollection of it as a pitch-perfect film would be ruined upon revisitation. As it turns out, it’s even more beautiful than I remember, and still holds its place as not only my favorite Argento, but as one of my favorite movies period, regardless of genre. There are some superficial similarities to Suspiria, given the setting and the protagonist, but Phenomena is undoubtedly its own movie, and a departure from Argento’s other movies in that it contains very few of his common elements. There are no attempts to recall and decipher a misunderstood or misremembered clue. None of the violence is sexualized. The main character and the detective investigating the series of crimes don’t meet until they both wind up in the killer’s dungeon in the final act. The main character is not an artist, and the resolution of the mystery, while unforeseeable, doesn’t feel like a cheat.

It occurs to me that I haven’t defined what “giallo” actually means in any of my reviews. When the works of English-language mystery novelists like Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Ellery Queen, and my man Ed McBain were first translated into Italian, they were exclusively published by Mondadori, the largest publishing company in Italy. These mysteries were published with dust jackets featuring a yellow color scheme; “giallo” is Italian for yellow, and over time the word came to mean any mystery or detective story, but especially those which included horror or thriller elements. Phenomena is not a giallo picture in the way that many of Argento’s works definitively are or even Suspiria arguably is; although there is a mystery at its core, the crimes cannot be solved by the audience, making this much more of a slasher movie than other entries in the director’s canon, which may have contained elements of the slasher genre but were narratively focused on investigation. Running throughout the film is an undercurrent of terror, which is paired with distinctly beautiful imagery to create a film experience that is more haunting than inquisitive.

Jennifer Corvino (a young Jennifer Connelly, one year before her star-making role in Labyrinth), the fourteen-year-old daughter of a famous American actor, has been sent to a boarding school in Switzerland while her father spends the next year shooting on location in a remote part of the Philippines. She arrives just eight months after the beginning of a spree of murders of young girls about her age, as she is warned by her roommate, Sophie (Federica Mastroianni). Meanwhile, entomology professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasence) is assisting Inspector Rudolf Geiger (Patrick Bauchau of The Pretender) in the investigation using his knowledge of insect life cycles. The wheelchair-bound McGregor is himself attended by a monkey nursemaid, Inga (Tanga). After she meets school chaperon Frau Brückner (Daria Nicolodi) and the school headmistress (Dalila Di Lazzaro), Jennifer is revealed to suffer from bouts of sleepwalking, exacerbated by the eerie local mountain wind, which local superstition states causes madness; furthermore, she has an unusual bond with insects, bordering on telepathy. This fascinates McGregor, whom she meets after sleepwalking away from the school and ending up near his home. As more girls begin to disappear, Jennifer’s fellow students increase their bullying to the point that she unconsciously summons a swarm of flies that surround the school; when she overhears that the headmistress plans to put her in a mental institution, she escapes and takes refuge with McGregor, who enlists her and her supernatural powers in his pursuit of the killer.

Despite the murders on display (and depending upon each person’s individual threshold for insect imagery), this is the movie that displays a characteristic that we don’t often use when referring to Argento: Phenomena has a lot of charm. Connelly is a magnetic actress, and even Jennifer’s brattier moments don’t render her unlikable, especially given that the circumstances under which she finds herself would fray the nerves of anyone, let alone a child. Pleasence is also great here, demonstrating a warmth and tenderness that he didn’t get to show as Blofeld or Dr. Loomis. It’s also great to see Nicolodi given the chance to play a completely different character than any that she has before, and she is genuinely menacing when the script calls for her to be unsettling. The murderer, despite prosthetics that look dated by modern standards, is legitimately freaky and scary, and allowing the protagonist to come out ahead because of her innate powers, rather than triumphing over the otherworldly powers of others, is a fresh idea for Argento, and it works quite well. The soundtrack features some noticeably jarring missteps, most notably when scene changes are accompanied by sudden quiet, but this works in the movie’s favor as a discomfiting element just as often as it serves as a detractor; others have taken issue with the presence of Iron Maiden and Motörhead on the score, but I find it appropriate in the way that it sets the nerves against each other. The worst thing I have to say about this movie is that it never got a sequel; of all Argento’s works, it’s the one that is both best suited for and most deserving of one. Sure, there are some moments that are silly (Inga’s rescue of Jennifer at the end is particularly bizarre, although I love it), but overall, this was even better than I remembered. Track it down and watch it!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Marabunta Cinema: Eight Feature Films & Six Television Episodes about Killer Ants


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.

Them! (1954) EPSON MFP imagefourhalfstar

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 danger 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 & behavior 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 an 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) EPSON MFP imagethree star

If Them! is the Rosetta Stone of marabunta cinema, The Naked Jungle is the 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 and 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.

Phase IV (1974)EPSON MFP imagefourstar

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) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

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 shlock 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! (1977) EPSON MFP imagethree star

Ants! (also known as It Happened at Lakewood Manor & Panic At Lakewood Manor) stands as the first example of killer ants gracing the small screen, a format they’ve 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 television 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 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 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) EPSON MFP imagetwostar

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) EPSON MFP imagethree star

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) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

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, the 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’s 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) EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

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 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) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

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 collector” if you will. The title of “bone collector” 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 collector 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 collector 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 collector, 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 collector 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 crusher’s victims opted for stabbing instead, probably due to limited resources.

Atomic Betty: “Atomic Betty Vs the Giant Killer Ants” (2004) EPSON MFP imageonestar

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) EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

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) EPSON MFP imagetwohalfstar

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 was the most recent example I could find as well as being a mostly harmless, cute diversion with a couple unique ideas. 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.

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It would be fair to assume that over eight feature films and six television episodes 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. For those who would claim that there’s no fresh territory left for marabunta cinema, I offer that concept as the next frontier.

I also would like to note that I did not include Antie from 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 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.

-Brandon Ledet

Phase IV (1974)




When I’m prompted to imagine a film about murderous insects, I think back to the atomic creature features of the 1950s. I picture close-ups of actual insects scaling miniature models of suburban homes crudely combined with shots of victims screaming for their lives in the grasp of the invader’s oversized paper mache pincers. In my imagination, the insects become monsters through massive size alone, a tradition carried down all the way from 1957’s The Deadly Mantis to 2002’s Eight Legged Freaks. A refreshing deviation from this norm, 1974’s Phase IV surprisingly makes a threat of its murderous ants without blowing them out of proportion, but instead giving them a much more dangerous attribute: intelligence.

The killer ants in Phase IV are shrewd, organized, and scarily adaptable. They attack their predators preemptively, methodically killing spiders, praying mantises, and then humans as if they’re assassins taking orders. They turn automobiles into bombs, dismantle computers, and weaponize reflected sunlight in a vengeful reflection of a bored child with a magnifying glass. When sprayed with poisons, they purposefully evolve to include the toxins in their next mutation. The nature footage the film manages to cull is very impressive. It’s rare that this brand of sci-fi schlock would be perplexing on a technical level, but Phase IV kept me guessing. Sure, there were the inevitable close-up shots of ants eating cut with images of a collapsing set, but a lot of the film had me scratching my head as to just exactly how they got their footage. Did they dye the mutant ants? Was some of the action achieved though stop-motion animation? Did they write the movie around the kind of footage they could influence? I had a lot of questions about the production of Phase IV that I normally wouldn’t have in other films of its caliber.

Of course, Phase IV has its campy charms as well. The scientists that study/go to war with the ants bring a lot of good ole sci-fi nonsense like geodesic domes, futuristic hazmat suits, decontamination steam, and very sciency bleep bloop machines along with them. The opening narration is accompanied by outer space animation that recalls the ridiculousness of The Adventures of Hercules. The film also occasionally adopts the ants’ POV through a honeycomb-patterned kaleidoscope lens probably best described as “ant cam”. The cheap Western landscape setting (which resembles the remote communities where the atom bomb was developed) gives the film an automatic otherworldly look, which combines effectively with the ants’ naturally alien features in the nature footage close-ups. The queen ant is also provided some red/blue Creepshow lighting, which does wonders for her appeal as a villain and the film’s appeal as a silly diversion. It’s easy to see why Phase IV was given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, but I feel like that brand of mockery is selling its other merits a bit short.

Visually bizarre, technically impressive, tonally unnerving, and backed by a wickedly cool soundtrack of droning synths (recently made available 40 years late by Waxwork Records), Phase IV is a thoroughly strange film. Its loose, psychedelic ending was apparently cut short by butchers at Paramount Pictures (with some of the more bizarre surviving footage thankfully preserved in the trailer and elsewhere on YouTube), but the remaining effect is an open-ended conclusion that’s rare for this genre & era. The film isn’t exactly on an Under the Skin level of obfuscation & psychedelia, but it’s not far off. As far as sci-fi schlock about murderous insects goes, Phase IV is an impressive oddity with a killer soundtrack and some highly effective nature footage backing up its inherently campy appeal. It’s tempting to brush it off as a silly trifle based on premise alone, but there’s something much more peculiar going on here. It’s a shame that first-time director Saul Bass, known mostly as a graphic designer in his work on movie posters & title sequences, would never follow it up with a second feature. He had a great knack for striking visuals & eerie moods that could’ve translated into a long, interesting career if given the chance to flourish.

-Brandon Ledet