William Girdler, 1977
Starring: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Lynda Day George, Richard Jaeckel
It seems unfair that Day of the Animals should be my first review for animals attack month, as it is one of the best examples of the sub-genre. This probably has to do with the fact that it was made by one of the best directors of American trash films, William Girdler, whom I’ve already written a lot about. I adore him. He’ll come up again in a few days with his earlier film, the fantastic Grizzly (1976). Day of the Animals builds on themes introduced in Grizzly, and though I can’t say it does it better, it is technically speaking a superior film.
A group of vacationing hikers are led through the mountains of Northern California by a ranger, Steve. With him are Paul, a businessman, Terry, a beautiful reporter, a scientist, an Indian, a nagging, middle aged mother and her young son, a married couple, and a few others. Their trip is quickly disrupted by a number of violent animals, who are being affected by a disruption in the ozone layer. This begins in the higher mountain altitudes, but soon spreads to the town below. It also affects some of the campers, who part ways after arguing. Each group attempts to survive vicious animal attacks and find their way down the mountain, back to town. But, as the title indicates, it is just not their day.
Girdler liked to use the same actors throughout his films and here reunites with charismatic leading man Christopher George (City of the Living Dead and Pieces) and Richard Jaeckel (The Dirty Dozen, 3:10 to Yuma), both also in Grizzly. George’s wife, Lynda Day George, co-stars as the ranger’s journalist love interest (she also appeared with her husband in Pieces and Mortuary). While most of the actors, especially the Georges, give solid performance, the film is absolutely stolen by Leslie Nielsen, in one of his only serious roles. His mean-spirited businessman has racism in his heart and rape on his mind, which develops throughout the film towards an unexpected conclusion. He also abandons shirt-wearing at the height of his insanity, kills someone with a spear for no reason, and then gets into a fight with a grizzly bear. Nielsen also appeared in another serious role in Girdler’s earlier espionage/action film Project: Kill. 90 minutes I would be delighted to get back.
As a bit of interesting trivia, a little girl girl lost in the woods in Day of the Animals, Michelle Stacy, is the same girl from Airplane! who likes her coffee black. Another actor of note is Michael Ansara, who plays the wise Indian. He went on to appear in Girdler’s final film, The Manitou (1978), again as a Native American, though he graduated to medicine man.
The bear that Nielsen unwisely wrestles was actually the star of Grizzly and is the mother of the greatest bear in cinema, Bart (The Great Outdoors and many more). RIP Bart (that's him below with his trainer). But the beauty of Day of the Animals is that it’s not simply another killer bear film -- though Bart’s mom was justified in this case, as Nielsen’s character started the fight and screamed in her fact that she was a bastard -- many animals are represented. In one of the greatest death scenes, a character is killed by rattlesnakes and dogs, while others are killed or attacked by mountains lions, vultures, falcons, owls, rats, wolves, and dogs.
Some people might be frustrated by the anticlimactic, ambiguous ending, but I think it’s perfect. Girdler doesn’t try to find a logical explanation for the film, which would just be insulting and the ozone explanation is thin at best (yes, I went there). The film's real strength is that it never gets boring. There are many characters to move between, some of whom are well-developed, a rarity for this sub-genre. Though almost none of the story lines have a conclusion, do we really care if the annoying mom and her son ever stop fighting?
This comes highly recommended. It is wildly entertaining and manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Girdler is a solid director and side steps the cheap production values with a beautiful natural set, carefully-paced action and a well-chosen cast. A couple scenes even verge on being creepy and though Nielsen is clearly fighting a man in a bear suit, some of the effects are well done. For example, Susan Backlinie is the first to die in a great scene where she is attacked by vultures and falls off a cliff. The luckless Backlinie was also the first girl to die in Jaws (1975) and acts as an animal trainer for Day of the Animals.
Day of the Animals is on DVD from Shriek Show/Media Blasters, but I unfortunately don’t have many good things to say about their release and I’m disappointed they didn’t show the film more respect. There are two version -- Day of the Animals and the cut theatrical print known as Something is Out There -- but both are flawed transfers. There are some nice extras, including a commentary track with Lynda Day George and a few other interviews. Maybe 2013 with bring a nice, restored Blu-ray with some Girdler related extras.