For Earth Day: Some Environmental Horror Films of the 1970s

In observation of Earth Day, a look at some eco-horror films made during environmentalism’s first flush, the 1970s. I have left out seemingly related ones (such as Jaws or Grizzly or killer bee movies) where there is no indication why the animals have run amok. Here it is clearly a case of man’s tampering with the natural environment, usually by releasing harmful chemicals as a by-product of industrial or military activity. These films are the essence of exploitation. Purporting to warn about an actual problem, by virtue of their terrible or nonexistent science they proceed to make the worst possible case for positive action. If anything, they probably set the cause of environmentalism back a few years. It would not be inaccurate to say that they polluted our minds. 

Frogs (1972)

In this brazenly dull film a young, pre-mustache Sam Elliott is photographing nature in a Southern bayou when he has a mishap with his canoe. A couple of local siblings (Adam Roarke and Joan Van Ark) take him back to their plantation estate, where wheelchair bound, patriotic patriarch Ray Milland holds court, planning a big Fourth of July Picnic-slash-birthday party. The old man is a detestable tyrant, and what’s more, the runoff from the pesticides he uses to keep his grounds pristine is making the local fauna run amok. Numerous characters are killed by snakes, lizards, turtles, alligators, leeches, birds — everything but the titular frogs. The danger from the frogs is more implied, for in the end, the paraplegic and insufferable Milland finds himself alone and helpless whilst thousands and thousands of oversized bullfrogs slowly hop toward him.

Night of the Lepus (1972)

It’s hard to believe this movie exists, for it outshines even such ’50s fodder as Killer Shrews in absurdity. Rancher Rory Calhoun wants to end the epidemic of rabbits that have been invading his property so he enlists the help of scientists Stuart Whitman and Janet Leigh, who inject rabbits with hormones they believe will inhibit their breeding cycle. Instead, it makes the bunnies giant. The absurdities are manifold, of course. Is there a more benign and pacific (and vegetarian) creature than a rabbit? I don’t care HOW big it gets. if it grows to be the size of the MOON, I’m not certain I would feel scared, precisely. Real rabbits are employed in the picture and matted in or used with miniature sets. Then they are depicted in slow motion, which somehow serves to make them even less threatening. They just seem sort of lazy and overfed, less threatening than cows. Beyond this — wouldn’t it be jackrabbits that would be torturing a rancher? These are like PET RABBITS! I’m waiting for a giant ten year old girl to come pet them and call them “Mopsy” and “Flopsy” and “Cottontail”! P.S. An added bonus — DeForest Kelley is in it, in one of his few post-Star Trek, non-“Bones” roles.

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Bug (1975)

William Castle produced and co-wrote the screenplay for this one, which layers gimmick upon gimmick. It is not just a bug movie, a genre which has been considered gross enough as a horror premise on its own, but it’s a bug movie starring COCKROACHES. But they’re not just cockroaches, they have the mutant ability to start FIRES, and not only does that happen, but then scientist Bradford Dillman experiments on them so they become SENTIENT and can even WRITE WORDS! Further, Castle actually INSURED the star cockroach of the film.

The Food of the Gods (1976)

Bert I. Gordon returns to the genre that is his first and only love! Here he wed an H.G. Wells story to the ecological themes that were then trending. I first encountered this movie in its paperback novelization form when I was a kid.  On an island off British Columbia, a farm couple (John McLiam and Ida Lupino) find a mysterious chemical and feed it to their chickens, making them grow eight or ten feet tall. Unfortunately, it also gets consumed by rats and wasps, and so people begin to die on the island. Among the cast are Marjoe Gortner as a retired football player, and Ralph Meeker as the owner of a dog food company, who wants to get the secret formula for himself so he can make a fortune. In a word, The Food of the Gods is delicious.

Empire of the Ants (1977)

This one, also by Bert I. Gordon, is even more explicit in its message, and also very loosely inspired by a Wells story. Barrels of toxic chemicals wash up on an island and make the local ants gigantic. Unfortunately, unprincipled real estate developer Joan Collins has brought a group of prospective buyers there to show them some beachfront property. People do get gobbled, and in the case of Collins, it’s a very pretty sight.

Day of the Animals (1977)

This one is a sequel of sorts to Grizzly, which was made at a similar wilderness location the previous year by this film’s producer/writer Edward L. Montoro, director William Girdler, and stars Christopher George and Richard Jaeckel. Grizzly however had been about a single homicidal ursine, with no explanation for its rampage. In Day of the Animals, aerosol usage is depleting the ozone layer, causing mass madness among critters at high altitudes. Unfortunately, that’s just when a group of hikers elects to go camping in the mountains of Southern California, where they are attacked by wolves, hawks, dogs, rats, and a bear (but no mountain lion as the poster implies). The radiation sickness also infects at least one of the humans — jerky Leslie Nielsen, who was already the most aggressive of the hiking party to begin with. Also in the film: Lynda Day George (Christopher George’s real life wife); Michael Ansara (in his customary role as a wise, even-tempered Native American), and camp movie veteran Ruth Roman. The film ends on a note not unlike that at the end of The Birds — our heroes make it out of their specific predicament…but it is strongly indicated that the rest of the world is about to be infected by the problem.

Tentacles (1977)

This overt Jaws rip-off almost didn’t make the cut for this post…but then I recalled that the giant killer octopus at its center is triggered in its rampage by high frequency radio waves generated by a developer that’s building an underwater tunnel. The film is an Italian-AIP co-production, and it really has some hilariously enjoyable elements. At its center is star Shelley Winters who, though almost 60 years old at this point, plays the mother of a little boy, and is treated by the script as though she were an attractive woman of about half her age. Even stranger is an odd, semi-incestuous relationship with her brother, played by John Huston. Why is all this weirdness in the script? Henry Fonda (soon to be associated with very similar films like Rollercoaster, The Swarm and Meteor) is the villain. Claude Akins is typecast as the sheriff. Another of the film’s rewards, though, is the casting of Bo Hopkins (usually relegated to good ole boy parts) as a marine scientist who saves the day with two trained orcas.

Piranha (1978)

When this one came out, and for a time afterward (even after watching it) most folks thought of this Roger Corman produced B movie merely as a cheapo Jaws rip-off. I certainly thought of it that way for a long time. But it was directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles before those names meant anything and in retrospect (I rewatched it not long ago), you can see its absurdities as intentional satire, and many of its other elements as homage and good storytelling. Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) plays a scientist who is experimenting with weaponizing piranhas. Unfortunately some people unwittingly release the creatures into a river where they will proceed to feast and feast. Along with the army officer villains and summer camp locations, the cast is one of the film’s major pleasures Bradford Dilman, Heather Menzies, Keenan Wynn, Richard Deacon, Italian horror star Barbara Steele, AIP veteran Dick Miller, camp auteur Paul Bartel and Sayles himself are among the stars. As I’m sure you know, there were sequels and remakes.

Prophecy (1979)

Directed by none other than John Frankenheimer, this major release stars Robert Foxworth as an EPA employee who goes to logging country in Northern New England to make a report about local conditions, bringing along his pregnant wife (Talia Shire). Unfortunately, run-off from a local paper mill and chemicals used in logging operations are turning the animals into monsters. They encounter mutant bears, a giant salmon, and a killer raccoon. Much like the earlier Orca, this one also appropriates Native American claptrap about enraged spirits. The cast also features Armand Assante, Richard Dysart, and Graham Jarvis. Though a major Paramount release, this movie got (and earned) about the same amount of respect as a film made for 1% of its $12 million budget. Yet it did fairly well at the box office.

Alligator (1980)

John Sayles scripted this one as well, though it was not a Corman-AIP production and was not directed by Dante, but by Lewis Teague, who later made Cat’s Eye and Cujo. The joy of this one is that it is the concretization of an old urban legend. A baby alligator is flushed down the toilet, eats dead lab animals that are full of chemicals, then grows into a monster in the sewer. It has a similar tongue-in-cheek touch to its predecessor. The cast includes Robert Forster, Michael Gazzo, Dean Jagger, Jack Carter, Henry Silva, and (in her last role) Sue Lyon.