Here we are in the thick of summer, and I haven’t even tackled the most sacred of small screen horror, the apex of ‘70s paranoia, the invasion of killer African bees! Boy oh boy did this one gain some traction in the decade, with at least four films (big and small) feeding off this particular frenzy. The Savage Bees (1976) proved so successful for NBC that they came out with a sequel two years later; but people will remember this one for its strong performances, solid science (I guess), and bonkers ending.
Originally airing on Monday, November 22nd as the NBC Monday Night at the Movies, The Savage Bees was up against The ABC Monday Night Movie while CBS trotted out Maude/All’s Fair/The Andros Targets. As I’ve only heard of one show in CBS’ lineup one can assume that the Peacock rustled all the feathers that night.
Let’s open up the TV GUIDE hive and see what’s buzzing:
THE SAVAGE BEES (Monday, 9pm, NBC)
A swarm of African bees hop a ride aboard a foreign freighter and disembark in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. Ben Johnson, Michael Parks star.
A freighter makes its way home from a voyage to Brazil; within the opening credits we find some of the ship’s crew already befallen to massive stings, swelling, and then death outside of New Orleans. We then cut to local Louisiana Sheriff McKew (Ben Johnson – Terror Train), as he finds his dog dead by the ditch. He takes it to the coroner’s, where the deceased is autopsied by Dr. DuRand (Michael Parks – Red State) who finds multiple bee stings plus the added pleasure of a dog’s belly worth of the buzzers. DuRand calls in a specialist, Jeannie Devereaux (Gretchen Corbett – Let’s Scare Jessica to Death), who determines that the dog and the seamen were in fact killed by African bee stings.
The government authorities are willing to help, but it will use a lot of bureaucratic tape; besides, with Mardi Gras imminent, there’s no way they’re going to scare the populace during the craziest festival. It is then that McKew, DuRand, and Devereaux decide to take matters into their own hands and hatch a far-fetched plan that just might work; can they rid New Orleans of the infestation and will they be awarded beads for their troubles?
The ‘70s was loaded with When Animals Attack films; with the prevalence of poisonous crop dusting and concern for our food supply, filmmakers used that fear to show how man destroys man in very outsized biblical ways. Ants, bees, frogs, locusts, alligators, you name it - all sought vengeance for the destruction of their habitats by the follies of mankind. And audiences ate it all up, just like they did during the atomic monster mashes of the ‘50s. The Savage Bees does not stray from the basic formula at all, but it does come at the material with a more tempered, less hysterical take (less campy too). This is the serious attempt to scare the audience; whether it succeeds or not depends on the viewers’ phobia towards their pollen pals.
And they do try, it’s just hard to procure any shivers when folks are swatting puffed wheat out of the air. Having said that, there are a couple of deaths that seem kind of mean on the bees’ part, which helps in giving the menace a bit of personality. There is certainly no lack of exposition to explain the bees’ behavior either; several scenes are given over to informing us just how much bad news the bees could bring.
But in the case of The Savage Bees, the conversations not only explain what the bees are doing, but why they’re doing it, and most importantly, the frustration of trying to corral a fluid, amorphous property. (A bit like herding cats, I reckon.) The protagonists are for the most part clear headed in their task, and only give in to fear as it becomes imminent; it’s a nice change of pace from the arms thrust towards the sky while screaming.
And yes, the ending is absurd. But perhaps that’s only because the preceding 75 minutes are more subdued; one cannot fault the filmmakers for wanting to goose their flick for a big finale. After all, it’s what people remember about it, and probably guaranteed the sequel. So put that bee in your bonnet.Next: Read Earlier Installments of This Series!