How much do I love director William Girdler? Let me count the ways: his sense of grandeur in the face of modest budgets, his good naturedly humorous takes on the genre, his willingness to pay “homage” even when it costs him lawsuits, and the stone-cold truth that he got better at his craft with each and every film he made. Case in point: Day of the Animals (1977), the follow up to his smash hit Grizzly (’76) that quintuples down on the attacks in a righteous mélange of Disaster and Animals Gone Wild flicks.
Produced and released by Film Ventures International in May, Day of the Animals (AKA Something Is Out There) had a budget of $1.2 million and brought in only less than triple the cost. Critics were unkind as well, calling the film derivative and goofy. Well, yes, thank you, it is those things; but it’s also a Girdler, which means expect the unexpected in the most delightful of ways.
Steve Buckner, wilderness guide (Christopher George – Pieces) is about to head up the mountains with two choppers full of characters from every walk of cinematic life; there’s the feisty reporter (Lynda Day George – also Pieces) looking for some rest, the smarmy ad man (Leslie Nielsen – The Naked Gun) looking for marketing inspiration, the cancer ridden ex-football star (Paul Mantee – The Manitou), the nerdy professor (Richard Jaeckel – Grizzly) looking to take some pictures, two couples, one young and one old, looking to keep the fires lit and fan them before they go out, respectively. We also have a citified mom and her curious son (Ruth Roman and Bobby Porter) looking to bond, and Steve’s Native-American co-guide, Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara – The Manitou).This weekend trek through the mountains should be a pleasant excursion with nature, if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s a hole ripped in the ozone causing ultraviolet rays to hit high altitudes and in turn, causing said animals up high to exhibit aggressive behavior. (Insert environmental message here.)
As the town below is set to evacuate, Steve and the gang must contend with cougars, hawks, vultures, snakes, dogs, wolves, Amway salesmen, and bears; soon factions are divided, as Nielsen decides to head to the ranger station with the young couple, city mom, and her kid, leaving the rest on a treacherous trip down the mountainside and back to civilization. But who – or what – will be waiting if they get there?
Coming off of the surprise success of Grizzly (which brought in $40 million), Girdler was poised to move things to the next level, but for some reason Day never clicked with the masses; perhaps Grizzly’s Jaws on Land was simply too preposterous to pass up, and Day’s more familiar take on When Animals Attack came across as passé, even by the mid ‘70s. Which it is, in a way; there’s nothing to the plot that hasn’t been trotted out before (and better). But, it’s the way that Girdler tells his stories, the details; I promise you, there is no other film in history that has Leslie Nielsen, bare-chested, fighting a grizzly.
Day is a better film than Grizzly (if not quite as fun), just as Girdler’s final effort, The Manitou (’78), is superior to either. He kept honing his craft which noticeably improved with each film (dig the gorgeous Anamorphic widescreen he loved to shoot in); Day’s reputation is somewhat muted in between though; it’s hard to compete when you’re preceded by the greatest rip off in independent cinema and followed by Susan Strasberg fighting a Native American evil spirit on a hospital bed in outer space. These things have a tendency of making you blend into the wallpaper.
That’s only by comparison, however. If this was anyone else’s filmography, Day of the Animals would stand out as a demented episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (ask your grandpa) if Marlin Perkins was perpetually set upon by rabid vultures and plummeted to his horribly green-screened death on a bed of riverside rocks. This, and Nielsen’s shirtless circus act, is enough to qualify the film for first-rate wtf-ery; but there is also a sense of unease in the way these predators circle and observe their prey before attacking – Girdler could craft suspense even when he couldn’t suspend disbelief.
Having Nielsen’s character become progressively unhinged is Girdler’s attempt at social commentary – we’re no better (and often worse) than our furry friends – and would certainly have played better if most of us hadn’t come to this film after the fact with years of Nielsen’s comedy baggage behind us. Between his constant badgering of George (calling him “hotshot” every single sentence), his topless attempt at machismo, and that scene, Leslie goes full bore in a way that would give Frank Drebin pause.
But it’s appropriate because of the material; certainly no one else registers as well, but only because his is the only role written for the balcony. Smilin’ George gives another of his laconic good guy turns, Mrs. George isn’t given a ton to do (there’s no tennis, alas), and I haven’t as of yet mentioned Andrew Stevens, who tends to evaporate from the screen on the best of days. But Girdler handles the ensemble well, juggling the factions that lean heavily towards the Earthquake and The Poseidon Adventure crowds; screenwriters William W. Norton (Night of the Juggler, White Lightning) and Eleanor E. Norton (Dirty Tricks) know enough to give everyone interesting beats here and there.
William Girdler was an ambitious man; before his untimely death in a helicopter accident in 1978 he had nine films in seven years on his resume, each better crafted and more assured than the last. Perhaps Day of the Animals isn’t his wildest film, but that’s a curve I’m willing to grade on for a filmmaker who boils a midlife crisis down to a wrestling match with a bear. Forget about any “only in the ‘70s” sentiment; this is “only in a Girdler” – a wondrous place where the cribbed rubs up against the inspired, and the ridiculous rests in eternal peace. Oh, and rats leap on a man after they’ve devoured a cooked turkey, but that’s too wordy for a tombstone, I think.
Day of the Animals is available on Blu-ray from Scorpion Entertainment.Next: Drive-In Dust Offs: CANNIBAL APOCALYPSE (1980)