Hoppin’ Down the Bunny Trail: Night of the Lepus

While battling insomnia last week, I got involved in a late-night Facebook chat about Night of the Lepus, an eco-horror flick featuring giant killer rabbits. Some FB friends recalled being spooked by the idea of giant rabbits; others found the imagery of hundreds of bunnies hopping in slow motion unforgettable. Everyone acknowledged that the film’s premise, plot, and imagery were strange and ridiculous, but we all had vivid memories of the movie from catching it on television as kids. The Facebook chat prompted me to revisit Night of the Lepus to take a closer look–just in time for Easter!

Night of the Lepus opens with a faux news report about a rabbit infestation in the American Southwest. Hordes of domesticated bunnies have invaded the area and then multiplied. Not only has every blade of grass been eaten but acres of ranchland have been destroyed by burrow holes. Rancher Cole Hillman contacts university president Elgin Clark to help him contain the rabbit “explosion,” as the characters describe it. President Clark turns to scientists Roy and Gerry Bennett, who specialize in environmentally friendly pest control. Roy believes he can control the rabbits’ breeding cycle by injecting them with an untested serum. He injects a few rabbits in his lab, but when his daughter Amanda snatches one as a pet, the pesky “wabbit” escapes. Making like a rabbit, it quickly breeds dozens of offspring, which in turn beget hundreds and then thousands of huge, vicious, and carnivorous bunnies.

GIANT BUNNIES HELP THEMSELVES IN THE KITCHEN. 'NIGHT OF THE LEPUS' IS REFERENCED IN 'THE MATRIX' and 'NATURAL BORN KILLERS.'

The Bennetts, Hillman, Clark, and eventually Sheriff Cody join forces to resolve the problem. At first, they use a truckload of dynamite to cave in the rabbits’ breeding ground, which is an old, abandoned mine, but rabbits—being rabbits and all—burrow out from under the debris. They attack nearby ranches, cut off communications to the outside world, and then systematically eat their way from the local village to the larger town. Roy Bennett, being an all-around scientist, figures out how to gerry-rig the railroad tracks with electricity, while the sheriff’s department rounds up residents at the local drive-in to park their cars in two lines facing each other. The drivers turn on their lights, creating a channel to funnel the oncoming onslaught of bunnies toward the railroad tracks, where they are electrocuted or gunned down with machine guns by the National Guard.

Released in 1972, Night of the Lepus was one of several horror films that reflected the high profile of the ecology movement. The ecology movement was spurred by Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring and her testimony before Congress the following year about the dangers of pesticides. The movement was launched in earnest during the late 1960s, alongside other social causes of the era. In 1970, the first Earth Day was held, increasing awareness of environmental issues. The attention given to these issues and events at the time, especially the fears related to them, were reflected and refracted in a subgenre of horror films popular in the 1970s in which an animal species ran amuck.

Animals running amuck have been part of the horror genre since the 1950s, when the fear of atom and nuclear bombs spawned a subgenre of giant-insect invasion movies. However, the films of the 1970s were characterized by a storyline featuring an ecological faux pas committed by humans that leads to a large-scale proliferation of a species, a mutation of a species, or an increase in size of a species. While most of these films were not very good, they are interesting to ponder because they serve as a kind-of history lesson about the fears and issues of the decade. In that regard, Night of the Lepus can proudly take its place alongside other films in the animals-run-amuck subgenre of this era, which included Empire of the Ants (1977), Frogs (1972), Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), Piranha (1978), Tentacles (1977), Bug (1975), The Swarm (1978), and Nightwing (1978).

THE MOVIE WAS TITLED 'RABBITS' IN GERMANY.

The ecological theme is introduced immediately in Night of the Lepus in the faux news report about the rabbit invasion. The reporter begins by addressing the overpopulation of certain species, including humans, which was also a high-profile issue of the 1970s. He then launches into a history of rabbit invasions around the world, some of which actually occurred. The reporter suggests that the rabbits—and by extension, nature—are fighting back against human folly and ignorance regarding the environment. You could say the film’s heart is in the right place.

Likewise, rancher Cole Hillman rejects his neighbors’ idea to poison the rabbits as being ecologically unsound, which is why he seeks the help of university president Elgin Clark. When Clark suggests he contact a mutual acquaintance to eradicate the rabbits, Hillman rejects the idea, because he had used this person previously to help him with a coyote problem. However, the man went too far, and now he hasn’t heard a coyote’s howl in months. When the husband-and-wife team of Roy and Gerry Bennett are introduced, they are recording bat sounds to be used in mosquito-infested areas to ward off the pesky insects as an alternative to DDT. The Bennetts are reluctant to take on the rabbit problem at first, because as Gerry notes, “Rabbits aren’t exactly Roy’s bag,” using a bit of 1970s slang that is best left in that decade. But, Clark persuades the pair by appealing to their eco-friendly natures. Throughout the first sequences, much attention is paid to the ills of chemical solutions to combat environmental problems and the necessity of being aware of ecological balance.

THE BUNNY ATTACKS FEATURE A STUNT MAN IN A RABBIT SUIT.

Once the ecological message is out of the way, however, all responsible science seems to go right out the window in favor of advancing the plot, resulting in unintentional humor. Before resorting to dynamiting several square miles of underground critters and life forms to blow up the bunnies, Dr. Roy’s efforts to control the lepus population (pronounced as both “leap-us” and “lep-us” by the characters) include hormonal injections. When little Amanda asks her mother what the shots will do to the bunnies, Gerry responds, “Well, your father is trying to make Jack a little more like Jill, and Jill a little more like Jack, so that they won’t have such big families.” Whether that means he is trying to turn them into transsexual bunnies or gay bunnies is unclear, but it is one of the oddest scientific solutions I have come across in the animal run-amuck movies. Dr. Roy decides the hormonal solution will take too long, so he opts to inject his test rabbits with a serum sent to him by a colleague that is so experimental that he doesn’t even know what the serum is intended to do. Finally, electrocuting thousands of rabbits while sparks fly from electric poles as the National Guard blasts away with machine guns doesn’t seem the safest solution, but the scene did offer one of the film’s best lines, spoken by a sheriff’s deputy to patrons at the local drive-in: “Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help! ”

A CRAZED BUNNY FOAMS AT THE MOUTH.

Of course, the funniest part of Night of the Lepus is the premise itself—giant killer bunnies. They are not scrawny-looking jack rabbits or generic-looking wild rabbits, but domesticated bunnies in assorted colors with cute tails and long, floppy ears. It’s extremely difficult to make them look frightening. As they rampage around the countryside, they are shot in slow motion with a hypnotically thumping soundtrack in the background, but that only makes their movements appear graceful and fluid. To make them appear giant, director William Claxton and his crew used miniature sets for the long shots and filmed the bunnies in extreme low angles for the close-ups. When attacking humans, a person in a bunny suit jumps on the victim and rolls around a bit, though thankfully, that “technique” is used sparingly. Throughout the film, bunnies are doused in red goo to represent blood after they are shot by rancher Hillman, but, by far, the funniest shots are those of the bunny faces after they have attacked humans, horses, or cattle. The red goo is applied to their mouths or faces to show that they have consumed flesh; when not sporting red goo, some sort of brown foam is applied to their lips to make it look like they are foaming at the mouth. And, there is one repeated shot that I can’t quite figure out. An extreme close-up of a bunny’s face shot from a low angle accentuates a huge buck tooth a la Bugs Bunny. Sometimes it looks like a maniacal smile, and other times, it seems like a bit of blood has been applied around the tooth. I can’t tell if this a composite sfx shot, or if they actually forced some poor rabbit to wear a set of weird dentures.

BUNNIES RUN THROUGH A MINIATURE TOWN.

That all of this is played seriously is evident by the noteworthy cast of recognizable movie and television stars. Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman play the Bennetts, Rory Calhoun costars as Cole Hillman, and Star Trek’s own DeForest Kelley appears as Elgin Clark. Those of my generation may recognize character actor Paul Fix, who played the marshal in The Rifleman in addition to dozens of other law-enforcement-related roles. Not a lot of information exists on Night of the Lepus, and most of what does exist can be characterized as uninformed musings by young bloggers who painted the use of actors such as Whitman, Leigh, and Calhoun in a negative light. The actors were labeled as has-beens or aging, forgotten stars who could only get work in bad horror movies. On the contrary, at the time, many name actors were cast to add legitimacy to low-budget horror movies. Though the script let them down, I appreciated the seriousness with which these actors played their roles, and William Claxton’s direction shows a competence with continuity editing and the classic narrative style that some of today’s studio hacks do not possess.

On re-viewing Night of the Lepus after many years, I retain a fondness for its absurdities and well-intentioned message. I also discovered an aspect of the film that was disturbing—and truly frightening. The real documentary footage used in the faux newscast that opens the film shows ranchers in New Zealand hunting down frightened rabbits and beating them to death with clubs or shooting them with rifles The rabbits run everywhere in a blind panic, throwing themselves at that region’s famed rabbit-proof fencing but to no avail. And, while there was no mention made of this in the film, the Southwest setting of Night of the Lepus reminded me of America’s own incident of rabbit control. During the 1930s, in the area of the West dubbed the Dustbowl, ranchers rounded up rabbits, which were competing with the cattle for what little grass was left on the prairie. The ranchers set fire to the sagebrush, and the animals either burned alive, with their high-pitched squeals piercing the air, or they were clubbed to death as they ran out of the brush. As part of Night of the Lepus’s ecological message, this practice is condemned, even if the storyline later in the film seems to contradict the sentiment of the opening. Ultimately, the opening makes you root a bit harder for the rabbits.

30 Responses Hoppin’ Down the Bunny Trail: Night of the Lepus
Posted By michaelgloversmith : April 4, 2011 2:06 pm

As my wife is a huge horror movie fan (of the serious and ridiculous variety), I will be renting this soon!

Posted By michaelgloversmith : April 4, 2011 2:06 pm

As my wife is a huge horror movie fan (of the serious and ridiculous variety), I will be renting this soon!

Posted By Brock James : April 4, 2011 2:20 pm

can’t say how much i love this movie, and blog post!

“Rabbits aren’t exactly Roy’s bag.”

Posted By Brock James : April 4, 2011 2:20 pm

can’t say how much i love this movie, and blog post!

“Rabbits aren’t exactly Roy’s bag.”

Posted By muriel : April 4, 2011 2:45 pm

Ironically, the rabbit plagues of New Zealand and Australia, and the gruesome solutions are better illustrations of why we shouldn’t mess too much with nature. Never the less, I am also in that legion of people who saw Night of the Lepus as a kid on “Creature Features”. I thought the slo-mo giant bunnies were pretty silly and not at all scary, but definitely memorable.
I have lots of pet rabbits. They may be soft and fluffy, but they are pretty tough too. Very territorial and capable of nasty fights. You have to watch them to make sure the groups get along OK. Their best defense is a strong kick – I don’t remember any scenes where giant rabbits kicked over a pickup truck, but that would have been a funny scene. (With a wabbit kicking over a model! hahahahaha!)

Posted By muriel : April 4, 2011 2:45 pm

Ironically, the rabbit plagues of New Zealand and Australia, and the gruesome solutions are better illustrations of why we shouldn’t mess too much with nature. Never the less, I am also in that legion of people who saw Night of the Lepus as a kid on “Creature Features”. I thought the slo-mo giant bunnies were pretty silly and not at all scary, but definitely memorable.
I have lots of pet rabbits. They may be soft and fluffy, but they are pretty tough too. Very territorial and capable of nasty fights. You have to watch them to make sure the groups get along OK. Their best defense is a strong kick – I don’t remember any scenes where giant rabbits kicked over a pickup truck, but that would have been a funny scene. (With a wabbit kicking over a model! hahahahaha!)

Posted By Grand Old Movies : April 4, 2011 2:51 pm

If memory serves right, the giant bunnies also ROARED when they were on the attack, which made the film seem even more disorienting…

Posted By Grand Old Movies : April 4, 2011 2:51 pm

If memory serves right, the giant bunnies also ROARED when they were on the attack, which made the film seem even more disorienting…

Posted By Chris : April 4, 2011 3:13 pm

I remember staying up to watch this on the CBS Late Movie because of DeForest Kelley-I’m a big ST fan. The absurd normal sized rabbits running havoc over the minature set was a hoot.
This could be a part of twelve pack double feature with Kingdom of the Spiders(w/William Shatner)-twelve pack meaning a bunch of beers and a bunch of friends.

Posted By Chris : April 4, 2011 3:13 pm

I remember staying up to watch this on the CBS Late Movie because of DeForest Kelley-I’m a big ST fan. The absurd normal sized rabbits running havoc over the minature set was a hoot.
This could be a part of twelve pack double feature with Kingdom of the Spiders(w/William Shatner)-twelve pack meaning a bunch of beers and a bunch of friends.

Posted By debbe : April 4, 2011 5:52 pm

never heard of this movie. but… we see wild rabbits every day in our yards etc. they are cute… and living in the desert one imagines all its creatures growing into industrial strength predators…. i will look for this movie… sounds worth seeing. thank you suzidoll for again bringing this forward to people who love movies.

Posted By debbe : April 4, 2011 5:52 pm

never heard of this movie. but… we see wild rabbits every day in our yards etc. they are cute… and living in the desert one imagines all its creatures growing into industrial strength predators…. i will look for this movie… sounds worth seeing. thank you suzidoll for again bringing this forward to people who love movies.

Posted By franko : April 4, 2011 7:25 pm

. . . ah yes – “Frogs.” :o)

Posted By franko : April 4, 2011 7:25 pm

. . . ah yes – “Frogs.” :o)

Posted By LRobHubbard : April 4, 2011 8:42 pm

Curiously, the novel that LEPUS takes its premise from, THE YEAR OF THE ANGRY RABBIT, is actually a satire where the giant rabbits are only one small part of the goings on.

Posted By LRobHubbard : April 4, 2011 8:42 pm

Curiously, the novel that LEPUS takes its premise from, THE YEAR OF THE ANGRY RABBIT, is actually a satire where the giant rabbits are only one small part of the goings on.

Posted By Lisa W. : April 4, 2011 8:50 pm

oh, I must see it! I had no idea— and I always wondered what spawned the huge insects/animals as horror movie…..thanks for the great post, Suzi!

Posted By Lisa W. : April 4, 2011 8:50 pm

oh, I must see it! I had no idea— and I always wondered what spawned the huge insects/animals as horror movie…..thanks for the great post, Suzi!

Posted By Jenni : April 4, 2011 9:32 pm

I saw this flick when tcm aired it a couple of years ago as a late night underground showing. It was very funny to watch, and I was surprised that the cast included Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman. They must’ve been given a monetary offer they couldn’t refuse! I had always thought the species of animals on attack in the 1970s was largely due to Jaws and it’s raking in of the dough. Also have enjoyed Kingdom of the Spiders, and do you remember the Killer Bees movie, which aired as a tv movie, in the 70s, I believe, on CBS? My relatives from Chicago were visiting us in OH, and we tuned in one night to see it, and it turned out to be a laugh-fest! So ridiculous and campy!!

Posted By Jenni : April 4, 2011 9:32 pm

I saw this flick when tcm aired it a couple of years ago as a late night underground showing. It was very funny to watch, and I was surprised that the cast included Janet Leigh and Stuart Whitman. They must’ve been given a monetary offer they couldn’t refuse! I had always thought the species of animals on attack in the 1970s was largely due to Jaws and it’s raking in of the dough. Also have enjoyed Kingdom of the Spiders, and do you remember the Killer Bees movie, which aired as a tv movie, in the 70s, I believe, on CBS? My relatives from Chicago were visiting us in OH, and we tuned in one night to see it, and it turned out to be a laugh-fest! So ridiculous and campy!!

Posted By dukeroberts : April 5, 2011 7:58 pm

What a horrible way to die. Cuddled to death by fuzzy, wuzzy wittle bunnies. Well, by giant fuzzy, wuzzy bunnies.

I remember watching a documentary in which they spoke about those rabbit control measures, like beating the bunnies with bats. One of the gentleman said he stopped soon after it began, and would never do it again because rabbits scream like babies. They sound just like babies. That’s enough to prevent me from hurting them. Bring on the lepus. I’ll just keep some big carrots and cabbage about.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 5, 2011 7:58 pm

What a horrible way to die. Cuddled to death by fuzzy, wuzzy wittle bunnies. Well, by giant fuzzy, wuzzy bunnies.

I remember watching a documentary in which they spoke about those rabbit control measures, like beating the bunnies with bats. One of the gentleman said he stopped soon after it began, and would never do it again because rabbits scream like babies. They sound just like babies. That’s enough to prevent me from hurting them. Bring on the lepus. I’ll just keep some big carrots and cabbage about.

Posted By kneejerk : April 6, 2011 3:45 pm

All this and no mention of THE KILLER SHREWS?
For shame!

Posted By kneejerk : April 6, 2011 3:45 pm

All this and no mention of THE KILLER SHREWS?
For shame!

Posted By ggreen : April 8, 2011 2:27 pm

I remember paying full price to see this move on its release in 1972. I was with other kids my age that booed through most of the movie. The fakery was apparent even to 11 year olds. What a waste of time, kids didn’t appreciate camp. The theater owner pulled it after the first two days and replaced it with “The Blob” and the theater sold out.

Posted By ggreen : April 8, 2011 2:27 pm

I remember paying full price to see this move on its release in 1972. I was with other kids my age that booed through most of the movie. The fakery was apparent even to 11 year olds. What a waste of time, kids didn’t appreciate camp. The theater owner pulled it after the first two days and replaced it with “The Blob” and the theater sold out.

Posted By JK : April 18, 2011 3:44 am

There is a series of parodies of the TV show “Cops” called “Script Cops.” You can find them online and they’re very funny. One of them is over a bar fight caused over NIGHT OF THE LEPUS. I mentioned this to my script consultant, Donie Nelson, and she told me that while she was working in the story department at MGM in the early 1970′s, she was tasked to come up with a title for a giant bunny rabbit movie…and she came up with NIGHT OF THE LEPUS.

Note to kneejerk: I think Suzi left THE KILLER SHREWS out because that film was part of the 1950′s radioactive rubber monster phase, not the 1970′s ecological rubber monster phase. (I also remember SQUIRM, a 1976 horror film about electrified earthworms literally flooding up from the mud to strip people to the bone).

And, Suzi, you mentioned TENTACLES: the funniest story about TENTACLES was that it starred Henry Fonda (and I believe Shelley Winters and John Huston as well!). The producers agreed to film all of Fonda’s scenes in his backyard at a table with a phone. So, when you see Henry Fonda in the movie…he never left his house. You realize what that means? I did more by driving to the drive-in to see Henry Fonda in TENTACLES than he did to be in the movie!

Great post! Love my monster movies.

Posted By JK : April 18, 2011 3:44 am

There is a series of parodies of the TV show “Cops” called “Script Cops.” You can find them online and they’re very funny. One of them is over a bar fight caused over NIGHT OF THE LEPUS. I mentioned this to my script consultant, Donie Nelson, and she told me that while she was working in the story department at MGM in the early 1970′s, she was tasked to come up with a title for a giant bunny rabbit movie…and she came up with NIGHT OF THE LEPUS.

Note to kneejerk: I think Suzi left THE KILLER SHREWS out because that film was part of the 1950′s radioactive rubber monster phase, not the 1970′s ecological rubber monster phase. (I also remember SQUIRM, a 1976 horror film about electrified earthworms literally flooding up from the mud to strip people to the bone).

And, Suzi, you mentioned TENTACLES: the funniest story about TENTACLES was that it starred Henry Fonda (and I believe Shelley Winters and John Huston as well!). The producers agreed to film all of Fonda’s scenes in his backyard at a table with a phone. So, when you see Henry Fonda in the movie…he never left his house. You realize what that means? I did more by driving to the drive-in to see Henry Fonda in TENTACLES than he did to be in the movie!

Great post! Love my monster movies.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 18, 2011 9:03 am

Tentacles. Oh man, what a bad movie. Surprisingly good music though. It was a fun time watching that junk.

Posted By dukeroberts : April 18, 2011 9:03 am

Tentacles. Oh man, what a bad movie. Surprisingly good music though. It was a fun time watching that junk.

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