Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Day of the Animals (1977)

I never thought I'd see a glistening, shirtless
Leslie Neilsen... except in my dreams

So much of the global warming literature focuses around animals as victims. Fish going belly up due to rising sea temperatures. Polar bears clinging desperately to melting ice floes. Dogs dying in hot cars. Boo hoo, lets all pity the poor, helpless animals. They seem to ignore the far more terrifying alternative; What if animals get really pissed off with mankind's carbon spewing ways and decide to team up and attack us? This is the outcome explored by William Girdler's Day of the Animals, and although it focuses on the more 70s centric issue of ozone depletion (a preachy opening crawl claims that "this motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen IF we do nothing to stop this damage to Nature's protective shield for life on this planet") it's central message of "bear-wrestling is awesome" is still relevant today.

Steve Buckner (Christopher George again) is a nature expert who takes groups of inexperienced hikers on guided tours of the Sierra Nevada mountains. In true disaster movie fashion, his latest group are an improbably varied bunch. There's a weird-looking boy and his annoying, over-protective mother, a sexy reporter (Linda Day George), a college professor (Richard Jaeckel), an ad executive (Leslie Neilsen), a former athlete with cancer and some random young couples. There's also a Native American named Santee (Michael Ansara), but I'm not sure what he's doing there since he's clearly an experienced outdoorsman. I guess they need someone to give vaguely ominous warnings and say things like "it's too quiet". A helicopter takes them all to the top of a mountain and they will spend the next few days hiking back to civilisation.

One of side effects of animal UV over-exposure seems to be a tendency to stare at humans. Birds, wolves, even tarantulas, all watching the hikers. I guess they are suggesting that the animals are planning an attack together, but since every animal is in a different shot it just looks like a shitload spliced in stock footage. Just when I was about to shout "for fucks sake, just do something", one of the hikers gets mauled by a wolf during the night. The next morning Steve sends the woman and her husband to the nearest ranger station alone. Two inexperienced hikers, one badly injured, hiking alone through mountainous terrain? What could go wrong? Well, they could get attacked by a swarm of buzzards, that's what. The woman gets brutally pecked and over the cliff she goes, suffering death by terrible green-screen effect. Interestingly enough, she is played by Susan Backlinie, the woman who was killed in the opening scene of Jaws. She is first to die here and if I remember correctly, she was originally cast to play the same role in Girdler's previous film Grizzly.

Back in town, the sherriff is forced to evacuate the area after he goes downstairs for a midnight snack and gets attacked by rats, by which I mean some poor stagehand throws handfuls of live rats at him. Even the locals' pet dogs have turned feral. His explanation for the crisis? “God sent a plague down on us because we’re just a bunch of no-good fellas.” Our group of hikers get word of some strange goings-on and something about dangerous levels of UV radiation, but their only link to the outside world is severed when the boy's mother tosses his radio into the river because she's a crazy bitch. When they find their food supplies ravaged by wild animals the stress cracks begin to show in the group, but considering they are such touchy, argumentative morons it doesn't take a lot.

Taking home the gold in the asshole olympics is Leslie Neilsen as ad execute Paul Jenson. He comes up with derogatory nicknames for the people he doesn't like, which is everyone, sarcastically calls Steve "hotshot", and insults Santee with every Native American slur he can think of. Eventually the group splits into two, Jenson heading off with the boy, his mother and a be-flanneled young couple. I have no idea why they would choose to follow Jenson, who is clearly a world-class asshat, but I'll bet they regret the decision as he goes completely Lord of the Flies in about five minutes flat. Soon he's stumbling around with a spear and no shirt, shouting lines like "You lily-livered punk! I'm running this camping trip!" He beats up on the boy, calls his mother a bitch (accurate but still rude) and even tries to molest the young woman, stabbing her husband to death when he attempts to intervene.

The highlight of the whole film occurs later that evening, the three terrified campers cower around a sputtering campfire in the rain as Jenson shakes his fist to the heavens and makes a crazy speech denouncing God. "Our father who art in Heaven, you made a jackass out of me for years! It's never been you for me! Melville's God, that's the god for me! You see what you want and you take it!" Of course by "take" he means "rape" and by "it" he means the hot flannel girl, but luckily he is interrupted by an angry bear and quickly learns that a pointed stick and anarchic self interest will only get you so far.

Meanwhile, Buckner's group find an abandoned camp and get attacked by a pack of German Shepherds. I mean a lot of German Shepherds. In fact, the survivors of Jenson's meltdown find themselves trapped in a crashed helicopter and surrounded by wild German Shepherds as well. I guess there is a breeder in the area. Most of Buckner's group manage to escape by turning a wooden pier into a makeshift raft, but unfortunately they forgot that dogs can swim too.

One thing I haven't mentioned is a subplot about Backlinie's husband who, crazed with grief after his wife's death and wearing what appears to be Freddy Krueger's sweater, stumbles across an orphaned little girl and spends the rest of the film trying to shepherd her to safety. He wanders into town but finds it evacuated and gets taken out by a dog/snake tag-team as the terrified little girl looks on. Sucks to be him. Don't worry though, she, along with the rest of the survivors, gets rescued the next morning by scientists in tin foil hazmat suits. Seems all the crazed animals were killed by a virus facilitated by UV over-exposure. Convenient!

Sadly, Day of the Animals was Girdler's penultimate film. He went on to make the Native American possession film The Manitou before dying in a helicopter crash during a location scouting flight in the Phillipines. After Grizzly, I guess Day of the Animals seemed like a sure thing. Same cast and crew, similar theme. If a movie about a killer bear is fun, then a movie about killer bears, rats, dogs, snakes etc. must be several times more fun, right? Well, not really. The animal attack scenes are far too brief and infrequent, and the ecological message is quickly discarded after the opening crawl. This probably isn't the finest example of 70s eco-horror but any film that features Leslie Neilsen as a half-naked, bear-wrestling rapist can't be a complete write-off.

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