In H.G. Wells' novel THE FOOD OF THE GODS AND HOW IT CAME TO EARTH, two scientists develop a chemical which causes ordinary animals to grow to enormous size. Though aggressive giant beasts appear in the early chapters of the story, the bulk of the book deals with humans reared on the new food product and is a parable about Socialism. The film THE FOOD OF THE GODS, on the other hand, is a low-budget potboiler in which a handful of aging and C-list actors fight for their lives against overgrown rats, wasps, and even chickens - all realized with real creatures, unconvincing props, and bottom-of-the-barrel process shots.
THE FOOD OF THE GODS was produced and directed by Bert I. Gordon, the enterprising auteur responsible for countless cost-effective giant monster pictures of the 1950s and 60s. In fact, the man known worldwide for his self-referential initials had already produced a loose adaptation of the Wells tale in 1965, a silly teen comedy starring Tommy Kirk and Beau Bridges entitled VILLAGE OF THE GIANTS. For his second attempt, Gordon opted for horror and gore over adolescent satire. The result was a film both bleaker and bloodier, but in no way better, than its predecessor.
Gordon also supervised the special effects in this tale of mammoth, man-eating rodents, making him culpable not only for the film's uneven pace and hackneyed characterizations, but also for some truly awful technical achievements. The rubbery rat heads and flimsy giant wasp props are so phony looking that the director deliberately obscures them from clear view with breakneck editing and shaky, headache-inducing camerawork. Transparent process shots of flying insects may have worked for Gordon in his salad days, but here the apparition-like toy wasps look neither alive nor actually present in the scenes where they are supposed to be swarming around the poor actors' heads. Instead, they look like what they are - cheap, poorly-executed optical tricks. The hordes of real rats imported for the proceedings appear menacing enough, but the director's decision to employ the old monster movie technique of filming them in slow-motion to make them appear more massive only serves to give them a lethargic, drugged look. To be fair, there is some rather effective miniature work when the critters swarm over an RV and a farmhouse, and a few of the more elaborate composites are quite convincing. Unfortunately, Gordon squanders any good will he might have engendered in these better moments by treating his animal actors with what can only be described as genuine cruelty.
As the rats wage their war on the besieged humans, dozens of them are blasted with shotguns or blown up with pipe bombs, and it doesn't take an observer from the ASPCA to see that the unfortunate animals in question are really being hurt. It's hard to tell whether they are actually being shot or are simply rigged with blood pouches and squibs and blown up by a prop guy, but it is clear that a good number of real rodents are visibly injured or killed in these, the film's most infamous moments. Worse still are scenes involving the rats in the water. Gordon includes in his narrative a ludicrous plot point about the monsters suddenly being unable to swim because they are so heavy, and he drives the point home by plainly drowning a good number of his fur-bearing players in two lengthy sequences. That a film made as late as 1976 could feature such blatant brutality toward animals is almost more difficult to believe than the plot itself. Even avid hunters and professional exterminators will find the treatment of the performing livestock in THE FOOD OF THE GODS cruel and off-putting.
There are a few moments of high camp, such as star Marjoe Gortner's absolutely hilarious battle with a giant, homicidal rooster, and Ida Lupino's desperate plea to God not to let any rats eat her. Regrettably, even these elements wear thin very quickly in the midst of some abysmal "romantic" dialogue exchanges between the two couples on hand and a lot of typical, tiresome bickering over how to combat the sudden rodent infestation. The characters themselves are cliched and grating in the extreme, with Pamela Franklin's bitchy bacteriologist and Ralph Meeker's greedy businessman vying vigorously to see who can drag the film down fastest. Lucky for them, Gortner's sensitive but incredibly stupid pro quarterback makes them both seem believable and sympathetic by comparison. Immediately after forbidding Meeker to try and run the rat blockade in his Lincoln Continental because the beasties might get in, our hero drags a reluctant buddy along with him as, for no apparent reason, he tours the monster-infested island in a jeep with an open top. Along the way, he inexplicably shuts a gate that is just strong enough to keep the jeep from getting back down the road but far too flimsy to stop a stampede of oversized sewer vermin - again offering no rationale whatsoever for his decision. It's fortunate for this dim-witted man of action that the screenwriter (you guessed it - the notorious B.I.G. himself!) knows as little about rats as he does, since every strategy he devises for dealing with the buggers relies on his illogical assertion about their swimming prowess. If it weren't for this contrivance, and the fact that he can yell louder than anyone else, it would be impossible to imagine this guy leading these people in a spirited rendition of 99 BOTTLES OF BEER ON THE WALL - let alone to safety.
Despite its obvious drive-in trappings, THE FOOD OF THE GODS is not much fun. It's too ugly and cruel to be really funny, and too technically inept to be particularly frightening. Perhaps the best that can be said for it is that it is slightly better than Gordon's next Wells-inspired outing, a clunky, in-name-only adaptation of EMPIRE OF THE ANTS starring Joan Collins and Harry Holcombe. And when the best one can say about a film is that it's better than EMPIRE OF THE ANTS, not much more need be said.