It’s the late 70s, and the ozone layer has become thin. So thin, in fact, that animals living in higher altitudes begin to act rather strangely. Our former furry friends become more aggressive, begin to hunt in packs even when they’re not pack animals, and also develop the sort of fiendish intelligence that leads to things like dogs to driving people into cars full of snakes, and what looks like a non-aggression pact between all non-human species. As further developments during the course of the movie will show, the phenomenon – except for the “becoming more intelligent” part – does not stop with animals; the lowest form of human life on the planet – ad executives – can be influenced by it too.
Consequently a merry little – unarmed, foodless – hiking trip of professional hiking trip leader Steve “let’s send the hurt woman and her husband alone to the ranger station” Buckner (Christopher George) and a whole load of disaster movie fodder characters through the Sierra soon turns rather unpleasant. Steve really should have known better than to make a trip with a bunch of city slickers consisting of a couple going on an extreme hiking trip to fix their marriage, a freshly divorced woman from Beverly Hills (Ruth Roman) and her son (Bobby Porter), a former professional American Football player dying of bone cancer (Paul Mantee), a professor of exposition (Richard Jaeckel), a TV anchor-woman (Lynda Day George), a racist asshole of an ad executive (Leslie Nielsen shortly before he transformed himself into a deadpan comedian), and a random young couple (Andrew Stevens and whoever that actress is). Even with the tempering influence of Native American – of course wise to the ways of the woods and the heart – Daniel Santee (definitely not Native American Michael Ansara), it wouldn’t need raving animals to lead these people into a disaster.
But as it stands, disaster in form of raving animals strikes soon enough, with animals attacking in the least typical manner, the group splitting up, bickering and then splitting up some more, and the people in the best position to help having their own animal troubles. It’s the sort of thing that can only climax (in what is the film’s actual climax even though the film’s nominal one comes afterwards) in a shirtless Leslie Nielsen mud-wrestling a bear in a thunderstorm after ranting and raving about “Melville’s god” and having tried to rape a woman.
Ladies and gentlemen, even though Day of the Animals may not conform to many people’s concept of a good film, it very well may be director William Girdler’s magnum opus. While all Girdler films recommend themselves to people of taste with moments of utter lunacy (see for example the Grizzly versus Helicopter fight in Grizzly, or the indescribable finale of The Manitou), the sympathetic viewer usually has to cope with quite a bit of boredom and scenes without much of a function beyond bringing a film to feature length to get to them. Here, however, Girdler has found his sweet spot of all nonsense all the time. The director provides his audience with every 70s eco horror shenanigan he could think of, only to stop from time to time for always amusing classic disaster movie non-characterisation with a side-line of the most horribly wrong “romantic” dialogue this side of the 50s. Regarding the latter, let’s just say that Buckner’s way of romantic banter is based on inviting the TV anchor into his “woodsmen course”.
Girdler could of course not afford the ménage of Hollywood has-beens and nearly-beens a disaster movie usually needs so had to go with actors with a bit or a lot of TV experience instead, but as it turns out, TV actors are just as good as eating up the scenery as Michael Caine when he needs to pay for his yacht.
As is probably quite clear by now, sensible pacing and plot logic are completely out of the question for Day of the Animals. I don’t think there’s any need for me to go into the film’s plot holes, nor the idiocy of all characters involved, nor the bizarre logic of the way the animals act. However, a logical or well-structured movie could not contain (and I have to repeat that) a scene of middle-aged, shirtless Leslie Nielsen mudwrestling a bear in a thunderstorm after ranting about “Melville’s god”, nor various scenes where our heroes are outwitted by dogs, nor one where Walter Barnes’s Ranger Tucker is attacked by what can only be described as flying rats, which provides further fuel for my theory that logic and structure are just terribly overrated.
However, this kind of 70s cheese is not the only thing that makes Day of the Animals worth watching. To my great surprise as someone who has never had anything good to say about Girdler as a director, the film also has a handful of scenes where it actually works as a horror film. Those among the animal attack scenes that aren’t completely ridiculous (about half of them) are actually quite tense to watch. Even better, whenever the film puts its mind to treating its animal attack story as an apocalyptic event, it develops some of the bleak and pessimistic air so typical of 70s horror, with some effective scenes of disturbed characters wandering through a deserted small town. It is quite possible, not to say probable, that Girdler arrives at the points where his apocalypse actually works despite of himself, just because that sort of thing was in the air at the time. For my tastes, every even just slightly effective moment of world-ending doom in a movie is to be treasured, for whatever reason it comes to pass, so Day of the Animals provides me with double the joy.