Animal horror was big in the 1970s, and it’s not just the fault of Jaws. Environmental concerns carrying over from the previous decade were seeping into the American consciousness and, by extension, the American genre film.

Pesticides, pollution and ever-increasing concerns about nuclear power funneled their way into a slew of eco-horror movies in which mankind’s incessant tampering with the environment led Mother Nature to retaliate in the form killer animals, insects and fish, often mutated to gigantic size and always ready to kill. Titles like Grizzly and Night of the Lepus and Kingdom of the Spiders and The Swarm were de rigueur for ‘70s horror, and while the genre has never really gone away — every year sees a few new killer animal films (and that’s not counting the SyFy Channel nonsense like Crocosaurus) — it reached its zenith during that decade. Now as part of their Summer of Fear, Scream Factory is releasing several killer animal movies from the decade that defined killer animal movies on two new double feature Blu-ray discs.

First up is 1977’s Empire of the Ants, about a group of adults besieged by — you guessed it — giant ants. Loosely based on a 1905 short story by H.G. Wells, the film finds future Dynasty star Joan Collins and future CHiPS actor Robert Pine among a group of would-be land buyers paying a visit to a new development only to come under attack by ants who have been mutated by toxic waste (what else?). It all leads back to the town’s sugar refinery, where the details and scope of that ants’ plan is revealed to be more terrifying than anyone could have expected.

As the relatively limited subgenre of giant ant movies go, Empire of the Ants is pretty solid — not as traditionally good as 1954’s Them!, but still a lot of fun. It’s co-written and directed by Bert I. Gordon, a filmmaker who specialized in giant monster movies; as such, it carries many of the hallmarks of a Bert I. Gordon film. The visual effects are a combination of rear projection photography, in which real ants were filmed and then projected as though they were huge against full-size objects and actors, and enormous ant puppets typically used during the attack scenes. Some viewers will be turned off by what they see as the “cheapness” of the effects. This reaction is understandable. The rest of us, though, recognize that it’s this approach that makes the movie special — it’s why we’re still talking about it almost 40 years later.

One of the best qualities of Empire of the Ants is that the giant ants aren’t even the craziest thing about it — it’s a movie that gets more ludicrous as it goes along. It takes a while to get going, but by the time the camera pulls back to reveal the sugar refinery, all bets are off; this is either a movie that’s completely self aware and in on its own gag or is so unconsciously free of irony that it wins us over with its shameless desire to entertain. While it’s probably not a movie that Joan Collins looks back upon with a tremendous sense of pride, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about with a movie containing this much energy, this many crazy ideas and this many enormous killer ants. Sure, it’s schlock. But it’s the best kind of schlock.

The second half of the double feature is 1981’s killer snake movie Jaws of Satan (aka King Cobra), a movie that seems a lot more straightforward because its murderous animals — in this case snakes — are of average size. It’s straightforward, that is, until one considers that the snakes are possessed by the devil. They escape from a train in the opening scene and make their way to a small town in Alabama to take their revenge on a priest (Fritz Weaver) descended from a snake-murdering line of Druids. A pair of scientists, Dr. Maggie Sheridan (Gretchen Corbett) and Dr. Paul Hendricks (John Korkes) recognize the danger in these snake attacks and attempt to step in before it’s too late. Unfortunately,the mayor won’t hear any of it — he doesn’t want anything standing in the way of the grand opening of the new dog track!

No, it’s not Mankind’s abuse of the environment that creates the murderous reptiles in Jaws of Satan, but rather the spirit of the Devil out for revenge. Part Jaws, part The Exorcist, Jaws of Satan cribs from several of the biggest horror films of the 1970s and combines them into a pastiche that feels altogether limp. As nutty as possessed snakes may sound, the movie doesn’t really do anything with the premise but have characters talk about it and occasionally evoke heavy-handed religious imagery. The movie is sluggish a bit on the dull side, only really springing to life during a scene in which a character shoots a snake in the head at point blank range.

The pairing of the two movies on Scream Factory’s double feature is interesting for how it approaches the “killer creature” subgenre in very different ways. On the one hand, Jaws of Satan is a better made film — one with an approximation of characters and themes and an air of “class” to it all despite its being utterly preposterous. It looks great because it’s shot by Dean Cundey, has a cast consisting of Fritz Weaver (Creepshow), Gretchen Corbett (Let’s Scare Jessica to Death) and even a very young Christina Applegate in her first movie role. On the other, Empire of the Ants is the far more entertaining of the two; it’s silly and schlocky and a great deal of fun in a way that’s not bogged down by self-importance. It seems to embrace its goofiness in a way that Jaws of Satan never does. Empire of the Ants never goes for camp — it plays the material more or less straight — but it runs full steam towards its ludicrous premise and does so with gusto. Jaws of Satan would rather pretend it’s something that it’s not.

A second double feature collection new to Blu-ray from Scream Factory contains two more killer animal movies: 1976’s Food of the Gods and 1972’s Frogs. It provides a similar juxtaposition: one silly giant animal movie (again directed by Bert I. Gordon!) and one more straight-faced, poorly paced effort that’s not nearly as fun.

Adapted from part of H.G. Wells’ 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth, the 1976 adaptation sees a mysterious substance bubbling up from the Earth — the result of environmental abuse and waste — only to be eaten by animals, which grow to gigantic size and attack humans. Through a convoluted series of events, a group of strangers — among them a football player (Marjoe Gortner, Starcrash), a pregnant woman (Joe Dante regular Belinda Balaski) and her husband and a businessman (Ralph Meeker) hoping to market the substance to consumers — find themselves trapped in a farmhouse under attack from giant rats.

That’s the basic setup for Food of the Gods, which also introduces oversized wasps and even chickens before settling on rats as its primary antagonist. Like in director Bert I. Gordon’s follow-up film Empire of the Ants, the giant rats are achieved with opticals, giant rat head puppets and, more often than not, by using average sized rats filmed against miniature models. The effect doesn’t work as well as it does in Empire of the Ants (which had the advantage of coming out a year later; maybe Gordon had “perfected” it by then?) probably because a) our eyes are never tricked, meaning we know we’re looking at rats climbing on a tiny house and b) taken on its own, rats climbing on a tiny house isn’t scary. It’s adorable. There’s a viciousness to the close-up rat attacks that make Food of the Gods pretty nasty, but it’s a more uneven effort than Empire of the Ants overall.

The accompanying feature is Frogs, the most eco-conscious of all four films and also the worst. Like Jaws of Satan, it’s not bad in its construction; it has a good cast (including Ray Milland and a young Sam Elliott) and is technically polished, lacking the crudity of Bert Gordon’s offerings. But crudity has its charm, something in which Frogs is very much lacking. This is a killer frog movie in which the frogs don’t actually kill anyone.

Well, that’s not entirely true. They do scare one character to death. I don’t think it’s off base to suggest that those of us excited at the prospect of a killer frog movie are not interested in their intimidation tactics. We want to see some frogs eat people. No such luck here. The crushing disappointment of Frogs continues.

Instead of just killer frogs, we get all of nature taking its revenge on a small Southern town, fighting back against pollution and pesticides and all manners of abuse. Ray Milland plays a wealthy plantation owner whose family and staff comes under attack by snakes, birds, insects, leeches, alligators — you name it, even killer moss — and must escape with the help of Sam Elliott’s nature photographer.

The construction is similar to that of a slasher film: characters wander off or become isolated from the group, then are picked off one at a time by various species of wildlife. Unfortunately, screenwriters Robert Hutchison and Robert Blees don’t seem to have thought up any “gags” related to the death scenes — the victims aren’t dispatched according to any specific theme relating to the animal that takes them out. The craziest and most egregious example sees a bunch of lizards break into a greenhouse and begin knocking over jars of poisonous chemicals, asphyxiating their intended victim. Not only does this deny the lizards the opportunity to kill someone lizard-style — licking to death? Heck, even eating a person would be enough — but also suggests that these lizards have a working knowledge of chemistry. One can only imagine the deleted scenes in which the lizards wear little lab coats and experiment with different compounds to see which ones are lethal. After all, taking revenge against all mankind requires careful planning.

All four films receive decent 1080p upgrades from Scream Factory. The 1.85:1 widescreen transfers often look their age — the films tend to be a little drab in that low—budget ’70s way and print damage is fairly prevalent throughout — but detail is reasonably good and colors really pop at times (particularly the red blood in Food of the Gods). It’s safe to say that this is the best any of these four movies has looked on home video. It doesn’t appear that Jaws of Satan has ever received a DVD release and has been fairly hard to come by for years, making it yet another film that Scream Factory is helping to rescue from obscurity by way of this Blu-ray release.

A good collection of bonus features have been included for both double features, too. Director Gordon sits in for commentaries on his movies, moderated by filmmaker Kevin Sean Michaels. They’re fun talks, not consisting of much depth but providing a good overview of the respective productions. Gordon spends the most time talking about the visual effects, which is ok because that’s probably the most interesting aspect of his movies. Also included for Empire of the Ants is the trailer, a radio spot and a short photo montage set to music. Jaws of Satan contains only its original trailer.

In addition to the commentary, Food of the Gods has a photo montage, a radio spot, a trailer and an interview with star Belinda Balaski, who is still delightful 40 years later. Actress Joan Van Ark offers a fun interview in the supplemental section of Frogs, which also includes a trailer, radio spot and photo gallery.

As someone who hasn’t always loved the killer animal subgenre of horror, I found Scream Factory’s two double feature Blu-ray collections illuminating. Not only do they showcase the decade’s eco-horror wave — a logical progression of the atomic fears of the 1950s — but also offer a glimpse at the very different ways the similar subject matter can be approached. I tend to prefer Bert I. Gordon’s brand of giant-sized schlock, but those who can’t get past the filmmaker’s kitchen-sink approach to visual effects may opt for scientist lizards and demon snakes. Actually, when you put it that way they don’t sound so bad after all.

Empire of the Ants Score: 3/5

Jaws of Satan Score: 2/5

Disc Score: 3/5


Food of the Gods Score: 2.5/5

Frogs Score: 2/5

Disc Score: 3/5

  • Patrick Bromley
    About the Author - Patrick Bromley

    Patrick lives in Chicago, where he has been writing about film since 2004. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Online Film Critics Society, Patrick's writing also appears on, and, the site he runs and hosts a weekly podcast.

    He has been an obsessive fan of horror and genre films his entire life, watching, re-watching and studying everything from the Universal Monsters of the '30s and '40s to the modern explosion of indie horror. Some of his favorites include Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931), Dawn of the Dead (1978), John Carpenter's The Thing and The Funhouse. He is a lover of Tobe Hooper and his favorite Halloween film is part 4. He knows how you feel about that. He has a great wife and two cool kids, who he hopes to raise as horror nerds.