Director: Ron Carlson
Writer: Ron Carlson
Producer: Ron Carlson, Stephanie Hodos, Mark Hodos
Stars: Tom Arnold, Rhys Coiro, Jake Busey, Leisha Hailey, Cameron Richardson, Sydney Sweeney, Danny Woodburn, Joi Liaye, Michael Horse, Sean Astin
Giant ants threaten to slaughter a washed-up glam rock band on their way to a comeback concert at a desert music festival.
In introducing his movie at its Screamfest 2017 premiere, writer/director Ron Carlson likened the creature feature campiness of “Dead Ant” to ‘Playboy,’ as opposed to more serious mainstream fare that might be equivalent to ‘The New Yorker.’ It was the filmmaker’s way of saying his contemporary drive-in flick is more about exciting imagery than academic insight, a titillating taboo you can’t wait to share with an adolescent buddy afterward.
Carlson was on the right track, but riding the wrong train. “Dead Ant” doesn’t have the polished profile of smooth sophistication to be on par with ‘Playboy.’ It’s more akin to ‘Hustler’ without the smut, containing cheaper, less conventionally couth content smeared with greasy fingerprints, where fans have no hope of hiding behind an “I just read it for the articles” excuse.
Following an unsuccessful rebrand, endlessly wearied band manager Danny Blue (Tom Arnold) has one-hit wonder glam rockers Sonic Grave booked for a comeback concert. Sort of. Merick (Jake Busey), Pager (Rhys Coiro), Art (Sean Astin), and Stevie (Leisha Hailey) assume they are headed to Coachella. Danny explains they are actually playing No-chella, the redheaded stepchild of desert music festivals.
Along the way, the band stops at a roadside organic fruit stand run by a mysterious medicine man. Pager picks up a pair of new groupies to join the one already in the trailer. The other musicians pick up a powerful peyote known as “the sun.”
After making camp on sacred land nearby, the medicine man’s warning to not harm any creatures while experiencing the drug goes unheeded when Art drowns an ant in urine. Art quickly regrets his choice of toilet when that ant issues a verbal threat followed by the arrival of a flesh-eating swarm.
If that scenario weren’t impossible enough, it soon becomes clear that each time an ant is destroyed, the other ants increase in size. Completing their single ‘Side Boob’ will have to wait. Sonic Grave’s new gig pits them against a colony of enormous killer ants, and they are outnumbered 100,000 to one.
When a plot essentially pitches itself as, “Tom Arnold plays the motormouth manager of a washed-up hair metal band fronted by Jake Busey fighting giant ants at a desert music festival,” you expect a certain amount of fun. “Dead Ant” delivers a certain amount too, just not the whole kit ‘n kaboodle of craziness promised by that premise.
A pretty pumped audience greeted “Dead Ant” with enthusiasm for its debut in the main auditorium of Grauman’s Chinese. Mild chuckles gradually waned into little reaction at all however, as lukewarm jokes regularly landed without impact, were misplaced between awkward edits, or found themselves lost in a cacophony of garbled shouts when onscreen action grew hectic. I consistently felt myself wanting to laugh far more, but regrettably realized the movie wasn’t always doing its job in motivating me to do so.
Stunted early pacing takes too many cues from stoner comedy slowness. Inherently by virtue of its wild idea, you’d think “Dead Ant” would be irreverently edgy. Instead, it’s missing a colorful vibrancy that would send more snappiness into its style. “Dead Ant” is closer in spirit to the middle-aged novelty hair metal is now, not entirely embodying the attitude of outstretched tongues confidently crying “rock ‘n roll!” with a fist raised in devil horns.
As expected, hair metal songs dot the soundtrack. Unexpectedly, these inclusions are far between. 80s glam rock, which can’t be a bankbuster to license, should be moving the mood and setting tone through sound. “Dead Ant” occasionally seems to neglect its core concept though, content to push momentum through tame material that capable acting can only carry so far.
Tom Arnold in particular puts enormous passion into his performance, although the script doesn’t fully reward him for his effort. Some of his input appears to be improv as he channels a manic Michael Madsen behind Fat Elvis glasses. Arnold’s persona alone makes most of his scenes sizzle, while his misses highlight the kind of deficiencies that make one wish “Dead Ant” had more hilarity on hand.
“Dead Ant” means well, yet comes closer to cheap than to enjoyably cheesy, even in the realm of B-movies slanted toward a Saturday night Syfy audience. Ron Carlson reportedly spent a full year in Russia generating over 700 VFX shots via CGI. I gritted my teeth at this revelation while thinking, “one year on effects and this is as good as it gets?” Sure, goofiness constitutes part of the intended look. But obvious green screens and digital layers make “Return of the Jedi’s” Rancor look positively cutting edge by comparison.
All in all, enough entertainment value exists for “Dead Ant” to be a fun lark, provided expectations are set to reasonable romp rather than raucous riot. If only the film had longer, stronger legs, perhaps it could have been ‘Playboy’ instead of ‘Hustler.’
Review Score: 55