Sometimes in horror, a giant creature will do. It takes us back to a simpler time, I think. A time when an oversized spider, or a massive lizard sparked shuttered eyes at the Drive-In or local theatre. It feels almost like a cleansing; a reset of the scare-o-meter back to the innocent levels of the Saturday matinee. And if you were a kid in the ‘70s, Bert I. Gordon’s The Food of the Gods (1976) fit the bill nicely.
Released in June by AIP stateside, and then rolled out across the world in ’77, Food brought in $1 million at the gate (good revenue by AIP standards) and the reviews were, not surprisingly, as low grade as the budget. But hey, legendary schlockmeister Gordon did not survive the biz on good copy. And what kind of reviews would you expect from a movie that features giant chickens, gargantuan rats, and Marjoe Gortner? Regardless of its faded status as a B movie B-side, Food is good for the cheesy soul.
“My name is Morgan. I play football.” And we’re off and running, in a voiceover from pro football player, uh, Morgan (Gortner – Earthquake) as he’s allowed some time off before “Sunday’s big game.” (You could really put quotes around all his dialogue.) Deciding to hit the island (Bowen Island, BC, Canada, to be exact) for some r’ and r’, he takes with him his teammate Davis (Chuck Courtney – Pet Sematary), and PR Rep Brian (Jon Cypher – Spontaneous Combustion). While horseback riding, Davis runs afoul of some rather large, very poorly matted wasps. Upon discovering his bloated, dead body, Morgan comments on Davis’ seven years of pro ball. As he appeared to be the oldest of the gang, let’s just go with Davis was a late bloomer. After returning Davis to the mainland, Morgan and Brian head back to the island to investigate. Morgan stumbles upon the Skinner’s (Ida Lupino and John McLiam) farm, where he does battle with a very large cock before discovering the Skinner’s special chicken feed – primordial ooze bubbling from the ground, mixed with seed.
Before long, Morgan and Davis are doing battle with giant rats, and…well, pretty much just giant rats. (I would have liked more poultry battles, myself.) Joining them are Mrs. Skinner (don’t get too cozy with the Mr.), a husband and very pregnant wife, and a couple of dog food company representatives played by Pamela Franklin (The Legend of Hell House) and Ralph Meeker (Without Warning), with Franklin portraying a scientist, because one can never get enough pseudo-factual exposition. By the finale, all are defending a vermin invasion at the Skinner’s cabin. Will Morgan, et al, survive the colossal infestation, or will they end up nothing more than rat droppings?
The Food of the Gods is, according to the credits, based on a “portion” of H.G. Well’s novel of the same name. Now I haven’t read it, but I’m assuming they got as far as the index for this adaptation. But Food follows B.I.G.’s template vigorously: a group of people under siege, usually by something oversized. He did it in the ‘50s with The Amazing Colossal Man and The Spider (both ’58), Village of the Giants (’65), and following Food, Empire of the Ants (’77). Echoes of Night of the Living Dead abound in the finale, yet it somehow manages to avoid that film’s social commentary. (Unless ‘rats are gross’ counts, then of course it’s quite trenchant.) But leading up to the end, B.I.G. hammers home his ‘Nature Strikes Back’ motif, so prevalent in ‘70s genre offerings (see Kingdom of the Spiders, Frogs, Day of the Animals for further proof) and front and center here, through Morgan’s early narration (apparently his dad was quite prescient) and the need to show corporate greed. Of course the Skinner’s are hoping to get rich off of their discovery; who wouldn’t? But their motivation is blinded by stupidity more so than greed – maybe they should have just assumed that bubbling, pulsating goo spewing from the earth is not fit for consumption? But the message is there if you want it; LEAVE MOTHER NATURE ALONE – check.
Do people still want (or need) these types of films? Well, they sure want them. Look at the popularity of the Sharknado series. (Although I rather you didn’t.) Why something like Food is infinitely more enjoyable is it takes itself seriously, even if we can’t. Both are ridiculous; but Sharknado revels in it and continually points it out. There’s nothing worse than being told something is funny (especially when it isn’t).
So are we laughing at The Food of the Gods? Most definitely. It can’t objectively be called good. But its sincerity earns it respect; Gordon is trying to make a statement, which is hard to do when rats are crawling all over a miniature replica of a Winnebago. And while the effects are cute, crude, and chintzy, the film is paced to have them fly by like a paint chipped horse on a merry go round. It moves well; other than two ferry trips that could have easily been edited down into one, PG rated carnage is the key, peppered with amusing verbal attempts at deep thoughts and/or machismo, courtesy of one Marjoe Gortner.
By the time he took up acting in the early ‘70s, Gortner was already rife with celebrity, as a former child preacher who exposed the underbelly of evangelical revivalism through the Academy Award winning documentary Marjoe (1972). Very charismatic, with a curly surfer’s mane and a thousand watt smile, he was never less than energetic onscreen, and in true ‘70s why the fuck not? fashion, I can’t think of anyone I’d rather see jousting with a rooster. The entire cast is very earnest, attempting to add gravitas to a script with a moral message as sturdy as hay in a henhouse.
Which brings me back to the start: Sometimes a giant creature (or fowl, or vermin) will do. As long as people need a simple release, a nostalgic retreat to the matinee, The Food of the Gods will be there. And while it may not be nutritious, it goes down smoother than if it came from the earth itself. Just don’t forget to add the seed, okay?
The Food of the Gods is available along with Frogs on Blu-ray as part of a Scream Factory Double Feature.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: THE VAMPIRE (1957)