Director: Bruno Mattei (with Claudio Fragasso)
Screenplay: Claudio Fragasso, Bruno Mattei and Hervé Piccini
Cast: Ottaviano Dell'Acqua (as Kurt); Geretta Geretta (as Chocolate); Massimo Vanni (Taurus); Gianni Franco (as Video); Ann-Gisel Glass (as Myrna)
A Night of a Thousand Horror (Movies) #40
Another pairing of Bruno Mattei and Claudio Fragasso, and considering how many times they worked together, one wonders if their relationship went beyond merely collaborating on a film set to a friendship. Imagine the kind of bond, the conversations at lunch between film shoots, that would've forged making films like Hell of the Living Dead (1980) and Rats: Night of Terror. Here, in the meantime from that thought, Fragasso touches upon a theme that does scare and creep many people out in the figure of rodents. Mostly this is due to symbology - a pet rat, for me and for others, would be exceptionally cute, whilst the fear of them is due to their centuries old image as disease carriers in the wild. Wild rats present a sense of unease, suggest general decay, their ability to breed quickly and even go as far as cannibalise their own to survive disturbing in how they spread in rundown environments, their cultural legacy as spreading the likes of the Black Plague still potent centuries on because, even if it was technically their fleas with spread the illness, it killed millions.
Instead of merely an animal attack film however, which would've continued on the seventies tradition of nature being vindictive and trying to kill human beings constantly, Rats - Nights of Terror takes on an unsuspecting twist that was clearly influenced, as many Italian genre films, by the success of the Mad Max films, setting itself in a post apocalyptic sci-fi future. Set long after society has blown itself up with nukes, a group of marauders male and female, trying to survive on their own as explained in a very complicated opening narrative, find an abandoned building. At first finding crates of still edible food is a joy to them but they immediately find rat chewed corpses littered around the place as well. Soon they'll eventually learn that the rats are only just responsible for cleaning the meat off the bodies' bones but have more than likely killed them beforehand too. The result is even more peculiar considering the style and tone of the material.
I had been tricked by Zombi 3 (1988), itself "special" in some of its dialogue exchanges, that Fragasso was more conventional in his screenwriting style than I had come to learn, something clearly wrongheaded of myself when you get to Rats. Far from a detraction, it does mean that you have characters with very unconventional names - Lillith (Moune Duvivier), Video (Gianni Franco), Chocolate (Geretta Geretta with possibly the biggest hair even seen in an Italian post-apocalyptic film) etc. Than beyond those names, at least in the English dub, to the type of dialogue his characters have, such as Chocolate promise the geeky Video that he can make her pregnant if he fixes a computer they find in the building amongst such brief moments strangeness. Fragasso's obsession with environment issues throughout his career is found here too, Biblical proportions even when you get to the dumbfounding final twist, the group discovering the likes of plants being carefully grown in the basement with a water purifier and realising that a project by scientists was taken place in there, only to be found abandoned with rats on mass everywhere.
I have to confess though that, for all its moments of entertainment, Rats does suffer from being surprisingly conventional and repetitious at points. Were it not for the little details, from the groups' military vehicle to the rats being made intelligent through radiation, this could've easily been made an animal attack film set in the regular day. It's a severely restricted film in terms of plot too - the marauders sleeping in the building only to find themselves having to try to survive the night from the rats - meaning that it does repeat itself constantly, from people being slowly picked off to a lot of screaming particularly from the actresses filling the soundtrack. Eventually, despite the idiosyncratic nature of Fragasso's characterisation, where everything borders between the profound to the absurd, it eventually lacks the outrageous nature needed to make up for its sluggish moments, not completely able to have the same strange aura of other Italian horror films from this period. Certainly it has the gruesome practical special effects - an un-PC incident with a woman naked in a sleeping bad, rats exploding out of people let alone out of their mouths - but baring the sub plot where a cowardly member tries to undermine their leader to save his hide, its boiled down narrative does feel lacking in the excitable madness that some of the best of Italy, the legitimately great works of genre let alone the fun ones, had. In fact I prefer Hell of the Living Dead out of Mattei-Fragasso's period here from what I've seen, even in spite of how shambolic it is next to this one's more polished appearance, because of how wider in scope its ambitious story was.
Of course, Rats does have one of the best, most delirious ending twists of any Italian genre film of this period, worthy of seeing Rats and redeeming it greatly, but I cannot ignore that considering the promise it gives as a post-apocalyptic rat attack film, it does lack the maddened energy of other Mattei-Fragasso films I've witnessed. While being of a fly on the wall for their conversations about making the film would've been wonderful to hear, as would how they dealt will all the stunt rats (and guinea pigs and rubber rats masquerading for them) on set, this does feel weaker as a film even in the context of admiring its failures.