The Film: Day of the Animals (1977)

The Principles: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Walter Barnes, and Richard Jaeckel. Directed by William Girdler.

The Premise: Due to the depletion of the ozone layer, every animal living above the elevation of 5,000 feet becomes a man-eating death machine. Which is shitty news for a group of hikers taking a pleasure trip up into a forested mountain.

Is It Good: It is complete garbage. But it is hilarious garbage — a luminary of the so-bad-its-good field.

“I told you that sun seemed damn peculiar today.” – Ranger Tucker (Walter Barnes)

Part of what makes the horror genre so deeply interesting is that it is more directly influenced by the zeitgeist than any other film genre. Whereas the comedy genre evolves more based on trends set by other films, horror producers and filmmakers tend to jump on cultural trends and news events, always looking for what Americans are currently nervous, worried and scared about. The best way to get a grasp on the emotional state of any given decade during the past 100 years is to look at the time period’s popular horror subgenres. In the ’70s Americans were scared of a lot of things, but the most unexpected big bad wolf was the rise of environmental awareness — particularly the horrible realization that humans were negatively effecting the planet in ways not immediately visible to us. Day of the Animals is possibly the most comically on-the-nose reaction to this fear. While most horror movies, especially the ‘When Animals Attack’ movies that sprung up in the wake of Jaws, tend to begin with an opening scare, Day of the Animals wants to first terrify you with context! The film opens with this dully clinical title crawl:

In June of 1974, Drs F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California startled the scientific world with their finding that flurocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Thus, potentially dangerous amounts of ultra-violet rays are reaching the surface of our planet, adversely affecting all living things.

This motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future IF we continue to do nothing to stop this damage to nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.

Just as you shouldn’t have to explain a good joke, you shouldn’t need to explain why a horror movie is frightening. But DOTA isn’t confident that the tedious news cast about the ozone layer we see fifteen minutes into the film will do the trick.

I love the muddled inspiration at work in this film. The depletion of the ozone layer made most people aware of something that they’d never thought about — that we’re basically all living under a dome. The atmosphere is our shield. And we’d started burning some holes in that shield, which would allow certain enemies to breach our fortress. We need the sun to live. But it will also kill us if we let it. That’s a weird, unpleasant and kind of mind-bogglingly terrifying thing to try to wrap your head around. I love that director William Girdler and his creative team decided that the most logical way to run with that ball is having the animal kingdom get pissed off at us and decide to wipe us out. So the animals are I guess an allegory for cancer. Very fast moving cancer. That you can fight with a stick. Yet the animals aren’t even the real villains, because there is so much endless chatter and time spent on the ozone problem. So we should be fighting the ozone layer! Yet the holes in the ozone are our fault. So…we should be fighting ourselves! So maybe our heroes do deserve to die. I bet most of them use aerosol hairspray.

But this is part of DOTA‘s special charm. It is several subgenres wrapped into one. It is environmental horror crossed with ‘When Animals Attack’ crossed with a survival film crossed with a disaster film crossed with a Lord of the Flies-esque man vs man film. The combination is delirious and boring and stupid and overall pretty outstanding. The bonkers concept also allows the film to be the apex of the ‘When Animals Attack’ subgenre, as our heroes are intermittently besieged by rats, spiders, dogs, snakes, wolves, cougars, bears, eagles, owls, and buzzards, when the animals aren’t busying themselves with spying on the humans from behind bushes or atop boulders. And all this is punctuated with dated and clunky ‘message movie’ dialogue about our impact on the environment, which kind of makes the whole project feel like a TV movie.

I’m a big fan of what I call “Eclectic Group” horror movies, where a hodgepodge of random types are tossed together to bitch and fight and slowly get killed off one by one. DOTA has a nice motley crew of out-of-place vacationers who are partaking in this doomed hike. It’s almost like City Slickers, but with less Billy Crystal and more eagle attacks. Our hero is Steve Buckner, the rugged tour guide played by Christopher George (City of the Living Dead). We also have a plucky reporter. A stoic Native America. An ex-NFL player. A kvetching mother from Beverly Hills and her child. A scientist. Plus, and most certainly not least, Jenson, a dickhole advertising exec played by Leslie Nielsen who signed up for the hike because “ecology is the thing now.” Whatever that means.

Nielsen is a force of nature here. This is three years before Airplane forever changed his career. It is easy to forget that he used to be a dramatic actor, especially because he wasn’t a very good leading man. But the man made a fantastic bastard, as DOTA and Creepshow demonstrate in spades. All Eclectic Group movies have an Aggressor, some asshole who is always asking our hero “Who put you in charge” and being generally hostile and uncaring. Jensen is one of the most aggressive Aggressors I’ve ever seen. And Nielsen, surely bored at this point with playing the straightman, chews the foliage at every chance. For the first half of the movie Jensen is unrelenting in his racist yet casual bullying of Santee (Michael Ansara), the Native American (who is, naturally, the first person to sense that Mother Earth is angry). Then he teases the slightly handi-capped ex-NFL player. Then everyone else. Until finally he challenges Buckner for leadership and the hiking group splits into two factions, with Jensen as the leader of the splinter group. This is when things get really wonderful.

For reasons we aren’t told, once he’s in charge, Jensen decides he’s had it with shirts. Shirts are for pussies! Time to show some chest. Once that shirt is gone, Jensen loses his mind. The shirt represented the shackles of city-life, rules and regulations. Jensen is sick of all that shit! Now he’s in his element. So over the course of basically 1.5 scenes, he attacks the middle-aged kvetching mother, then attacks her child, then tries to rape a pretty girl, then kills the girl’s boyfriend with a spear when the boyfriend objects to said rape, and then fights a bear during a lightning storm when the bear interrupts his second rape attempt on the pretty girl. The best part of the bear fight is that Jensen is so far down the sanity-rabbit-hole, that when he sees the bear he isn’t even scared. He’s annoyed, screaming “Bastard!” No one interrupts Jensen when he’s about to get his rape on! The only way this scene – certainly one of the most ridiculous scenes in horror history –  could have been any better is if Jensen had defeated the bear, and then faced off with Buckner during the climax. Then Day of the Animals would have been perfect.

Is It Worth A Look: Are you kidding? Did you read that last paragraph? You can find the scene on youtube, I’m sure. But it is at least 60% better when you watch it within the context of the film, after an hour of Jensen being a total douche to everyone for no reason.

If you can find a cheap copy of this excellent three-pack somewhere, you won’t regret the purchase.

Random Anecdote: The bear Jensen fights is the same bear used in William Girdler’s Jaws with claws wild-bear-jamberoo, Grizzly. The bear was also the mother of Bart the Bear, the greatest animal actor of all time.