The ’70s was a high time for ‘nature run amuck’ cinema. Thanks to the success of Jaws, and to a lesser extent, the wonderful b-movie blasts of Bert I. Gordon’s Food of the Gods films, the notion of wildlife getting revenge on the human co-inhabitants of planet Earth seemed rather timely. After all, the ecology movement was making major strides as a social reform, and people were paying more attention to their environment than ever before. Yet it’s interesting to note that one filmmaker, best known for his eccentric exploitation fare, really took the subject very seriously.
William Girdler, responsible for some of the most outrageous offerings the drive-in has ever known, was used to making movies with tantalizing titles like Three on a Meathook and Asylum of Satan. But he soon became known as the knock-off king when he fashioned a pair of low budget takes on two monster mainstream hits: 1974’s Abby (a nod to William Friedkin’s The Exorcist) and 1976’s Grizzly (substituting a bear for Spielberg’s man-eating shark). Representing his next to last film (Girdler would make the Native American possession picture The Manitou before a fatal helicopter crash in 1978) Day of the Animals — new to DVD from Media Blasters — is his final statement on the subject of man vs. nature. Girdler was only 30 years old when he died.
For his timely tale of man vs. beast, Girdler gave us local mountaineer Steve Buckner (Christopher George), a rugged outdoorsman who gives guided tours of America’s amazing wilderness regions. Using survivalist methods and his knowledge of nature, he creates a kind of Outward Bound experience for his groups. As he prepares to take another ragtag assemblage into the boondocks, he mulls over the potential pitfalls. His current collection includes a female reporter (Lynda Day George), an angry advertising executive (Leslie Nielsen), a failed football star (Paul Mantee), a shy scientist (Richard Jaeckel), a shrill socialite (Ruth Roman) dragging along her delinquent son, and two couples each trying to reestablish/reaffirm their relationships.
After a rather rocky start, things seem fine. Then a wolf attack sets the group on edge. It’s not long before everyone notices that the animals appear to be stalking them, killing the members of the tour one by one. Back down the mountain, the government believes that the depleted ozone layer, and the effects of harmful ultraviolet rays, have something to do with the rash of attacks, and they are evacuating all higher elevations — including the area where the campers are trapped. Quickly, the question becomes one of who will live and who will die during this unusual, unsettling onslaught.
As a political declaration, Day of the Animals (a TV re-titling of the film’s more mysterious Something is Out There tag) is pretty weak. While it earns points for being more environmentally conscious than other efforts of the time (the plot revolves around the then novel conceit of our depleted ozone layer), it is nothing more than a standard woodland creatures gone gonzo thriller. Girdler, applying many of the tricks he learned on his killer bear rip-off, utilizes a very basic premise (a group of nature lovers on a survivalist hike) and lots of amazing animal footage to sell his scares. The resulting film is both scenic and sinister, a combination of terror and travelogue that may confuse some genre fans.
Instead of just non-stop animal antics, Girdler wants to celebrate the great outdoors, giving their power and majesty the right amount of respect before letting his critters go crazy. His lovely landscape visuals manage that feat effectively. For their time, the attacks are also very successful (though a classic sequence with leaping rats is a pure camp highlight) and happen with such randomness that they create a nice level of dread. And while we don’t like all the people we meet during this excursion into disaster, the notion that anyone can die at any time keeps us on our guard. It makes for a very suspenseful cinematic experience.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Day of the Animals, though, is Leslie Nielsen’s unnerving performance as an ad executive with a notable nasty streak. We are by now so used to this cinematic stalwart playing variations on his Airplane!/Police Squad persona that to witness him actually turn on the villainy is refreshing and eye opening. From his smarmy line readings (he develops detrimental nicknames for everyone he hates) to the sequence where his true tainted colors finally come to fore, he gives the movie a center of menace that few other actors can command. Far outshining the rest of the cast — Christopher George and his wife Lynda Day George acquit themselves nicely, while Ruth Roman manages to turn a tired divorcee into a work of whining wonder Nielsen’s nod elevates everything around it.
As a matter of fact, when his character meets his mandated fate, the film almost falters. It takes a couple of killer action scenes (including a pitch perfect attack by a pack of wild dogs) to help us over the anticlimactic hurdle. But there is more to Day of the Animals than just Nielsen chewing the scenery and animals chewing Nielsen (among others). Girdler delivers several gripping sections where silence, and the use of an abandoned town, adds to the overall anxiety of the situation. Certainly, some of the F/X work lessens the impact of the killings, rendering them comic instead of creepy, but overall, this is an excellent slice of schlock made even meatier by the pseudo-social message and the acting chops of those involved.
It’s too bad, then, that fate decided to take Girdler away before he could really blossom as a filmmaker. Indeed, after the easy exploitation work of the ’60s, he seemed to develop a clear conscious, and was trying to put that passion on the big screen for all to see. Laugh at it as corny or hackneyed, but The Day of the Animals represents a real attempt at bringing the problems of nature into direct confrontation with the individuals who cause the crisis in the first place. And from what we witness here, humanity deserves to lose. As a matter of fact, this is one film that will have you asking: who’s the more destructive creature: the local wildlife… or man.