Rats: Night of Terror Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
In the year 225 A.B. (After the Bomb), a group of post-apocalyptic bikers discover an abandoned research laboratory filled with food, water... and thousands of rats. But these are no ordinary vermin; these are super-intelligent mutant rodents with a ravenous appetite for human flesh. Can a bunch of heavily armed but not-too-bright human scavengers survive a night of terror against the most hungry and horrific predators on earth? (From Blue Underground’s official synopsis)
When we talk about “the bottom of the barrel,” we’re usually implying that the barrel in question has a potential top. However, when referencing trashy Italian exploitation movies, it’s easy for detractors to claim that the entire barrel is nothing but a bottom. I understand how difficult it is for non-fans to parse the fine lines of quality between various spaghetti-flavored zombie, cannibal, and mad killer movies, and hope they know that even the most ravenous enthusiasts among us have some measure of standards. By most of these standards the unadulterated, artless junk made by director Bruno Mattei is designated the true bottom of this barrel. The vast majority of Mattei’s career was made up of blatant rip-offs of everything from Hollywood hits, to B-movies and even other Italian rip-offs of Hollywood hits. During his tenure, Mr. Bottom of the Barrel, dipped his toes in almost every single exploitation wells, including Nazisploitation (SS Girls [Italian: Casa privata per le SS, 1975]), nunsploitation (The Other Hell [Italian: L'altro inferno, 1981), women in prison/WIP (Women’s Prison Massacre [Italian: Blade Violent, 1983]), spaghetti western (White Apache [Italian: Bianco Apache, 1986]), and even hardcore porn (mostly in an assistant director capacity). His Jaws (1975), Terminator (1984), Predator (1987), and Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985) carbon copies – Cruel Jaws (1995), Shocking Dark (aka: Terminator II, 1989), Robowar (Italian: Robowar - Robot da guerra, 1988), and Strike Commander parts 1 and 2 (1987/1988) – are among the most laughable in the Italian rip-off pantheon. He was infamous for shooting more than one film at a time on the same set or reusing sets and footage from other movies. And, yet, there are still some Bruno Mattei movies that are so genuine in their disregard for intellectual property that you can’t help but kind of admire them.
By 1984, Italian movie audiences were more interested in violent action movies than violent horror movies. Key non-Italian releases that helped define the region’s middle ‘80s output included Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Ted Kotcheff’s First Blood (1982), John Carpenter’s Escape From New York (1981), and George Miller’s Mad Max (1979). Together, these spawned a series of Vietnam-themed adventures, lone wolf revenge thrillers, and a surprisingly long-running series of violent post-apocalyptic science fiction. Rats: Night of Terror (Italian: Rats: Notte di terrore; aka: Blood Kill, 1983) was Mattei’s weird attempt to cash in on the rising popularity of these dystopian romps. In fact, outside of Italy (namely West Germany) it was released as Riffs III - Die Ratten von Manhattan in an attempt to pass it off as a genuine second sequel in Enzo G. Castellari’s popular Bronx Warriors series (1982-83), which is a patently Mattei move, considering that Castellari’s movies were already a rip off of Escape From New York. In another patented Mattei move, Rats: Night of Terror saved money by avoiding expensive New York City locations or even outdoor locations at all, by appropriating sets built for Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The penny-pinching extended to the basic concept, which exchanged Escape from New York-like warring street gangs and Mad Max-like vehicular carnage for a small scale cast of misfits battling barely animate rats (partially inspired by James Herbert’s The Rats [Pan Books, 1974], source material it shares with Robert Clouse’s Deadly Eyes, ).
Rats: Night of Terror isn’t burdened with the type of behind-the-scenes kerfufflelry that plagued Mattei’s previous straight horror hit, Hell of the Living Dead (Italian: Virus - l'inferno dei morti viventi; aka: Night of the Zombies and Zombie Creeping Flesh, 1980), nor does it need to live up to the reputations of George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) or Lucio Fulci’s Zombie (Italian: Zombi 2; aka: Zombie Flesh Eaters, 1979). These facts and a general lack of gore make for a more traditional so-bad-it’s-good kind of experience. Instead of awkwardly mixing and matching footage to create a movie that would appeal to every popular exploitation demographic (as in the case of Hell of the Living Dead), Rats: Night of Terror makes mistakes on its own terms, rendering it a more pure Mattei experience. Any artist, even a bad one, is most interesting when they are unhindered to explore their (worst) impulses. Like the best good/bad movies, Rats: Night of Terror’s ambitions vastly outweigh its budgetary constraints and its filmmakers’ abilities. This earnestness is far more appealing than cynically forced irony. The trashy purity is enjoyably on a universal level and, if it wasn’t for the bad dubbing and recognizable Italian actors, Rats: Night of Terror could be confused with American-made, shoestring sci-fi thrillers from the same period.
The titular rats themselves are clearly domesticated creatures and, as a result, pretty cute. Mattei’s effects team attempts to de-cute the naturally red-eyed albino rats by painting them a sinister shade of black (I suppose that’s easier than fitting black rats with tiny red contacts). As a result, the rats are more concerned with grooming the paint off of their fur than acting in a menacing manner. Instead of being frightened of them I find myself frightened on their behalf as the crew throws them at actors, shoves them through tubes, crushed under set pieces, and burned by flame throwers (according to legend, most of them survived their ordeal and escaped into the walls of the studio). Fortunately, the rats have the last laugh in the Twilight Zone-inspired twist ending, where the survivors are rescued by rat-men that evolved/mutated under the streets of the toxic wasteland. This implies that the humans may have won the battle, but the true heroes, the rats, have already won the war.
The Blue Underground’s press releases didn’t differentiate between the two films in their Hell of the Living Dead/Rats: Night of Terror double-feature Blu-ray, so we can probably assume that both were (then) new 1080p, 1.85:1 transfers were remastered from 35mm sources. The results are generally the same between the two films, too, including a sizable uptake in overall detail, clarity, and cleanliness over the anamorphic DVD transfers shared by Anchor Bay and Blue Underground over the years. Rats: Night of Terror has the advantage, however, because the original photography is so much more colorful than Hell of the Living Dead's largely flat and desaturated imagery. Mattei, second unit director Claudio Fragasso, and cinematographers Franco Delli Colli and Henry Frogers infuse the limited scope sets with vivid lavenders, blues, and greens that add a dash weirdo beauty to the underwhelming production values. These colors, along with warm flesh tones and poppy reds, all bounce quite nicely without bleeding into each other too much. Grain structure appears soft, but not unnatural, and tends to clump up a smidge in some of the darkest shots, which are otherwise neatly separated. Details are only limited by soft focus and the same slight sheen of digital noise seen on the Hell of the Living Dead transfer (likely a minor DNR side effect). In general, the textures are tight and edges remain sharp without haloes.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono English dub is a similar upgrade over its DVD counterpart. The dialogue is plagued with the same balance issues that effect most dubbed tracks, but, aside from some crackles in the aspirated consonants, distortion is minimized. Luigi Ceccarelli’s keyboard score is pretty underrated as far as Goblin-esque synthpop goes. His infectious title track, which would be at home in an 8-bit Nintendo game, features plenty of punchy bass and his underscore (which has a church organ tone) sits nice and surprisingly deep beneath the relatively flat sound effects work.
Bonded by Blood (50:20, HD) – A brand new collection of interviews with co-writer/co-director Claudio Fragasso and cast members Margit Evelyn Newton, Franco Garofalo (via Skype), Ottaviano Dell’Acqua, and Massimo Vanni (the latter two of which surprise Fragasso on the remnants of the Rats set). Fragasso’s part is the most interesting, because he gets particularly personal, discussing his relationship with Mattei in more intimate terms than he has in other interviews. Perhaps Mattei’s death has opened the door to more open discussion. He also claims that the escaped rats from his film and Dario Argento’s Inferno (1980) bred and created a particularly vicious breed that plagued the shared Italian set for years. The actors are all very pleasant while they recall fond and not-so-fond memories of making both movies.
Hell Rats of the Living Dead (8:40, SD) – This interview with Mattei was conducted as part of the older DVD double feature and remains one of the only on-camera interviews with the director (he isn’t even quoted in print all that much).
The images on this page are taken from the BD and sized for the page. Larger versions can be seen by clicking the images. Note that there will be some JPG compression. Note: Hell of the Living Dead is currently only available as part of a double-feature Blu-ray with Rats: Night of Terror. I opted to separate the two films while re-editing these reviews for Genre Grinder.