Day of the Animals

directed by William Girdler
1977 | Film Ventures International | 98′ 

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.


The Horror!? is a regular cult cinema column by Denis Klotz, aficionado of the obscure and operator of the film blog of the same name.

Humanoids From the Deep

film rating:
disc rating:
company: New World Pictures
year: 1980
runtime: 79′
director: Barbara Peeters
and James Sbardellati
cast: Doug McClure, Ann Turkel,
Vic Morrow, Cindy Weintraub,
Anthony Pena, Denise Galik
writers: William Martin,
Frank Arnold and Martin B. Cohen
cinematographer: Daniel Lacambre
music: James Horner
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DVD | Blu-ray

Plot: A race of humanoid coelacanths, mutated by a nefarious canning company’s genetic experiments on salmon, rise from the depths of the ocean to mate with human women, causing all manner of trouble in a small fishing village.

One of the seediest and sleaziest little numbers in the New World catalog, Humanoids From the Deep courted controversy upon release not only for its trashy, monster-rape content, but for the fact that it was all added in post-production, without the knowledge of its cast. Made under the working title Beneath the Darkness, the finished Humanoids…, complete with additional gore and scenes of graphic sexual violence, bore little resemblance to what the main cast had signed up for. Actress Ann Turkel was so perturbed by the circumstances that she tried to get her name removed from the credits and, refused that by producer Roger Corman, went so far as to petition the Screen Actors Guild to force Corman to pull Humanoids… from distribution. With SAG having never prepared for such eventualities, Corman prevailed and Humanoids… charged on.

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Birdemic: Shock and Terror

rating:
company: Moviehead Pictures
year: 2008
runtime: 95′
director: James Nguyen
cast: Alan Bagh, Whitney Moore,
Janae Caster, Colton Osborne,
Catherine Batcha, Rick Camp,
Damien Carter, Laura Cassidy
writer: James Nguyen
cinematography: Dainel Mai
music: Andrew Seger
not on home video in the USA (yet . . .)

Birdemic: Shock and Terror is currently out in limited theatrical release through Severin Films, and will be playing the Landmark Uptown Theatre here in Minneapolis tonight and Saturday at Midnight.  Originally self-released by Moviehead Pictures, Birdemic is currently OOP, but a special edition DVD will be coming from Severin Films in the near future.

There are good movies and there are bad movies, and then there is Birdemic: Shock and Terror, the feature debut of the undeniably enthusiastic if entirely talentless 40-something James Nguyen.  One part travelogue, two parts romantic drama and three parts effects so dreadful they’d make The Asylum blush, Birdemic isn’t the sort of thing that will ever be confused with good horror, but the title does get things at least half right – it is shockingly terrible.

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The Flesh Eaters

Vulcan Productions [1964] 87′
country: United States
director: JACK CURTIS
cast: MARTIN KOSLECK, BYRON SANDERS,
cast: BARBARA WILKIN, RITA MORLEY
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Here’s an under-seen and under-appreciated little independent gem from the heyday of 60′s science fiction horrors. By the middle fifties Sci-fi and horror themed exploitationers were thrilling young audiences with their increasing levels of on-screen violence. While imports like X THE UNKNOWN [1956, US release 1957] featured a few brief effects shocks, it was Mario Bava’s CALTIKI THE IMMORTAL MONSTER [1959, released State-side in September of 1960] introduced Americans to their first real taste of modern gore by showing the gruesome physical effects of people devoured alive by its titular menace. Other films, domestic and otherwise, would soon be following suit, with H. G. Lewis’ BLOOD FEAST setting the high watermark for early 60′s carnogarphy in 1963.

THE FLESH EATERS never approaches the delirious excesses of Lewis’ creation, but it’s a fine example of truth in advertising. Produced in 1962 and released theatrically in 1964 [the ad campaigns famously promised that audiences would be "sterilized" with fear], the film is rather extreme given the time in which it was produced and has no shortage of effects payoffs relating to its namesake.

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Les Raisens de la Mort

a.k.a. THE GRAPES OF DEATH / PESTICIDE
Rush Productions [1978] 90′
country: France
director: JEAN ROLLIN
cast: MARIE-GEORGES PASCAL, FELIX MARTEN,
cast: SERGE MARQUAND, BRIGITTE LAHAIE
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There was something of a craze for zombie films after George Romero’s smash success NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and the growing exploitation industry was more than happy to provide. The years immediately following saw the rise and fall of the BLIND DEAD series, Bob ‘A CHRISTMAS STORY’ Clark’s CHILDREN SHOULDN’T PLAY WITH DEAD THINGS, and the under-seen Spanish / Italian co-production LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE [recently re-released on disc as THE LIVING DEAD AT MANCHESTER MORGUE]. This momentary surge in the popularity of the undead would prove minor in comparison to what was to follow, with Romero’s sequel DAWN OF THE DEAD jump starting a world-wide gore craze that continues to this day.

Sneaking into French cinemas just months before Romero’s second DEAD film saw its first European release was LE RAISENS DE LA MORT, a little-known effort from French director Jean Rollin, who was best known then, as he is now, for directing a number ofBava-inspired Gothic vampire eroticas . Rollin’s film took considerable inspiration from NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, but capitalized on the 1970′s disaster boom and the post-THE BIRDS demand for ecologically-minded horror as well. Though derivative in many ways, RAISENS was hardly deserving of its fate. Lost in the shuffle when DAWN OF THE DEAD exploded onto European cinema screens, it wouldn’t see release of any kind outside of its native France until the early 1980′s. Even then it would remain an obscurity, overshadowed by largely inferior productions [think HELL OF THE LIVING DEAD,ZOMBI HOLOCAUST, and BURIAL GROUND] that had broader appeal due to their high quotient of ‘hard-gore’ effects.

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The Happening

20th Century Fox [2008] 91′
country: United States
director: M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN
cast: MARK WAHLBERG, ZOOEY DESCHANEL,
cast: JOHN LEQUIZAMO, ASHLYN SANCHEZ

A young woman on a park bench stabs herself in the jugular in Central Park while, nearby, a group of rooftop construction workers willingly plunge to their deaths from tens of stories up. It’s 8:33 in the morning and, with a mass of unexplainable suicides around Central Park, the routing of mankind seems to have begun. Caught up in the mix are Philadelphia science teacher Elliot (Mark Wahlberg) and his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) – as of recently suffering from unnamed marital difficulties. Operating on little more than bad vibes they head, along with math instructor friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez), out of Philly and into the rural Pennsylvania countryside.

Terrorists? The CIA? Who, if anyone, is responsible for the horrific events going on just to the north? It soon becomes clear that the event is reaching much further than just New York City, with Boston and even Philadelphia being affected as the day wears on. By the time Elliot and his cohorts’ train makes an unexpected final stop in Filbert, PA, the event seems to have spread well beyond human means – as smaller and smaller areas become targets the idea of terrorism and government tinkerings lose favor to the thought that mother nature, herself, may be behind the ever-growing number of self-inflicted atrocities. Julian heads off in search of his wife, last heard to be heading towards Princeton, and leaves his daughter Jess under the watchful eye of “uncle” Elliot and “aunt” Alma.

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Prophecies of Nostradamus: Catastrophe 1999

a.k.a. Nosutoradamusu no Daiyogen / The Last Days of Planet Earth
company: Toho Co. Ltd
year: 1974
runtime: 114′
country: Japan
director: Toshio Masuda
cast: Tetsuro Tamba, Toshio Kurosawa,
KaoriuYumi, Yoko Tsukasa
not on home video

I was in sixth grade when I first saw the film reviewed herein, and it scared the hell out of me. For weeks thence my mind was tormented by absurd visages of weeds pummeling their way through concrete subway tunnels and of mammoth bats swooping out of the skies – drug addled teenagers, volcanic disturbances, and nuclear disaster all followed suit. It was a strange time and the first, I’ll admit, that I began taking environmental concerns seriously.

Even at that age I had realized, perhaps better than most adults viewing the same film today would, that THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH was a “message” picture. That message was scrawled in bold across its 88 minutes, using scenes of disaster on a global scale as ink, and I read it well. “All of this is your fault,” it said, and I believed it.

THE LAST DAYS OF PLANET EARTH had quite a long and troubled journey to my sixth grade eyes. It began as Toho Studios’ answer to the overwhelming popularity of the superior disaster effort, SUBMERSION OF JAPAN, in 1973. Always quick to make a buck on the next big craze, Toho rushed into production a sequel in theme only – this time the world would be their playground. Taking the resurgance in popularity of supposed-seer Nostradamus into account and bankrolling the talent of GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER director Yoshimitsu Banno as writer and assistant director ensured that the resulting film would be original at the very least.

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