Easter may be over, but we look at 1972’s bizarre mutant rabbit horror film Night of the Lepus
As laughable and as silly the film seems, Night of the Lepus — that eco-horror cult favorite about giant killer rabbits terrorizing a small south western town — does something rather profound and thought provoking from the get-go. It is instantly invested in the issue of over-population and the nightmarish reality of environmental chaos caused by the imbalance of the natural order. The film thoroughly examines the population explosion, which at the time of the motion picture’s release in 1972 was a growing concern during an uncertain period which was heralded by a deep and relentlessly grim recession. The movie also subversively comments on the travesty and open-ended waste of human life at the heart of the Vietnam War, in that it employs a supposed solution to a problem that only leads to a far more dire situation at hand that evokes more obliteration. America’s involvement in that tragic infamous war would leave a devastating after-effect for years to come, and a film such as Night of the Lepus, in all its insanity and surface-level absurdity, taps into these political attitudes and beliefs.
Opening with an earnest and concerned newscaster discussing the growing unease of mass population spurts and species outranking, Night of the Lepus takes on a documentary-style approach in its prologue and marries it with a self-reflective commentary on the core thematic elements that the film tackles. However, it also plays with the set-up/gag of the piece, and tries to excuse its choice of movie “monster.” When the newscaster states: “Rabbits, which seem so cuddly as pets, can become a menace,” he is detailing the crux of the film and the solid sole intention, which is to turn, or at least attempt to turn, a benign and cutesy creature like a fluffy bunny rabbit into a monstrous terror hellbent on destruction. Of course, the film garners some side-splitting laughs from audiences eager to kill their curiosity and bear witness to the madness of giant bunnies ripping civilians to shreds or folk who wish to revisit one of their favorite “fun” flicks that they’ve always laughed at, but in order to defend the film as a piece that works outside of pure supposed “mindless” entertainment, one must look at the work as social commentary and as an extension of both fifties Cold War anxiety throwback now re-interpreted for a seventies sensibility and new-wave Hollywood westerns introduced to monster movie mayhem.
The systematic and well-mounted structure of the film has these rabbits initially presented as chaotic and frenzied vermin that are causing great distress for Australia and then America. In the opening news report, rabbits are firstly documented as an introduced species to the land Down Under but prove to be a pest that has manipulated and become detrimental to the natural balance of fauna and flora, while also leaving a devastating outcome to human plantation and crops. Then the menace is bought “home” to the USA in Arizona where the rabbit population is just as dire and just as damaging to the environment. The film then delivers its sturdy story by vividly capturing the romance of the movie western having a left-over cowboy ride his horse across the dusty plains of Arizonan desert lands. When the horse runs into a warren and breaks a leg, our stoic cowboy of a new generation has to do the unthinkable and put the poor beast out of its misery. Rabbits are the cause, and these fluffy, long eared, hopping monsters will be the cause of everything else that follows. Night of the Lepus never dillydallies with subplot or with character self-reflection or interpersonal staggering; it is all about cause and effect: rabbits are introduced to a hormonal treatment that makes them grow in size, they do a lot of damage and need to be stopped.
Romeo (a nice little nod to Shakespeare’s young romantic) is the adult male rabbit who is first tested on. After he races off from the arms of little Melanie Fullerton (who is one of the most annoying child actors in the history of film with her constant moaning “Mooooomy!”) and into a warren, so begins the nightmare of giant rabbits terrorizing this small south western town. Romeo spreads the “love” and soon enough the entire rabbit population in Arizona grow to mammoth size and run amok. Legendary screen stars Janet Leigh, Stuart Whitman and De Forest Kelly play it straight, take their roles seriously and have the full intention of being in a highly dramatic piece about giant killer rabbits. And this is something that works for the piece. There is not one hint of “we’re doing this for the wink wink nudge nudge.” Near the end of the picture, a police officer cries “Attention! Ladies and gentlemen there are a heard of killer rabbits heading this way!” and that summarizes the earnest play out, but capitalizes on the undercurrent riding the cagey tongue-in-cheek.
Marked by an incredible career in movie and television westerns, director William F. Claxton temporarily shifted his attention to marrying genres in this cult classic, with his work in the western film cementing the authenticity and poignancy of his killer rabbit fiasco. In Night of the Lepus, man doesn’t conquer the wilderness as he did in the great American western, what he does go however, is survive the wilderness and try to manipulate it in order to serve him. Claxton clearly had the intention of making an entertaining drive-inn hit (interestingly enough and playing on witty satire, the film has the featured movie monster of giant bunnies completely fried by an electric fence at a local drive-inn) but what audiences need to understand is that he also concocted a socially aware western tailored to the idea of naturism being altered and toyed with. The politics of the film involve the nature of human interruption and the cause of distress for the natural order, and Claxton utilizes a homage to fifties science fiction and horror outings where the Atomic Age ushered in new fears for an audience in the throes of Cold War anxieties and paranoia. The threat of communism would make way for a seventies ideology where growing concerns of environmental awareness and population control (the pill, the abortion rate et al) would take reign.
MGM soft-peddled the killer rabbit angle by avoiding any overt representations of ferocious bunnies in their advertising. And although they spent money on rabbit paw decals that decorated Hollywood Blvd amongst other places (as well as movie houses) with a warning to go with them reading: “The Lepus Are Coming!”, all images of rabbits in their promotion was removed or obscured. The original source novel, the Australian political satire “The Year of the Angry Rabbit” (a biting and intelligent offering commenting on societal concerns such as environmental decay, the populous problem and the effects and after-effects of the Vietnam War – something that the film only dances around subliminally) had its title completely changed in order to hide the fact that the film was about rabbits. Of course, anyone well versed in Latin would know just exactly what the film entailed, however, MGM felt that the initial concept might scare away audiences who might not be ready for a healthy offering of fifties throwback nostalgia.
Animal trainer and furnisher Lou Schumer had worked on a number of eco-horror movies during the period including the brilliant Day of the Animals (1977) and has a tricky job in making rabbits look menacing. Turning fuzzy hoppers into monstrous entities is incredibly difficult to pull off – however the concept of over breeding and quick multiplying somehow excuse the concept at large. It is akin to Gremlins in a sense and a multiple threat in the same tradition as a zombie apocalypse, however cute, fluffy rabbits made to look ferocious is utterly difficult. The use of vegetable based dyes for blood splayed out upon a rabbit’s face is the best Schumer can do, and assisting in the scope and scale of the piece, a stuntman in a rabbit suit lunging at hapless victims is treated as a last resort. Also, a giant rabbit puppet paw is used to strike at human adversaries and does the job fine. It is fun to see the lining of the rabbit suit in full close-up, and the giant paw idly striking at Janet Leigh, but countering such primitive wonders is the fact that the film boasts some impressive miniature work that successfully represents a small Arizona town. When the rabbits race through crashing over the tiny houses and barns, it is completely believable and thoroughly well done. As far as the film’s strongest visual point, this is by far the top ranking. Each set piece is meticulously detailed and designed, and rings true authenticity to the town chosen to act as the movie’s backdrop.
Veteran Hollywood stunt man Jack Young was assigned to be the location scout for the movie, and he remembers the shoot: “In 1971, while still working for Old Tucson, I landed this sci-fi movie. An old friend, Bill Claxton, was the director and we had worked with Bill on several occasions. On the surface, everything looked normal and we didn’t feel there would be any problems. The little village of Sonoita was used as the town and most of the filming was done there. However, on our backlot of Old Tucson, they built a miniature village to look like Sonoita. This movie was about a scientific exercise that went wrong and they ended up with giant rabbits. They were shooting their final scenes in this miniature village around 4AM. I was in my office and kept hearing lots of banging. Had no idea what that was so I ventured up to the set. They had built little fences into the village with the rabbits there to run in and destroy the village. But the banging? When they rolled camera’s they started banging on pot pans and anything that would make a noise. What most people don’t know is rabbits are so sensitive that many of them dropped dead with a heart attack. I found out they were storing the dead ones in a freezer and used them to shoot when the script called for it. I put a stop to that practice at once and told Bill that if they continued I would remove them from the property. Somehow they managed to complete the film, which bombed at the box office.”
Surprisingly, the film is rather gory, which is an added extra element that makes the film even more entertaining. The aftermath of the aggressive bunny carnage is shot in stark brightness as the camera lingers on the brutality of the attacks – the bloodied corpses missing limbs, on show for all to see. The graphic nature of images such as a young family torn to shreds and covered in fresh blood is on par with a giallo horror film that would begin to surface during the decade in far more operatic, grandiose and excessive violence. After all, as stated in the film “the bite of the lepus – that’s the Latin word for rabbit – can be dangerous.”
Night of the Lepus is a fun film and most definitely a loving tribute to both fifties mega-monsters on the rampage movies as well as a celebration of the turning point in the Hollywood western.