Friday, January 31, 2014

Leslie of the Heretics: DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977)

"Speak not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. " - Ahab
But to paraphrase Slim in To Have and Have Not, "what happens if it slaps you back?" The answer is that the undying savage beneath Leslie Nielsen's butch veneer emerges, a new Ahab for a Moby Dick that's been solar ray-disseminated into the wild beasts of the American mountains. 

The natural world in total becomes his Dick.

There was another leviathan that splashed the nation in the mid-70s--Jaws-- and it changed the way the country thought about nature--but it too had precedents. Initially a part of a seventies eco-awareness trend, it made many people aware of sharks as a source of life-threatening danger for the very first time. Before then we'd thought of nature as something more likely to die at our hands than the other way around, hence the formation of Earth Day, and campaigns to stop pollution, littering, aerosol cans, pull tabs on cans, and so forth (leading to the pop-tabs and roll-ons we use today); a Native American was crying by the side of the highway on TV. We kids were keen on Cub Scouts and 'Indian Guides;' TV had Mutual of Omaha's Wild KingdomGrizzly Adams and The Waltons, Apple's Way, and Little House on the Prairie; in school we read My Side of the Mountain; at home a magazine called Ranger Rick. Mom took us to see matinees like The Adventures of the Wilderness Family.

In sum, we were in the wilderness, pop culturally. All we needed was a beast to fear, a bad grizzly, to make the good grizzly seem even nicer.

All this was going on before the widespread us of VCRS and cable TV, so if an exploitation pioneer wanted to get funding from the major TV networks in advance of production, he had to entertain three generations, in the same room, looking at the same screen. PG didn't just mean kids can come with the adults, it meant the grandparents wouldn't be offended or confused. And Hollywood was dealing with a surplus of stars who had drawn huge salaries decades earlier and would now work for scale in just about anything (and the older folks would blurt forth their names in momentary excitement), so ensemble cast disaster films sprang up, with older former stars and younger newcomers, and in-between the granite jaws of B-list Charlton Hestons. Meanwhile, the American west, outdoor sets (like Spahn Ranch!) beckoned as a cheap location for monster movies, far from front office meddling and prying eyes, free from expenses on things like set design and extras. You didn't even need a fake monster on account of coteries of trained grizzlies, wolves, and mountain lions for rent from animal talent agents. And oversize or swarms of vermin (Kingdom of the Spiders, The Swarm, Empire of the Ants, Food of the Gods, Damnation Alley, Night of the Lepus) could be rear projected to look freakishly large and at half speed to seem lumbering around miniature sets. We kids never ratted out the fakeness of the effects and there was no way to rewind or repeat play since DVRs and VHS were still a ways off so we had to tell other kids about it ourselves, and we told it better anyway. No kid ever said "it looked so fake" - even if we laughed about it with our parents at the time. It was the seventies, man, even the monsters were accepted for whatever mask of naturalness and freedom they chose to wear. And raining on someone else's parade was considered a form of cockblockery or narcing.

There was nothing else to worry about, so these vermin subbed as a common foe. There was no blue state / red state divide, we were all purple, like the mountain majesties. And into these mountains strode an eagle-eyed copycat director named William Girdler, a mountain man whose monster films were mountain man-made. He saw there was a way to make a PG monster movie that could combine the children's nature film craze's fondness for grizzly attacks and the monster craze's fondness for supernaturally intelligent oversize carnivore attacks, and he made that movie. And it was Grizzly (1976), a huge hit. He could now afford to empty the cages at the Hollywood animal wrangler's, for 1977's Day of the Animals.

Up until the Blu-ray that just came out I thought Day of the Animals was a TV movie. Thanks to Scorpion Releasing though, a gorgeous 'Walden Filter' widescreen vista of an anamorphic aspect ratio has appeared, majestically dwarfing the relatively incompetent action we're used to on the small square screen of the earlier DVD. Did I mention I love this dumb movie? You want to know the plot? There's humans on a hike high in the mountains, and then there's animals driven mad by the ozone layer hole (and close proximity to the sun up there in the mountains with thinner air) and they fight each other. The end. There's one hawk, three vultures, a carload o' rattlesnakes, a tarantula, wuxia mice, a wolf, three panthers, a gang of German shepherds presumably fresh out of a hole in the K9 Academy fence, and savage alpha male Leslie Nielsen, shirtless, as nature intended. Can you prove it didn't happen?

Like all its devotees, I was the right age to remember the night Day premiered on CBS, but I missed their whole dog attack climax because it came after my bedtime. Sometimes I wonder if this blog's real origin story lies in my dad's declaration of kids' bedtimes, a strict law which he enforced regardless of how riveting the movie we were watching. I missed the end of a horde of great films that way: The Poseidon Adventure, Telefon, Day of the DolphinOrca, The Cassandra Crossing --I still don't know how some of them end. I would be in bed furious and crushed, but I dreamt my own wilder crazier endings. For Day of the Animals when I heard at next Monday's recess that the humans had survived by riding a raft down the rapids with rabid dogs snapping at their hands every yard of the way I envisioned a pretty wild ride.

Naturally it's not that wild, as it turns out --but 'naturally' is the key word, that's what saves it. Animals was filmed as far away from the age of CGI, mentally and spiritually, as film would ever get. Girdler feels his way along in real time, in real nature, with semi-real actors and real animals--especially vultures, hawks, a cougar, a crazy dog pack, and a tarantula--the scene where the hawks and vultures maul the bitchy girl is terrifying because those birds are real, and they're right there in the shot, and they're pissed, and her unease is palpable.

The key signifiers of amok nature horror movies, such as animal mauling, really can't be shown unless you're a dickhead whose going to really kill animals for his movie in which case fuck you, Ruggero! Girdler doesn't do such things, I presume, and that's where the comfortable cult pleasure is for we sensitive types. Quick edits between what is clearly just well-staged play wrestling with tame animals, close-ups of  baring teeth, pink foamy blood, actors and stunt men yelling and running, an animal's teeth resting on someone's arm, and then the hawk looking down signals an end to the scrimmage with his infamous scream.

Girdler's films aren't meant to be great gore pieces, but they are great for those of us in search of Cecil B. DeMille-levels of under-direction. Actors stand around in a 'funeral processions of snakes' kind of Cinemascope chorus line and wonder what to do, receive no guidance, and improvise.

I.e.... it's the Seventies.

With smaller animals this mellow mood can be undercut, as when mice on fishing wires come flying across the rooms backwards onto the head of the fat old sheriff, or hordes of snakes sun themselves inside of cars, upping a skeeve factor (though nothing like the paintball battering of the poor rats in Food of the Gods). Dogs try to mute an instinctive wag of their tales as they snarl, as if afraid of breaking character and losing the treat in their trainer's hand. I don't consider these negatives. In fact if this were an Italian or Japanese film every animal in the film would probably be dead by the end of each scene. Why waste money on a trained cinnamon bear for a wrestling match when you can just stab and drug a real, and let him bleed out like Joaquin did to poor Comodius in Gladiator? Sic transit gloria mundi! But film is forever... and no animal murder will ever be forgotten, Ruggero! And if William Girldler hurt any of these critters, he paid the ultimate price, dying in a helicopter accident scouting locations in Indonesia soon after making The Manitou.

If you're too young enough to remember Airport you may not have the same giddy rapture for the Poseidon Adventure-Grand Hotel-Stagecoach type ensemble cast trapped in a bad situation films that were all the rage in the seventies, as parodied in Airplane! (1980). But either way let me give you some background on this too:

Once upon a primetime,  The Love Boat and Fantasy Island ruled the weekends. They had a steady cast of hosts and a sea of B-list celebrities of all ages wandering aboard the boat or onto the island for their mundane adventures. Some people managed to become celebs by doing nothing but showing up on these shows, like Charo! Girdler rides this ensemble zeitgeist too, so on this hike in Day of the Animals we have the disaster movie cross section:

1. The Shelly Winters Broad
Check ("She KNOWS what she's doing!"- only this one doesn't - to the point of dressing for an overnight hike in her Sunday best). She's also an idiot, following the guy with the whitest hair towards her doom, and dragging with her
2. A tiny 25 year-old stunt man as her 12 year-old son (BONUS!)
3. 70s bombshell career woman contemplating her lack of a love life and children while eyeing the hero's ring finger - check -70s mainstay Linda Day George + extra point for Farrah hair and off-the-cuff New York accent to playfully rib the Winters.
4. Christopher George or David Jansen? Former, Linda's husband, occasionally trying on a terrible Southwestern accent.
5. A Richard Dreyfus in Jaws-style dweeb for scientific exposition? check
6. Famous athlete considering retirement / disillusioned preacher? - Former (written in case I'm sure Girdler signed some actual famous athlete looking for some screen time)
7. Native American or black sidekick who will certainly die - Check
8. The insane challenger of the rugged hero's leadership? Leslie!
 9. The 'Newt' or little girl alone and wandering the wasteland - check
10. Attractive young couple dealing with some issue? Check
11. Fat sheriff roused out of bed in the middle of the night to investigate? This better not be another prank!

It's a glorious "Girdler Dozen."

A midnight evacuations of the towns above 5,000 feet is given a few shots, hazmat suits, you know, it's The Crazies but for animals. And eventually you'll have deeper resonance to the phrase "Watch you like a hawk" cuz there are some shots of hawks watching the humans and honey you are glad what they watchin' ain't you. Hawks' cries signal the start and stop of attacks like a coach's whistle, and Nielsen--going shirtless to signal his de-evolution into a Putin-like celebrant of masculine power--pokes a big stick into the belly of a young man so he can make caveman gruntings at the cowering girlfriend: "I killed for you! You're mine now!" and to the 25 year-old widdle boy, "Shaddup you little cockroach or I'll shove you off the cliff!"

But that's not even his most memorable quote, it's this:
"If there's a God left up there to believe in. My father who art in heaven you've a made a jack ass out of me for years. Melville's God, that's the God I believe in! You see what you want you take. You take it! And I am going to do just that!"
And by it, you know he means that girl, from the young couple beset by some issue hitherto mentioned in the Girdler dozen...

It's hard to remember if I had a point to all this or if I even recommend Day of the Animals, though of course I do, if for no other reason than Nielsen and the amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion score by Lalo Schifrin. But take a knee and let me tell you one last story:

There was this townie up in Syracuse in the 80s who stole all my Tom Waits albums but he had the best dog in the world. This dog, a mutt of medium height, was super smart and sweet, a brilliant actor and almost psychic. When I was filthy drunk in the Syracuse snow some nights, this dog and I would roll around and I'd scream like he was tearing me apart while he jumped all over me making these terrifying growls. We'd go on and on, rolling around growling and screaming, the dog managing to seem like he was tearing my arm off while barely even getting fang marks on my coat. We sounded, I thought, like someone was being mauled to death. One night, someone finally yelled out a window "hey, you and the dog - please keep it down!" and I was like how the hell can that guy tell I'm not really being hurt? Why isn't he calling an ambulance? But he knew. This dog and I stopped in mid-attack, both looked up at the window, without a word or bark, then looked at each other, and resumed the attack quieter. How that damn dog knew to go quiet, I still don't know. And I think that story shows why I love Day of the Animals, because even very young kids can tell when animals aren't being hurt or hurting anyone for real, no matter how vehement the snarls and screams. Melville's bedtime demands solace.

In the 70s, even the mauled sleep well. 


  1. "the tab on soda and beer cans was changed to stay attached rather than be tossed into the bay to cut up the feet of pelicans."

    Pelicans? According to Jack Webb & EMERGENCY, that was changed after dumb-ass yahoo beer drinkers tore off the tabs, dropped them into the brew, and then swallowed them!

  2. Hahah - say maybe you're right - though everyone knows Jack Webb was misinformed about a whole lot of things. And Emergency is a show I don't remember much about. But I remember hearing about the pelicans. And I remember the first few times we were told by mom not to throw our trash out the car window anymore. I'd forgotten all about all that until I saw Don and family leave their trash all over the ground in MAD MEN.


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