In the 1970s, a cycle of revolt-of-nature films inspired by contemporary ecological concerns yielded attacks by rats (Willard, 1970), ants (Phase IV, 1974), cockroaches (Bug, 1975), sharks (Jaws, 1975), bears (Grizzly, 1976), worms (Squirm, 1976) dogs (The Pack, 1977), spiders (Kingdom of the Spiders, 1977) and bees (The Swarm, 1978), plus a generalised hostility displayed in the mass cross-species attacks of Frogs (1972), Day of the Animals (1977) and Long Weekend (1977). The obvious source for these films was Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), from the Daphne du Maurier short story, but there were also frequent borrowings from the monster movies of the 1950s, when radiation from atomic tests was a more likely spur to mutation or aggression than pollution or a retaliative hostility. Generally, the menace comes from animals already established in the popular imagination as dangerous or disgusting – bugs, reptiles, sharks, vermin. Related to this cycle is a run of films in which the threat comes from unnaturally enlarged animals: the giant rats of The Food of the Gods (1976) and ants of Empire of the Ants (1978), both notionally derived from H.G. Wells, are the heirs of The Deadly Mantis (1957), The Killer Shrews (1959) and The Giant Gila Monster (1959). In Devil Bat’s Daughter (1946), someone muses about the pioneering resarch of Bela Lugosi in The Devil Bat (1941), ‘what man would want to know the secret of enlarging bats?’ The question remains pertinent, but mad or bad science still goes down Lugosi’s route, which invariably ends in a body count. Of all the ‘enlarged animal’ horrors, Night of the Lepus (1972) has the worst reputation. It earns a witlessly sacrcastic entry in The Golden Turkey Awards  because few viewers can take the concept (let alone of the depiction) of giant killer rabbits seriously. Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994) uses footage from Lepus in its montages of pop culture insanity, oddly reclaiming absurd images for transgressive horror. Clips from the film are often seen out of context, whether in TV shows poking fun at the supposed shortcomings of low-budget monster movies or in films that simply want a startling, strange moment to show on a TV screen (The Matrix, 1999).
In its opening credits, Night of the Lepus claims to be based on Russell Braddon’s novel The Year of the Angry Rabbit (1964) but the screenplay by Don Holliday and Gene R. Kearney takes nothing from the book but the general notion of dangerous rabbits. A montage prologue shows news footage from the plague of rabbits which devastated Australia in the 1950s – the direct inspiration for Braddon’s mainly satirical novel. Braddon envisions a future where an opportunist Australian Prime Minister tries to capitalise on a new plague of rabbits (some as large as alasatians, but more dangerous for their voraceousness than their size) to dictate terms to the rest of the world, who fear the export of this antipodean super-weapon, only for the creatures to wipe out settler society on the continent leaving a few Aborigines to start over. Braddon, writing a bitter satire on the Cold War arms race and nuclear deterrent, uses the rabbits as a metaphor for the Bomb. Holliday and Kearney simply turn out a standard monster movie, using elements familiar from many previous standard monster movies. The cause of the problem is a laboratory animal, dosed with an experimental serum by well-intentioned married researchers Roy and Gerry Bennett (Stuart Whitman, Janet Leigh) (like the test subjects of Tarantula, 1955). It is set free on a farm owned by Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) by the Bennett’s thoughtless little girl Amanda (Melanie Fullerton), who likes rabbits and doesn’t want this one to perish (a thoughless little girls causes similar problems in The Monster That Challenged the World, 1957). Mating with the local rabbits, which have overrun Hillman’s farm, the lab animal sires a breed of monsters the size of trucks, which run rampage across the South-Western United States until halted (in a variation of the method used to see off The Thing From Another World, 1951) by electrified railroad tracks.
Director William F. Claxton and producer A.C. Lyles were more used to cowboys than monsters, which explains the choice of a modern Western setting and the casting of familiar ranchland faces like Whitman, Calhoun, DeForest Kelley (as the exasperated vet) and Paul Fix. The film even has a feel for the milieu, and the problems old-fashioned, independent farmer Hillman has with an ecosystem out of balance: his rabbit plague is a side-effect of a too-successful purge of the pests’ natural predators, coyotes. Some films (Eye of the Cat, 1969; Cujo, 1983) capitalise on the incongruity of friendly pets turned vicious, but Night of the Lepus doesn’t have the sophistication to take that tack and tries instead to inflate its rabbits to standard monsters. The enlarged rabbits are played by regular-sized rabbits on reasonable scale model sets, in slow motion to suggest their size. Claxton and Lyles must have been aware of the potential for unintended humour in such monsters and lines like ‘attention, there’s a herd of killer rabbits coming your way’. Previous commentators have dwelled on the ridiculousness, but seldom noted that Lepus overcompensates by being among the most bloody and violent of its cycle, with an extreme amount of scarlet gore and high human and animal casualties. The film doesn’t manage to make its slowed-down bunnies seem evil; strangely, the documentary footage seen at the outset does a better job of conveying how dangerous rabbits can be, combining sharp teeth (like rats, they can supposedly chew through anything) with speed, and capable of breaking human bones with powerful kicks. Nevertheless, the fact that, individually, rabbits are popular pets and have an appealing image (as acknowledged in the film by Amanda) overwhelms any attempt to present them as menacing – and using the Latin tag in the title and some clunky dialogue doesn’t help.
1: The Golden Turkey Awards, Harry and Michael Medved, Angus & Robertson Publishers, 1980, pp 66-7