Burrowing up from the success of the B-movies of the 1950s (and derivative of Godzilla), bugs — be they plagued by radiation, aliens, or simply massive — were here to destroy cities and plague tiny American towns for decades to come. Hitchcock and Spielberg would make animal B-Movies prime time, with their additions of The Birds and Jaws respectively, elevating a genre that was famous for its dodgy effects and intoxicated-on-bug-spray acting. It’s interesting to see the parallels between the man vs. beast subgenre and that of the deadly plagues written in the Bible. As horrors inflicted on the disbelievers, these films utilized the animal kingdom as a sign of the end times, with prime ’70s examples like Frogs and The Killer Snakes as direct references to said plagues.
Its religious subtexts play into the perfect small-town ideals once more, as helpless farm folk and nuclear families could only do their best to survive by being unfaithful or messing with God’s creation. The machinations and mistakes of lazy governments and corporations above them also prove to be a defining quality of the ‘bug movie,’ with institutions at fault for dumping chemical waste, disturbing mines, exposing nuclear radiation, and so on is one of the political and environmental forces of the man vs beast subgenre. Bugs in cinema can even be used in idealistic and inspirational ways, serving as an example of communal cooperation and utilitarianism. The following films center on bugs in various ways, while retaining their focus on the creepy, crawly insects that make us all squirm.
Updated on September 28th, 2023, by Rachel Johnson: This article has been updated with additional content to keep the discussion fresh and relevant with even more information and new entries.
13 Antz (1998)
Released back to back with rival A Bug’s Life, Antz (Dreamworks’ very first feature) pitches Woody Allen as an ant alongside Sylvester Stallone and Sharon Stone. This will however always be a poor man’s version of A Bug’s Life, with a wobbly tone and an unfriendly uncanny valley approach to insects that makes our skin crawl. Pre-flagship Shrek, Dreamworks was quite visibly finding its feet with visually impressive but entirely missed target audiences via Antz, and their following bible epics.
Antz was rushed into production at the time to pip Bug’s Life on release. It feels equally rushed, with Allen being an incredibly strange (and somehow ironically appropriate) choice of casting that seeps into the whole of the movie. Odd.
12 Creepshow (1982)
From the delightfully twisted mind of George A. Romero comes the underrated ’80s classic Creepshow, which tells five spine-tingling short stories featuring plenty of thrills and chills, including a terrifying tale about cockroaches infesting a heartless business mogul’s apartment.
The mysophobic and bug-detesting Upson Pratt finds his home becoming swarmed with the roaches and after taking refuge in his panic room, he has a heart attack and is consumed by the insects. The end of the short is particularly gruesome, as Pratt’s corpse is discovered by the building’s handyman, with cockroaches bursting through his chest and mouth.
11 Squirm (1976)
As one of the weaker entries on this list, Squirm does manage to come away with being perhaps the grimiest. Squirm looks physically dirty, with its small-town setting and swampy infrastructure.
Ignore the non-existent plot and characters, and gaze at the whole rooms filled to the brim with killer earthworms, overrunning our heroes and making them look like floating driftwood against a wave. Fellow crazed worm movie, Tremors, would improve on this very silly idea in every single way years later, but if dirtied fingernail horror is what you want, check out Squirm.
10 Phase IV (1974)
In very 70s sci-fi fashion, Phase IV was a slower, psychedelically out-there movie that felt really rather despondent. Despite being about, ahem, killer ants, this is one of the best of the animal features on this list and comes off as tight on a slim budget where nothing has been spared.
Most notable for its camera work and beautiful extreme close-ups (making its six-legged antagonists look huge), as if everything were being seen from under a magnifying glass, Phase IV is a bizarre, quasi-philosophical bug movie classic. Most curiously, this was directed by Saul Bass, best known for his iconic work on film posters (Vertigo and The Shining, to name a few of many) and would be his only feature film.
9 The Mummy (1999)
Fans all across the world fell in love with the swashbuckling adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and fiery librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) in the blockbuster hit The Mummy, following the endearing dynamic duo as they head out into the Egyptian desert to locate the mystical City of the Dead Hamunaptra, and in the process unleash an evil and cursed undead high priest.
Fans of the exhilarating series are quite familiar with the flesh-eating scarabs that wreak havoc on those unfortunate enough to cross their path, with one of the creepy creatures burrowing into the skin of a man and feasting on his brain and insides. Rick and the gang face a massive swarm of the scarabs during their pulse-pounding showdown with the vengeance-seeking mummy, with the disgusting bugs claiming countless victims by the time the credits roll.
8 Kingdom of The Spiders (1977)
Want to see William Shatner vs. Spiders? Of course you do. The Star Trek actor plays a cowboy-hat-wearing ladies’ man in a small town suddenly overrun with vicious tarantulas that can kill in Kingdom of the Spiders (quickly released after Empire of the Ants).
A stand-out scene remains the midair pilot as his cockpit is overrun by spiders, before crashing and exploding in a fiery explosion of girlish screams. Aside from its very dodgy acting here and there, this is a surprisingly good one, with a cracking ending that is confidently chilling.
7 Them! (1954)
In the trailblazing black-and-white sci-fi horror juggernaut Them!, the city of Los Angeles is terrorized by colossal ants on a deadly rampage after the mutated insects were exposed to atomic radiation in the New Mexico desert and wreak havoc on humanity.
The ’50s flick was one of the very first big screen releases that used insects as the monster and its heart-pumping special effects and taut pacing helped make Them! a knockout with moviegoers across the country. It is now regarded as one of the best sci-fi films of the decade and one of the greatest creature features of its time.
6 Mimic (1997)
Visionary director Guillermo del Toro helmed the sci-fi horror film Mimic, focusing on brilliant evolutionary biologist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) and her savvy research team as they scramble to exterminate a genetically engineered insect they had created to help eliminate diseased cockroaches infecting the children of New York City.
Despite her noble intentions, Tyler is left stunned when the mutant breed begins to evolve and imitate the human form, with a massive colony forming underneath the bustling city. Mimic left audiences squirming in their seats and completely on edge as the nasty creatures infiltrated the humans and caused carnage in their terrifying takeover.
5 Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom (1984)
While there is so much more to this movie, Temple of Doom is certainly the ickiest of all the Jones boys. In deepest, darkest India, famed Doctor Indiana Jones finds himself trapped within a tomb as spikes lower in his very direction. His only hope is the easily spooked Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw), on the outside, needed to pull the release lever on his tomb.
The problem is that it’s covered in all sorts of tiny critters. In an honestly very gross movie that delights in chilled monkey brains and beating hearts being physically pulled from chests, it’s the insects segment that really does creep and crawl in the memory.
4 Men in Black (1997)
Vincent D’Onofrio (Daredevil) puts in a career performance here as a man inhabited by an alien cockroach. Actually based on a Marvel comic, Men in Black is excellent from start to finish, with every character being played by actors at their best. D’Onofrio is visibly grotesque and manipulates his whole body to make it look like this human vessel is lumbered, awkward, and unnatural.
With accompanying creature design by Rick Baker and a cool-as-ice Will Smith, Men in Black is a visibly sticky throwback to B-movies and conspiracy theories and struts out as one of the best movies of the 1990s. The official Will Smith Men In Black tie-in song is also one of the greatest original songs ever made for a movie.
3 James and the Giant Peach (1996)
The Nightmare Before Christmas director Henry Selick brought Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel to life in spectacular fashion with James and the Giant Peach, with the live-action/stop-motion adaptation telling the wondrous tale of the eponymous young orphan boy as he meets a group of kind-hearted talking insects he discovers after stumbling upon a magical enormous peach.
The underappreciated animated flick centers on James as he develops an unbreakable bond with the anthropomorphic invertebrates including Mr. Grasshopper, Mrs. Ladybug, and Mr. Centipede, and the eccentric group ends up forming a sweet makeshift family that is just what the boy needs. Dahl’s widow Liccy was blown away by the cinematic version of James and the Giant Peach, expressing upon its release that the author “would have been delighted with what they did with James. It is a wonderful film.”
2 A Bug’s Life (1998)
A Bug’s Life (perhaps one of the few “nice” movies on this list) is a classic. As one of Pixar’s earlier works, A Bug’s Life was a colorful delight to view on release, with major animated colonies and incredible depictions of nature pushing the boundaries of what a computer-generated movie could do.
Everything about A Bug’s Life’s world-building, from its foolishly-driven Flik to its circus troupe masquerading as warriors is incredible, all while conforming to the circle of life trappings. Hopper (voiced by Kevin Spacey) is a villain for the ages, despite being only two cm tall. The spoof end credits gag reel is game-changingly trippy.
1 Starship Troopers (1997)
Starship Troopers argues that the only good bug is a dead bug in this satirical propaganda movie, by way of interplanetary warfare. Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) has just signed up as a footsoldier to get revenge on a race of invading bugs who threaten planet Earth.
Starship Troopers is such a gloriously violent movie for teenage boys, with heavy artillery, shower scenes, and loads of death. Itscreature design is so varied, from pincers and wings to its graphic and vaginal “Queen bug” towards the end that remains so grotesquely sticky. Neil Patrick Harris features as an equally slimy psychic.