Written by: Bert I. Gordon (screenplay), H.G. Wells (novel)
Directed by: Bert I. Gordon
Starring: Marjoe Gortner, Pamela Franklin, Ralph Meeker
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"My father used to say, 'Morgan, one of these days the Earth will get even with Man for messing her up with his garbage. Just let Man continue to pollute the Earth the way he is and nature will rebel. It's gonna be one hell of a rebellion.'"
Generally speaking, the 70s were a disaster, so much so that all of the negativity from Watergate, Vietnam, and the Cold War often crept into theaters as a sort of residual ooze. One way or another, the world was set to expire, be it via nuclear oblivion or ecological calamities. The latter proved to be an especially popular strain: with environmental awareness on the rise, so too was the notion that nature would eventually revolt, either on a grand scale (see: Irwin Allenís disaster flicks) or a much, much smaller one. Samuel Arkoff and American International presided over these more modest efforts by churning out a slew of schlock-fests, with 1976ís Food of the Gods proving to be one of their most successful. It turns out 70s audiences really wanted to see people devoured by giant (well, sort of) rats.
Thereís a loose pretense that itís all in the service of environmentalism, as you canít possibly miss the filmís message seeing as how protagonist Morgan (Marjoe Gortner) delivers it via an opening narration. A professional football player by trade, he explains that he and his teammates have been busting so much ass that their coach has granted them a reprieve before Sundayís big game. For his downtime, heís decided to head off to the wilderness of a remote island, where a long ferry trip allows him to muse on the words of his dear old pa, who constantly warned him that nature would one day strike back. Finally, that day has arrived, as the island has become a breeding ground for oversized, mutated wildlife thanks to a mysterious liquid the natives insist is divine in origin.
Food of the Gods is a classic example of an earnestly bad movie. Saddled with only a fraction of the resources afforded his big-budget counterparts, veteran director Bert I. Gordon scrappily makes do with forced perspective, compositing, and puppets to give the illusion of giant animalsóitís not quite as convincing as dressing up guinea pigs or dachshunds, but it mostly gets the job done, insomuch that itís ridiculous yet effective. The first thing our eyes gravitate to 40 years later is the utter fakeness of it all, but it hardly seems likely that anyone ever found these effects terrifying; if anything, it only allows viewers to immediately give themselves over to the filmís charms. Food of the Gods might carry H.G. Wellsís title, but it carries little of his actual novel, most of which has been traded out in favor of pure, unadulterated junk (and, to be fair, the credits insist this is only based on ďa portionĒ of the book).
But itís great junk very much unlike our modern riffs on the same theme. Gordonís work (which stretches back to 50s creature features) is a distant ancestor to the SyFy and Chiller monster movies: certainly, it bequeathed the low budget DNA and absurd premises. Whatís been largely lost in the past decade or so has been the practicality and commitment. I know Iíve gone on this tangent before, but it bears repeating since Food of the Gods is another reminder that a shoddy practical effect trumps a bad digital one. While I donít want to belittle the work involved with the latter (itís real artistry, especially when said artists actually have resources at their disposal), Iíll always gravitate to the former. I love that even a goofball movie like Food of the Gods features tactile craftsmanship with models and puppets. Someone had to wrangle up a load of rats and position them just right for various shots. This stuff matters.
Sincerity does, too. Speaking of something Iíve harped on dozens of times but also bears repeating: winking at your own absurdity is easy. Going with it and treating it deadly serious is much more difficult, and Gordon takes the latter approach with Food of the Gods. Grounded in the same grungy, earthy aesthetic as other AIP productions from the era, the film is shrouded in a thick menace, its giant rats, wasps, worms, and chickens viable threats capable of leaving a gruesome trail in their wake (some early work from Rick Baker adds a gory punch). The island setting adds an additional layer of desolation, as viewers are stranded in this hellish, muddy, foggy corner of the Earth and are granted few glimpses at the outside world beyond. Say what you want about the ridiculous critters crawling within, but this island seems barely inhabitable as it is.
Those who do find themselves stuck there also recreate the familiar Night of the Living Dead scenario: eventually, Morgan and a handful of survivors band together in an old house, where they become their own worst enemy. Gordon even tries to recall Romeroís social commentary, albeit rather clumsily: upon returning to the island (yes, he goes back), Morgan encounters a businessman (Ralph Meeker) looking to exploit the godsí nectar for personal gain. Meeker is a total goon, a cartoonish slimeball whose weaselly face becomes an avatar for manís hubris in the face of nature.
On the other hand, Gortner is a humble good old boy guided by the wisdom of his father, his slack-jawed demeanor marking him more of a long lost Duke brother rather than leading man in an ecological disaster movie. When he and his teammates reminisce over one of their fallen comradesówho canít handle giant wasps as well as a defensive line, apparentlyóMorgan can only shake his head and declare that his buddyís luck just plum ran out. At one point, he chides a fellow survivor for idleness and insists that they do somethingóafter all, thatís life, he says: you do stuff and wait to die.
If you canít tell, Food of the Gods has a killer mean streak considering its goofy premise, one that extends all the way to the closing credits. Here, Gordon parrots Romeroís nihilism with a bleak conclusion that leaves the audience with the suggestion that nature wonít be denied. Four decades later, it still resonates because one canít help but think about all of the chemical substances altering our foodsóif Food of the Gods were released today, its final moments would serve as a GMO parable. As it stands, the film is still a glimpse into a paranoiac 70s mindset: somehow, even this eraís silliest monster movies are often grim affairs. Even as its crude effects compel you to laugh, you canít help but notice how foreboding and unpleasant The Food of the Gods is at times.
For its second annual Summer of Fear, Scream Factory has gone all-in with nature run amok. Headlining the first of three double features in the pipeline, Food of the Gods makes its Blu-ray debut alongside fellow AIP joint Frogs to form one of the more inexplicable eco-horror double bills. Considering its low grade production values, itís no surprise the film retains a gritty, somewhat filthy look in HD, but itís appropriate. Unlike some previous Scream double features, this one isnít bereft of special features, either, as FOTG features a commentary from Gordon, an interview with actress Belinda Balaski, a theatrical trailer, and some behind-the-scenes photos. The only real head-scratcher is Scream's decision to assign Gordon's other Wells adaptation (Empire of the Ants) to a different release pairing it with Jaws of Satan.
Then again, maybe we should just to be grateful these films are making it to Blu-ray at all to remind us that silly creature features weren't always complete jokes. Food of the Gods especially doesn't screw around, even if it does have you howling from the opening line: "My name is Morgan and I play football," our hero declares before heading into an overgrown rat's nest to confront nature's fury with shotguns and pipe bombs. America's essence has rarely been captured so deftly.
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