by Jason Grooms
There is nothing worse than attending one of those high pressure time share meetings. You know the ones I’m talking about. You get a free boat ride, drinks and a meal and in exchange you have to put up with the pushy sales lady who keeps bugging you about buying into some crazy vacation resort.
After 30 minutes on the stupid tram tour of the half-finished resort all you want to do is get out of there but then some 6’-tall ants, who’ve been exposed to radioactive waste, completely trash the boat. Then you have to sit and listen to nothing but complaints from the other guests as you have to ride an overcrowded boat through the swamp to survive the onslaught of killer insects.
You know the meetings I’m talking about. I hate those things. Totally not worth the boat ride and free scotch.
Empire of the Ants is a wonderfully “B” sci-fi/horror flick that was released in 1977, the same year as Star Wars IV: a New Hope and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It stars Joan Collins as the pushy sales lady and a young Robert Pine as the philandering sexual predator. It’s directed by Bert I. Gordon, who also directed many other great sci-fi classics such as Earth vs. the Spider and Food of the Gods, about an island filled with giant bugs, chickens and an army of giant, blood-thirsty rats.
Empire of the Ants is based very loosely on an H.G. Wells story of the same name. The movie opens with the foreboding scene of a strange boat methodically dumping barrels of radioactive waste into the ocean. Then our entire band of characters boards a boat of their own to be transported to a remote beach in the Florida Everglades for a high-pressure sales presentation with cut-throat saleswoman Marilyn (Joan Collins) on a yet-to-be-built vacation resort called Dreamland Estates.
After a few cocktails, we find out that many of the “buyers” are only attending for the free trip and booze. While on a guided tram tour of the resort’s undeveloped grounds, they come across the mangled body of an island worker and eventually other guests. It doesn’t take long before they meet up with the giant ants, who subsequently destroy the boat and the remaining survivors are forced to trek through the swamp by foot and using a small boat.
They find a town on the edge of a massive sugar plantation, but their relief is short-lived when they find the town’s residents have been brain-washed by the queen’s pheromones into serving the new colony of giant ants.
This was one of those movies that I caught on late night cable TV back in the day when cable was brand new and you still controlled the cable box with a wired remote that slid between 15 channels. I’ve always loved creature features with a cast of unlikable human characters that make you cheer for the monster when he finally chomps into one. This movie is no exception. From sexual assault Larry to land-scam Marilyn, the “heroes” keep you begging for more mauling.
One of the things that always amazed me about this movie is how they got real, live ants to cooperate for the wide angle shots. Some of the scenes are obviously just shots of the ants moving about in a miniature set, but there are a lot of different shots of the ants standing still and twitching menacingly. Although in a few scenes you begin to get the distinct impression that the film makers got a little creative with super glue.
The full sized ant puppets weren’t too bad, but are more typical of a 1950’s puppet monster than something you’d expect out of 1977. A bit hairy and not too scary, they did move rather well although as with most large puppets, they didn’t move nearly fast enough to seem real.
Some of the best scenes in the movie are when the ants finally get hold of a human snack and go to town on them. The best scene of all comes at the end when they encounter the queen. I won’t give anything away, but I’ll tell you it involves a road flare, a sugar refinery and a lot of pissed off ants.
I definitely recommend this to any lover of fine cinema cheese. It’s an absolute classic and, if for nothing else, is worth watching for Joan Collins. The last ¼ of the movie involving the ant queen and the strange town doesn’t seem to fit whatsoever with the rest of the movie. It does, however, leave you asking how the ants could set this whole, elaborate “empire” up in a matter of a couple of hours. Regardless, it’s definitely a fun ride.
There’s nothing quite as fun as calling out the absurdities in a plot or character motivations and this flick provides plenty of fodder. On my Deep-Fried Cheese scale Empire of the Ants gets a solid 3.5 wedges, fully ripened.
Empire of the Ants Trailer