dir. William Girdler
"God sent a plague down on us because we're just a bunch of no good fellers."
After reviewing Mike Nichols' beautiful, nuanced The Day of the Dolphin a few weeks ago, I was left wanting. Nichols' picture did not even come close to satiating my lust for animal on human violence. Sure it presented a thoughtful, and at times moving, portrait of man's relationship to the animal kingdom, but where was the blood? Where was the needless brutality? How is such a movie to instill the reactionary fear of and subsequent bloodlust for animals necessary for the survival of the human race. Suffice it to say, because of the substantial void left by The Day of the Dolphin, in the coming weeks I will attempt to get my fill of animals gone wild. Be prepared, as nature attacks like a motherfucker.
In examining a series of killer animal movies, there seemed no better point of departure than William Girdler's Day of the Animals. By the time Girdler made this picture in 1977, the killer animal genre had been well established. Indeed, Girdler even made a killer bear movie, previously, with Grizzly. Although he accurately portrayed the threat posed by these deceptively decent creatures, a threat that even the supposedly tough Teddy Roosevelt was too much of a pussy to recognize, he felt that there was something missing. This was an unfinished story. In an ambitious move, he decided to expand the scope and take a stab at the whole damn animal kingdom with Day of the Animals. If not a sequel in plot, this film is a sequel in spirit to Girdler's previous feature.
It is perhaps not surprising that with the burgeoning environmental movement of the seventies, this disaster movie would have a decidedly hippie bent. Although Day of the Animals is a killer animal movie, the cause of this pandemic is environmental destruction. Indeed, this film is perhaps the most accomplished killer animal/environmentalist film yet achieved. Throughout the course of the film, various newscasters report on this newfangled thing called a hole in the ozone layer. Because the ozone layer protects all living things from the harmful effects of ultra violet rays, its depletion is a cause for concern (pretty lame science fiction if you ask me). Although this hole's effects are not known, the populace is warned not to travel above 5,000 feet as the lower atmospheric levels will cause even more harm. They are soon to find out that the UV rays are turning all animals, especially those at high altitudes, into remorseless killing machines. Now that's what I call science!
Day of the Animals centers on a diverse group of hikers who trek through the wilds of the Rockies. How diverse is this group? Well, it contains a Madison Avenue ad exec, a Native American, a professor, a Beverley Hills society woman and her son, a soon to be divorced couple, a young couple, and a crippled and dying former NFL star. Much in the vein of George Romero's zombie flicks, this movie portrays the shenanigans that result when disparate people are forced to struggle together in a desperate bid for survival. Also, as with Romero's movies, this movie is less about an external danger than an examination of societal interaction and breakdown. Which animal is the biggest threat?
It turns out, it's man.
Given their remote location in the woods, the hikers never receive the latest news bulletins and are caught unawares when the sudden hole in the ozone layer forces all of nature to instantaneously go apeshit. Although most "scientists" would have people believe that environmental change is a process taking place over the course of many years with most damge to be experienced by future generations, Girdler et al set the record straight. Here, the environment acts like a killer in a slasher movie, taking its victims with a swift and sudden fury.
When the hikers become aware that the previously harmless animals (i.e. Satan's playthings) seem off, they become concerned (i.e. lose their shit). Everyone wants answers and everyone offers false solutions. Surely, these folks will pull together and figure a way out, right? Of course not. And don't call me Shirley. Almost as soon as danger appears, this group turns on each other. In the meantime, animals pick off various hikers one by one.
When tensions reach their boiling point, the group splits into two factions: one headed by experienced woodsman Steve Buckner (Christopher George) and the other headed by crazed ad exec Paul Jenson (Leslie Nielsen). Although Buckner is able to bring most of his group to safety, Jenson goes mad with power, killing one member of his group, threatening a child, and attempting to rape another before he gets his comeuppance in the form of a grizzly bear. [side note: It is a sad, nauseating fact that most exploitation pictures in this period contained at least one scene of rape or attempted rape. Even Frank Drebin was not above it.]
(Leslie Nielsen goes apeshit)
Whatever cult this movie has attracted over the years is largely due to Leslie Nielsen's maniacal over the top performance. Before striking it big in the eighties and nineties as a comedic performer in Zucker Abrams Zucker movies, Nielsen labored, in semi-obscurity, in TV and B movies. Nielsen especially excelled at playing toughs, and his performance here is the crowning achievement of this type. Perhaps, if Nielsen had not gone down the intentional comedy path in subsequent years, his performance here would not be as humorous to modern viewers; but there is no denying the high camp on display.
It is unfortunate that the present day environmental movement does not have an equivalent Day of the Animals. Too often, modern environmental movies are bogged down by facts and solutions, when they could make their points much clearer with some killer animals and raw insanity, Leslie Nielsen style. These non-violent environmental movies bring nothing to the cause but not people. If actists were actually serious about helping mother earth, they would make less movies like An Inconvenient Truth and more movies like Day of the Animals and Waterworld. It goes without saying, of course, that the one element most lacking in the modern environmental movie, is more shirtless Leslie Nielsens than you can shake a stick at.