To call this movie infamous is an understatement. It’s been called ridiculous, silly to its core, not especially memorable and unintentionally campy fun. All of these descriptions are accurate.
It fits squarely into the “giant mutated creatures” sub genre that exploded in the 50’s and would continue all the way into the 90s when CGI gave the genre a brief comeback (remember Eight Legged Freaks?). From then to now, we’ve seen giant spiders, grasshoppers, praying mantises and pretty much every form of animal giganticized. Now I know it was 1972 but even then the idea of giant bunny rabbits had to ring some alarm bells for the sheer absurdity of the idea. That didn’t stop these filmmakers though.
For whatever reason, they thought the idea of ravenous, giant rabbits would scare the shit out of people.
They were wrong. 44 years later however, you’ll probably laugh your ass off.
The story begins with the laziest of exposition in the form of a “news report” showing us footage of rabbit infestations in the past and referencing the rabbit-proof fence in Australia that inspired the films premise. From there, the setting opens to a quite impressive helicopter shot of a lone rancher on his horse galloping across the Arizona countryside until his horse tumbles over a rabbit hole and he’s forced to put it down. The rancher Cole Hillman (Rory Calhoun) goes to the college president Elgin Clark (DeForest Kelly) for help with the rabbit infestation that has recently popped up who then enlists the help of researchers Roy (Stuart Whitman) and Gerry Bennett (Janet Leigh) who come up with a plan using hormones to interrupt the rabbits breeding cycle since Cole and the others don’t want to poison or kill the rabbits.
Roy takes some rabbits back to his lab to experiment on but wouldn’t you know it, his daughter takes a liking to one of the injected furballs so she STEALS it and takes it home where it promptly escapes to join the out-of-control rabbit population where it can spread it’s mutated genes because, as we all know from modern colloquialisms; what a rabbits favorite past time is.
A couple mutated generations later, Cole finds giant paw prints on his property while at the same time, Roy’s daughter Amanda (the same one who started this whole mess) is hanging out with Cole’s son and they both decide to go visit his friend Billy who seems to be a weird hermit who lives next to a gold mine for no other reason than to advance the plot forward. Anyway, he’s not there so Amanda decides to follow those giant paw prints into the dark mine because, why not? There she finds GIANT MUTATED RABBITS with blood dripping from their mouths. Seems the hormones have increased their size and turned them from herbivores into carnivores. Amanda escapes but then bodies start popping up all over town. First a truck driver is found on the side of the road with severed limbs and covered in blood then later a family of four is found in pretty much the same condition.
The whole gang finally puts two and two together and heads to the old mine where Roy enters the cave to get some pictures for his scrapbook of abominations to nature while Elgin and some others check for rabbit holes up top and set some explosives. While this is happening, one of the giant rabbits attacks and mauls one of Cole’s ranch hands but runs off when Janet Leigh shows up with a shotgun.
Roy runs out of the mine after getting some candid shots of the rabbits moving in slow motion over some models and they blow the shit out of the mine but of course, some of the rabbits make it out and go an a midnight rampage, trampling Cole’s ranch and attacking his horses.
The whole gang hides in the storm shelter as the rabbits attack another scale model of Cole’s house right above them, which gives everybody a chance to blast some holes up through the ceiling, knocking out some of the furry critters with some well placed squib shots in what can only be described as Elmer Fudd’s wet dream. The killer rampage continues to the nearest town where a store owner gets her throat slashed as one of the giant bunnies throws itself through a window and lets out a lions roar.
As soon as the sun comes up though, the rabbits all disappear, hiding in abandoned buildings because they mostly come out at night….mostly.
This brings us to the big climax where the National Guard is called in as Roy’s wife and daughter try to escape town but of course get stuck on a deserted road in the middle of nowhere. That night, the ladies are attacked by the killer herd but saved by Roy arriving in a helicopter just in time to fly back to a drive in theater where the National Guard announce over a loudspeaker to the patrons that “there’s a herd of killer rabbits heading this way and we desperately need your help”. Seriously, that’s his exact words. Everyone at the drive-in is all in of course because a herd of killer rabbits is probably going to be more entertaining than the Tom and Jerry cartoons they were watching. They all line their cars up and turn their headlights on just as the herd shows up, diverting them into the fire of the soldiers where a full on rabbit slaughter goes down with flamethrowers and everything. The rest of the bunnies that aren’t riddled full of bullets or set on fire are diverted to a stretch of railroad track that has been electrified and the last giant bunnies are good and fried in a shower of lightning and sparks. And with that, the horror is over.
Now the reason why this movie has become so notorious isn’t just the idea of a horror film centered on giant killer rabbits but the fact that it’s played completely straight. This leads to a lot of great lines like Janet Leigh saying to the mauled rancher: “It’s okay. Calm down. He’s gone. The rabbit is gone” or when the sheriff questions the medical examiner asking, “So, what have we got here? Vampires?” to which the examiner answers “Possibly”. Did I mention these lines are delivered completely straight? You have to love a movie whose premise is so ridiculous that even the characters in the film are willing to entertain the idea of vampires before giant rabbits.
The rabbit attacks are shot in the same sobering manner which is great because we’re talking about a bunch of bunnies shot in slow motion, running through what look like my dad’s old train set but the real jaw dropper is when people are killed on screen calling for human/rabbit interaction.
For this we get quick cut shots of guys in actual bunny suits jumping on top of horrified actors. Now that is priceless.
The director tries to make one of the most adorable creatures in all of nature seem horrifying by smearing ketchup on there faces in an attempt to simulate blood. There’s also a lot of laughably shocking scenes of rabbits taking gunfire by obviously shooting red paint pellets at these animals as they cavort around the miniature sets causing them to jump up into the air not to mention the burning stuffed bunnies that stand in for the flamethrower victims.
The direction itself by William F. Claxon is very workmanlike. He was known for directing westerns and when handed this project he was obviously perplexed as to approach because he purposely declined to use any standard horror techniques like moody atmosphere or jump scares and shot it as a standard western which also explains the cast who were all well known as Western film performers outside of Janet Leigh, who reportedly only made this film because it was close to her home in Arizona which allowed her to travel home to her kids after shooting. Stuart Whitman, DeForest Kelly, Paul Fix and Rory Calhoun had all done tons of westerns and seem right at home in their jean jackets and rusty pickup trucks.
When asked about this film, Janet Leigh herself would say years later that she just tried to forget ever making this movie to no one’s surprise and even mentioned the film “lacked the ideal director” and that it was impossible to “make bunny rabbits menacing”. I see her point but probably the best thing about this movie is the cast which gives us not one but two former Enterprise doctors sharing the screen together in the form of DeForest Kelly (Dr. McCoy) as Elgin and Paul Fix (Dr. Mark Piper from “Where No Man Has Gone Before) as the town Sheriff. I’m thinking these guys were probably looking back wistfully at their days of fighting salt vampires and silver eyed crewmembers at this point.
Believe it or not, this was a book adaptation from Australian science fiction author Russell Braddon from his book The Year Of The Angry Rabbit. The book itself is very different in tone and story being a political satire in which the mutated rabbits are only a story device to set the plot in motion which concerns a special serum called Supermyx creating ravenous, killer rabbits. The serum is then used as a super weapon by which the Australian government holds the world ransom. Of course, the subtleties of satire were lost upon the MGM studio heads leaving only the rabbit element and the usual 70’s thematic warning of environmental tampering intact. But sometime after the film was in the can, they came to their senses because the original title of Night Of The Rabbits was changed to the Latin name of Lepus to obscure the fact that they just made a horror movie about giant killer rabbits which in a world without Google, probably worked pretty well. All images of rabbits were hidden in posters and the trailer leaving only the image of peering eyes. Even that got screwed up though and the rabbit was let out of the hat when some promoters sent out souvenirs with rabbit foot designs.
The movie unsurprisingly bombed but went on to become a cult favorite over the years even showing up in The Matrix. Look at the scene where Neo visits The Oracle. On the TV can be seen Night Of The Lepus playing away in the background. The Rifftrax guys also covered this one because really, how could they not.
In the end, it’s a rather paint by numbers plot but saved for rewatchability by the sheer craziness of it’s premise and it’s top notch cast who can’t do anything but give their all to the words on the page.
I’ll leave you with another cinematic killer bunny that is far more terrifying than anything seen in this film: