Schlock should never be a dirty word in the world of cinema. Some of my favorite films are utterly devoid of taste and frequently, refinement. The majority of drive-in treasures lie somewhere between perspiration and inspiration, covered in flop sweat and trying desperately to entertain. This is often where you’ll find the films distributed by American International Pictures, and always where you’ll see director Bert I. Gordon’s oeuvre. Empire of the Ants (1977) is no exception.
Released by AIP in July and bringing in $2.5 million, Empire was the follow up to Gordon and producer Samuel Z. Arkoff’s success from the previous year, The Food of the Gods, another “loose” H.G. Wells adaptation, and was an even bigger hit (in B.I.G. terms, anyway—everything’s relative, folks). Naturally dismissed by critics, Empire continues the winning Gordon formula of B stars and groovy, goofy, rear projection grisliness.
Our film begins with an ominous voiceover warning us to respect the ants and their remarkably structured society as a wayward barrel filled with radioactive waste (says so right on the side) washes right up on the shore of the Florida everglades. Enter Marilyn Fryser (Joan Collins – 1972’s Tales from the Crypt), a shifty real estate developer pushing plots on a boatload of prospective clients captained by local boy Dan Stokely (Robert Lansing – The Nest) to a nearby wine and cheese island fête. Before you can say “earnest ’50s sci-fi tropes” the whole gang has to fight off giant ants (spoiler: most will perish) on their way to safety across the island. But do the ants and their queen already have plans for the islanders?
Empire of the Ants is the kind of movie that drive-ins were created for: cheap thrills for those who want it, and an ecological message for everyone to ignore. I mean, we keep dropping those barrels in the water and insist on doing nuclear testing and it always. Ends. Bad. But this was Gordon’s modus operandi from the start of his career; The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), The Spider (1958), and Village of the Giants (1965) are only a few of the films where he injected some ham-handed social commentary—but hey, many did; it was the easiest way for the gigantic spiders, lizards, et al. to loom above the screen and terrorize the teenagers.
And that’s ultimately what these are; pure escapism. It’s very hard to gleam social commentary from a film where papier mâché ants fight with polyester-clad actors, valiantly screaming as if their paycheck depends on it. But whether B.I.G. is sincere in the plight of the environment or not, his joy in entertaining audiences cannot be judged. And the most charming aspect of his career is the total lack of growth as a filmmaker—the through line is always the same; cardboard characters scream, cower, and occasionally fight back against enlarged trick photography that does nothing to fool the imagination.
But so what? Not everyone can afford a Harryhausen; sabre-wielding skeletons and malicious Medusas belong to the fiscally blessed, and B.I.G.’s niche has always been the spliced together veneer of the bottom rung on a triple bill. And that’s where I want him; ambition without resources always equals heart and Empire bleeds all over the swamp.
Not literally, of course; Gordon always gets his PG and sticks to it; sure, blood does flow, but it’s a caplet here and a splash there, not that I’m complaining—his films provide joy in less purely aesthetic ways. I mean, look at this cast: Lansing and Collins provide the star power, although Lansing chooses to give a reticent performance as the captain, yet Collins leans into the role of tough ‘n’ sassy that she would later master on Dynasty. But look who’s backing them up; you have Chris Pine’s dad, Robert (CHiPs), John David Carson (Creature from Black Lake), Pamela Shoop (Halloween II), and other stalwarts of the B division all providing solid work for a very “disaster movie” ensemble feel. The bigger the cast, the deeper the carnage, and that’s nothing to look down on.
There are times when I’m called out for some picks on here. The Food of the Gods is a perfect example; objectively, it’s not a “good” movie—the performances are hacky (Marjoe forever), the effects are, by modern standards, low rent, and the story is laughable. Empire of the Ants is cut from the exact same tattered cloth (with better turns by the cast) that Gordon waves proudly for all to see. And this is why I love the man and his work; there’s no pretense or grand design on display; sometimes vicious giant ants are enough to fulfill the ultimate question: are you entertained? And when you find a film and filmmaker as sincere in that intention as Bert I. Gordon, the answer is always “yes.”
Empire of the Ants is available on Blu-ray as part of a Scream Factory double feature with Jaws of Satan.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE FUNHOUSE (1981)