Friday, November 07, 2014

The Girdler Guide: Day of the Animals (1977)

Our selection this week for The Girdler Guide is Day of the Animals (1977), a “revenge of nature”-styled horror film starring Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Michael Ansara, and Lynda Day George. The horror film opens with a title card that notes “fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans are seriously damaging the Earth’s protective ozone layer.”

The card continues, stating that “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 the damage to nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.”

Although Day of the Animals, then, is clearly eco-conscious, critics at the time of its release nonetheless felt that its heart was actually in the exploitation business. Writing in The New York Times, Lawrence Van Gelder wrote that despite Day of the Animal’sputative concern for the environment, it is calculated more to incite terror than inspire restraint.”

Writing in The Horror Film Handbook (1982), however, horror scholar Alan Frank, at least, noted that the film is directed with “zest,” which may be one of the nice compliments Girdler, a regional filmmaker from Kentucky, ever received regarding his work.

Today, Day of the Animals is remembered for opening on the same day as a little film called Star Wars (1977), and thus -- not surprisingly -- it failed to repeat the same gonzo business as Girdler’s previous film, the blockbuster Jaws (1975) knock-off Grizzly (1976). 

Day of the Animals is also a lot less fun than that (not-very-good) horror film, and lacking in the pure, imaginative zaniness that would characterize Girdler’s next (and final) effort, The Manitou (1978).

Although Day of the Animals features some lovely visualizations -- particularly a motif tying the sun’s glare to the anti-social activities occurring below, in the mountains -- the film never quite gets over the inherent implausibility of its premise that animals are not only attacking human-kind, but working together across species-lines to do it.

“I feel like every animal out there is watching us.”

Steve Buckner (George), a dedicated trail-master, leads a survival hike up into the High Sierras. Among his wards are an irritating advertising man, Jensen (Nielsen), a high-school biology professor (Richard Jaeger), a reporter (Lynda Day George), an American Indian, Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara), and a bickering couple, the Youngs.

Unfortunately, the group is destined for terror because a hole in the ozone layer permits dangerous ultra-violet radiation into the atmosphere, causing animals on the mountain to coordinate attacks against human beings. A wolf attacks one camper by night. Bob-cats lurk in hiding, and dogs gather for a final assault.

Faced with such existential threats, Steve’s group splinters, and Jensen attempts to seize command…

“My God! They’re like an army!”

There’s a funny typo in my book, Horror Films of the 1970s (2002) that I would like to correct one day if given the chance to edit a second edition. In the Day of the Animals review on page 460, I apparently mis-typed “ultra-violet” rays at one juncture as “ultra-violent” rays.

And I wonder, honestly, if William Girdler and his team of filmmakers made this film, actually, about “ultra-violent” rays raining down on Earth, because, clearly, animals --and some humans too -- in the film begin to behave savagely, and physically-aggressive when impacted by the sun’s light.   

Of course, we know that UV rays don’t actually do this. Such exposure causes sun-burn, and degenerative changes in skin and blood cells, leading, in some circumstances to skin cancer or cataracts. But UV exposure doesn’t make people (or animals) act psycho.

I can accept the premise of sun-rays driving animals and people to irrational, ultra-violent behavior, but what is much more difficult to accept in the film is the idea that animals -- lions, and bobcats and bears --would all work together in coordinated fashion (and in close proximity) to take down human interlopers in the forest. 

It’s the same problem I had with the happy final shot of The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2 (1997), which saw dinosaurs of all types (carnivorous and vegetarian) trudging around the island together in peace, again in close proximity, without murdering one another. 

Here, there’s a well-staged, but ridiculous shot of different wild animals on a mountain together, stalking human prey.  It would have made much more sense, I believe, if the animals in the film were depicted as working not only against mankind, but against each other.  The hikers would, at that point, be in the middle of all-out war, but not a directed attack against humanity.

Because, really, what cosmic ray could turn animals aggressive, but aggressive only against people?  The premise would have more surface validity of the rays simply drove all animals berserk, causing wanton violence. 

Following this train of thought, one must wonder why -- when Leslie Nielsen’s character, Mr. Jensen, is impacted by the ozone rays -- he doesn’t begin acting to that same animal agenda?  Instead, he just goes off as some kind of Alpha Male Predator, and wrestles a bear…bare-chested.

The exact nature of the threat in Day of the Animals is never quite pinned down, either. Have the animals acquired some kind of “virus” as the dialogue at the end of the film suggests?

And that virus was caused by a hole in the ozone layer?  Huh?

The more it tries to explain itself, the less that Day of the Animals makes any kind of sense.

Still, the film boasts as some good qualities that deserve a mention. Girdler crafts a meaningful visual connection between the sun burning high in the sky and its impact on the denizens of Earth far below. Many frames in the film are dominated by compositions of radiant sunlight, or rings of sunlight beaming outward from the distant orb. Some shots are over-exposed and literally glowing so as to foster the notion of the sunlight (and the insidious ultra-violet light) suffusing absolutely every corner of creation.

Another scene, shows Girdler’s facility with orchestrating good shots. One character, Frank Young (John Cedar) takes his injured wife Mandy (Susan Backline) down the mountainside to get help…when they are set upon by buzzards. There’s a ridiculous rear-projection shot of Mandy falling onto the rocks at the climax of the scene, beset by the vultures, but also a terrific show of Frank, as he watches what’s happening. As he looks down, the camera -- positioned below and in front of him -- moves unexpectedly down the first few feet of the ravine, and it’s an inventive perspective which suggests, again, that Girdler’s facility with visuals was growing more accomplished with each film.

Day of the Animals may also be considered memorable for Leslie Nielsen’s chewing-the-scenery portrayal of Jensen.  The character is a two-dimensional asshole, but that doesn’t stop Nielsen from going for the gusto. For the first half of the film he’s a constant, nagging irritant who badly needs a punch in the mouth (which George’s character finally delivers) Then, in the second half of the film, Jensen goes off the rails, and becomes this kind of super macho survivalist nutcase. He attempts to rape a young woman because he sees it as the law of the jungle, and as his right. “You see what you want, you take it!” he exclaims, before telling his would-be victim “I own you.” 

Then, of course, Nielsen rips off his shirt and goes mano e mano with a grizzly bear. Nothing about the character or his transformation is subtle, but Nielsen certainly makes Jensen a character you love to hate.

Also, some of the film’s final scenes -- with Army soldiers in haz-mat suits patrolling a deserted town after the establishment of martial law -- carry a certain modern resonance. As is the case in the ever-popular zombie apocalypse, there is a feeling in Day of the Animals of the authorities dealing with an outbreak or event that they didn’t expect, and are unprepared to defeat.

Day of the Animals fits well into the “revenge of nature” sub-genre that was popular in the 1970s. From Frogs (1972) and Night of the Lepus (1972) to Empire of the Ants (1977) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977), the horror films of this type and era were obsessed with the idea that Mother Nature would one day have enough of man’s polluting ways, and send the animal kingdom to punish him.  Day of the Animals is probably somewhere in the middle of the aforementioned pack in terms of its quality.  It’s not as looney-tunes as Lepus, but nor as genuinely terrifying as Kingdom. 

In terms of Girdler’s film canon, I’d place Day of the Animals somewhere in the middle of the pack too.  It isn’t as well-made as The Manitou, and it lacks the ingenuity of Asylum of Satan.  It is, however, much better than either Abby (1976) or Three on a Meathook (1976).

Next week, the Girdler Guide concludes with The Manitou.

1 comment:

  1. Also, it seems this period of Eco-horror in the late 70's coincides with Hollywood's obsession with Native Americans vis a vis how their culture relates to Nature. You see this in other films like 'The Prophecy' & even 'Wolfen'.