Science fiction films of the 1950s were usually low budget affairs where rubber masks and cheap monster suits reigned supreme. Of course, classics that highlight the political or societal themes of the time would emerge; Rocketship X-M and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms are looked on now in a more positive light than when they were released. Then there are the exceptions such as Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which is rightly regarded as one of their best live action films from that era. In modern times, the spirit of these films about radiation made giants or astronauts landing on a hostile planet directly lives on in the ridiculous output from The Asylum or the movies of Brett Piper.
That isn’t to imply they have a monopoly on this retro-style. Thus enters the Ron Carlson written and directed Dead Ant, most obviously paying homage to the 1954 classic Them!, but there are a few others. In 1989 the hair metal band Sonic Grave had a number one hit song. Since then, they have played rock festivals and concerts to increasingly smaller crowds. They are now attempting to write a song that will put them back on the map and achieve musical greatness again.
On their way to the Nochella Music Festival, which is in the middle of the desert, they stop by Bigfoot’s roadside store for supplies and the most intense peyote ever, The Sun. Bigfoot (Michael Horse) lays down specific rules about the use of The Sun. First, only take it as the sun is going down at this particular site in Joshua Tree National Park. Secondly, while on peyote, do not hurt any living creature whatsoever; if the bandmates do, whichever creature it is will seek vengeance. Bassist Art (Sean Astin) disregards these warnings and takes some peyote shortly before arriving at Joshua Tree and then intentionally pees on a fire ant once at the ceremonial site. The ants quickly swarm him.
“Sonic Grave…while on peyote…discover that each time they kill the ants, the insects come back bigger than before.”
Meanwhile, constantly put upon manager Danny (Tom Arnold), lead singer Merrick (Jake Busey), his significant other Love (Cameron Richardson), lead guitarist Pager (Rhys Corio), and drummer Stevie (Leisha Hailey) have a crazy night but don’t write any songs. The next morning, the others are trying to figure out where Art is, when they see his shambling body, still being eaten by fire ants. They attempt to help but discover that each time they kill the ants, the insects come back bigger than before. Can Sonic Grave write a hit song, make it to Nochella on time, and survive the onslaught of giant ants?
Ron Carlson’s movie wears its inspirations on its sleeves, and that is part of the charm. Spotting all the references to the films that Dead Ant is beholden to turns out to be a rather fun game. Happily, audiences unfamiliar with tropes of the golden age of sci-fi will still have a good time. That is in large part, thanks to the cast.
Tom Arnold still has the comedic timing that made him a star. When Danny discovers that everyone else had all the peyote, he goes on a mini-rant about how they never think to include him, despite all Danny’s done for the band. It is pretty funny. Corio sells his character’s distaste for the power ballad that made his band famous very well. He also shows great compassion, as his concern over the young ladies who joined them on their peyote “trip,” Sam (Sydney Sweeney) and Lisa (Joi Liaye), comes across as genuine.
Hailey as the drummer gets a few solid laughs, especially during an early speech about why she won’t upgrade her classic truck with air conditioning. However, it is Jake Busey that steals every scene as the band’s lead singer. He is so full of bravado and vigor that the audience is instantly charmed by him. His comedic timing is spot on, and he nails the singing side of things as well.
“…wears its inspirations on its sleeves, and that is part of the charm.”
Carlson’s directing keeps things moving along, as Dead Ant has no fat to trim during its almost 90-minute runtime. Meaning that even when some of the jokes don’t land, or a few of the story beats feel rushed, there is no time to dwell on it as another gag, or giant ant is coming right up; though there is one brief exception to this. It also helps that despite the characters’ foibles, they are sweet and easy to like.
But yes, some of the jokes don’t always land. Carlson relies a bit too heavily on profanity for comedic effect, and it becomes tiresome at certain points. When they plan to get the keys to the truck to escape, which are in the now deceased Art’s pants, the scene comes to a grinding halt as it feels the actors are just yelling the f-word back and forth at each other. It takes a few minutes for the momentum to be regained. Another negative is the spotty CGI of the ants. A majority of the time, the special effects are well integrated into the scenes with believable textures on the insects. However, there are moments when the ants look unfinished and blocky, made all the more evident by how good the effects are overall.
Dead Ant is not quite the slam dunk it could be, based on its concept and cast. However, the faults don’t deter from the sheer fun and energy of the production. Combine that with the very game cast, led by a dynamic and lively Jake Busey, and you get a recipe for a good time.
Dead Ant (2019) Directed by Ron Carlson. Written by Ron Carlson. Starring Jake Busey, Rhys Coiro, Sean Astin, Tom Arnold, Leisha Hailey, Cameron Richardson, Michael Horse, Joi Liaye, Sydney Sweeney.
7 out of 10 Drive-Ins