The Italian film industry is famous for its shameless knock-offs of successful genre movies, particularly in the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were STAR WARS rip-offs (STARCRASH), ALIEN rip-offs (CONTAMINATION), DAWN OF THE DEAD rip-offs (a sub-genre all its own). The best ones, or the most entertaining ones, I should say, followed the basic framework of the original film, but then veered off in unique or insane directions. Italian directors were brazen with what they got away with, but only Bruno Mattei had the balls to simultaneously rip-off both THE ROAD WARRIOR and THE BIRDS in the same movie. The result, 1984’s RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, is a mind boggling wonder to behold.
In 225 A.B. (After the Bomb), a motley band of scavenging bike punks seem to have hit the jackpot when they find an abandoned building packed with food, purified water, and comfy beds. The only drawback is the slight rat infestation. This turns out to be a larger issue than the punks anticipated, because while the rats look like ordinary, easy to abuse vermin, they have mutated into clever, carnivorous little horrors. One by one, the punks fall prey to the diminutive beasts. By the time they realize what is happening, it is too late; the hungry hoards have them trapped. It comes down to a battle of wits between human and rat, and these humans are sorely, embarrassingly outmatched.
The movie begins with a very loaded text scroll (and a voiceover, in case you don’t want to read). It explains that there was a nuclear war in 2015 that destroyed all five (!) of Earth’s continents. The survivors, known as the New Humanity, found protection underground. A century later, a bunch of teenagers get fed up with New Humanity’s bogus rules, dress codes, curfews, and what not. I’m assuming they are teens, the text doesn’t specify. Anyway, the young turks blow off the underground to party on the surface. They are dubbed the New Primitives, and New Humanity really hates them because all they do is drive their motorbikes around all day and play their music too loudly.
Alright, now that you have digested all that, just forget about it because it doesn’t really have anything to do with the actual movie. I’m not even sure it was written for this film. Maybe they just had a spare post-apocalyptic text scroll lying around and decided to throw it on the screen.
Mattei made some dumb movies in his day (all of them, really). With RATS, however, he declares an all-out War On Intelligence. The bikers do not specifically refer to themselves as New Primitives, but the moniker is very appropriate (and not just because they all dress like they are in an Adam Ant video). Everyone seems to have a six-year old's understanding of technology. The most common response when something stops working is to shake it, whine, and throw it on the floor. Early on, one of the characters finds a fancy sci-fi computer. As he confidently starts flipping switches, I think, oh, this is the electronics expert in the group. No, it turns out he thought it was some kind of video game and was just pushing buttons at random. Even plastic bags seem to be too sophisticated for them, as seen when one guy just tucks into a bag of brown sugar without opening it first. Even the rats know not to eat the plastic. These people would get themselves killed on an escalator, I have no idea how they managed to survive this long in the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
It should be noted that these rats are not monsters. They don’t have mutated features, extra-long claws, or enormous bodies. They are just a bunch of average white lab rats, painted grey to make them seem scarier and less adorable. The humans treat them like an evolutionarily superior super-predator, though. The hysteria prone Myrna (Ann-Gisel Glass) freaks out every time she sees one. Or a spider. Or a candy wrapper. Deus (Fausto Lombardi, aka Tony Lombardo), the deep one dressed like a Hari Krishna, goes on about all the fatal diseases contractible from rat bites (while they are suspensefully creeping up a rat filled stairway. Geez, pick your moment, Deus). Kurt (Ottaviano Dell'Acqua, aka Richard Raymond), the fearful leader, straight up admits “They’re stronger than us!” after most of his crew becomes rat food. The rats themselves spend most of their time milling about, watching the action and trying to wipe off the grey from their fur.
The rats don't have to take much initiative, anyway. The humans do a fantastic job of getting themselves killed all on their own. One guy gets drunk and falls into the rat filled sewer. Several people just stand there as a torrent of rats pour down on top of them. A lady gets trapped in her sleeping bag because she can’t figure out how zippers work. Another one literally gives up and kills herself due to the pressure of attempting to outsmart a rodent.
In the few instances where the rats actually have to do things, they handle themselves well. They are good jumpers, especially when aiming for the face or neck. They can batter down a door somehow, which is impressive, though not scientifically sound. Near the end, with their superiority so clearly established, they just start fucking with the humans for fun. They move corpses around to freak them out, and even throw the sleeping bag girl’s body through a doorway. Again, I’m not sure exactly how that works with their tiny little rat arms. In a particularly non rat-like trick, they burrow into a corpse and control it like a puppet, before exploding out of its back. At this point, they are just showing off.
It’s not just the rats that the humans have to worry about, either. Duke (Henry Luciani) continuously plots to depose Kurt as the leader of the group. He is hindered by the fact that he is such a cowardly little fuck that no one can stand him. The only person he can get on his side when he stages his coup is Myrna, and honestly, she would follow anyone who wasn’t a rat. He pulls the classic dick move of locking the others out of a safe room, he steals their only surviving vehicle (which everyone somehow forgot they had for a while), and tries to kill them with a machine gun. Luckily, he doesn’t understand how to reload the machine gun, so he threatens to blow himself and Myrna up with a grenade unless everyone gives up. He clearly doesn’t understand how threats work either.
The thing is, Duke has a point. Kurt is possibly the worst leader ever. When one of his team comes in covered in rats, Kurt attempts to get them off with a flamethrower. He sends people on dangerous and ultimately worthless missions that just get them killed. He insists on remaining in the rat filled building instead of, say, driving away in their fake tank (not that it worked out any better for Duke). Here is an example of his reasoning: “They can’t be smart enough to be luring us out into the open, so I’m going to call their bluff and go out there!” It’s not just the dub, he sounds just as stupid in Italian.
The single competent human in the movie is the black woman named (shudder) Chocolate. She’s no Pam Grier, but Chocolate is tough, confident, and doesn’t take any shit. Not only does she make it through the entire movie without doing anything particularly stupid (aside from hanging out with these losers), she has a few legitimately clever moments. When Duke and Myrna have the jump on her, she makes Myrna freak out about a rat so the panicked woman will knock down Duke long enough for Chocolate to grab his weapon. Well played, Chocolate. Sorry about the name.
There are apparently a few intelligent folks left on Earth, because the bikers eventually find a recording from the scientists who were doing tests in the building before the rats came. They were smart enough to build the water purifier and the hydroponic garden, but not smart enough to put their protective uniforms back on when the rats attacked. The movie acts like this recording is a major reveal of information, but the scientist just recounts all the things that have already been shown. It basically ends with “Oh, by the way, watch out for the rats.” Book smart, rat stupid.
Normally I wouldn’t want to spoil an ending like this, but it is just too beautiful not to talk about. Just as everything seems hopeless for the two remaining humans, Chocolate and Video (Gianni Franco, aka Richard Cross), a bunch of guys in yellow rain slickers and gas masks emerge from the sewer and start gassing the rats. Chocolate and Video wake up surrounded by the rain slicker dudes and begin thanking them for coming to their rescue. The dudes watch silently, until one pulls off his gas mask to reveal… a giant, furry rat face! This is not an out-of-nowhere shock ending, like the one in PIECES. They tease out the suspense. You can practically hear the movie debating its next move. Look, audience, I know you want there to be a giant rat face under there, but how can we possibly justify that? It’s just so ludicrous. It defies all laws of—naw, just fooling with you! Here’s your giant fuzzy rat face!
There is literally no better way for this movie to end.
I must warn you, the Humane Society was not monitoring this set. As was common with Italian films of the era, no love was shown to the smallest of extras. Rats are routinely knocked around, flung, kicked, and manhandled. A few of the poor bastards get roasted in the fire stunts. By the time Myrna inaccurately whines “we’ve done nothing to them,” we are squarely on the side of the rats. I hope the official “rat chucker” behind the camera got a few bites on the fingers, at least.
Bruno Mattei (aka Vincent Dawn, aka about a million other pseudonyms) would go on to make dozens more wonderfully terrible movies, including STRIKE COMMANDO, CRUEL JAWS, and TERMINATOR 2 (but not that TERMINATOR 2). He also took over for Lucio Fulci on ZOMBI 3, which is why the slow moving zombies suddenly turn into kickboxers halfway through. He made movies right up to the day he died in 2007, at the age of 75. It was a life well spent. At the very least, the world should praise him for giving us RATS, and revealing what is truly the deadliest thing to worry about in the apocalypse, utter stupidity.