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Saturday, March 15, 2014

Day of the Animals

1977 in sci-fi started off as a tough year for humans. In the first film, a sentient computer attacked people. In the second film, a demon-possessed car was attacking people. Thus, it is almost logical that the third film of '77 would be a movie about radiation-crazed animals attacking people. Day of the Animals (DotA) is a low-budget B movie in the Animals-Attack sub-genre. It is also in that other sub-genre of movies in which a group of "everyday" people must survive some ordeal. Christopher Geroge stars as the nature guide for the group of city folk. Linda Day George plays the beautiful, but sassy, TV anchorwoman. Leslie Nielson figures prominently as the ad exec who goes crazy. William Girdler directed. He had directed Grizzly the year before, with some success.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Per the Group Ordeal genre, the first few minutes of the film introduce the characters and hints at their dysfunctions -- a semi-random group of city folk embarking on a mountain nature hike, led by Steve Buckner (George). They are airlifted to a remote mountain site by helicopter, with the plan being to hike down over several days. As expected the group of city folk begin complaining fairly soon. The first foreshadowing of interpersonal troubles are established. Animal footage suggests that hawks, bears, mountain lions and wolves are following the group. Santee, the wise indian, senses that there is trouble. News reports tell of a hole in the ozone layer and frets over unknown effects. While camped that night, some wolves attack, mauling Mandy a bit. The next day, Steve sends her and her husband Frank off to a ranger station to get airlifted to a hospital. The rest press on. En route to the ranger station, eagles and vultures attack Mandy, who falls to her death off a cliff. Frank presses on alone. Dissent and bickering causes Steve’s group to split. Some stay with Steve, going down the mountain. Others go with Mr. Jensen (Nielson) back up the mountain, bound for different ranger station. The Jensen group quickly disintegrates as Jensen becomes a maniacal tyrant. He demands to ‘have’ the young woman, Beth, and kills her boyfriend. When a bear attacks, Jensen wrestles it (and does not win). Steve’s group gets to an unoccupied logging camp, but a pack of german shepherds attack. Two members, the professor and the cancer patient, are lost to the dogs. Steve, Santee and Terry (Linda Day George) escape by floating downriver on a raft. Frank finds an abandoned little girl. They get to the town, but everyone has gone. (the Army order evacuation) Frank shelters the girl in an inoperable IH Scout II while he tries to get to his car. The dogs attack and kill him. The survivors of Jensen’s group, the mom, son and Beth, take shelter from in an intact ‘crashed’ helicopter,’ when attacked by a different pack of crazed dogs. Fade to black. Dies Ex Machina: The next day, the hole in the ozone shifted, so the mutated virus that made all the animals homicidal (not crazed), caused all the animals to just drop dead. (How handy is that?) The Jensen survivors happily emerge from their helicopter. Steve’s survivors float back to civilization. An Army squad in silvery hazmat suits find the little girl in the Scout II. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Much of DotA is pedestrian and banal, so not especially fun viewing. Leslie Nielson is hammy, so fun to watch, however. His Jensen character becomes amusingly absurd in the last quarter of the film. The mountain forest scenery is nice.

Cultural Connection
Ozone Angst — The discovery of the ‘hole’ in the ozone layer in 1974, provided the 70s prophets of eco-doom with another drum to beat. 70s audiences were already accustomed to eco-doom from pollution, overpopulation and starvation. Few were even aware of the ozone layer until the “hole” made news. The chief suspect for the missing ozone was CFCs (Chloroflurocarbons) which were used as “inert” propellants in paint cans and refrigeration systems. CFCs released into the atmosphere eventually make their way up to the stratosphere where the chlorine reacts with the ozone, breaking it down. Angst over Ozone would simmer as a fringe issue until the 80s.

Motley Group — The framework of DotA was the familiar tale of hardship and survival for a group of random citizens — a sampling of society. Many a disaster film would be built upon this same framework. Collect a disparate group of average citizens — an annoying/smug one, a quiet/brave one, a whiner, a brainy one, etc. Put them into some disaster scenario. Play out the results as a social commentary. The “bad” people meet bad ends. The “good” people endure. Along the way, some expendable-crewmen are expended, if only to establish the scale of what the good-guys endure. DotA is more of this group-sampling film than it is about ozone or even animals.

Traditional Bugbear — The old familiar catalyst, radiation, was the evil magic pixie dust of the 50s. It could create monsters overnight. A similar plot at work is Cosmic Monsters (’58) in which some misguided scientists energize a beam weapon that blows a hole in earth’s protective radiation belts, allowing cosmic rays to bombard the earth. These rays then mutate common insects into giants and prompt them to attack humans. That mindset lies at the heart of DotA. The ‘hole’ in the ozone lets in more ultraviolet "radiation". In the spirit of the 50s, that additional UV suddenly mutates a virus that turns otherwise benign animals into killers. As cited in previous reviews. Eco-doom was the successor to Atomic Angst. The ozone depletion scenario permitted the older angst over radiation and radiation-caused mutations, to be revived and merged with the then-popular rending of garments over pollution.

Undermining Effort — DotA starts out with a very 70s enviro-preachy message that man’s pollution has brought (yet another) crisis upon us all. Yet, the end result of the script seriously undermines that envrio-message. The ending, in which all the bad animals just die off overnight, is a bit too handy to resolve the heroes’ plights. It almost feels like a cheap trick on the order of it-was-all-a-dream endings. But, it was worse than a cheap trick for the people for whom the ozone danger message resonated. The ozone hole fixed itself, and quickly. As suddenly as it appeared and caused mayhem, in the end, the ozone shifts a little and the problem is gone in 24 hours. Further undermining the possible real dangers, was the cheap plot trick of having all the crazed animals die when the ozone shifted. Problem solved. Never mind.

Implied Intelligence — The script sometimes suggests that the extra UV caused the animals to go berserk. Thus, they attacked people rather than their usual shy selves. This is the implied affect on the people — bickering, fighting, megalomania, etc. Yet, the animals are written to have been acting more deliberately. Text on the movie poster says animals are getting its revenge for being hunted. The hawk ‘character’ is written (and directed) as if it were the leader, directing the attacks. The dogs don’t fight with each other, but only seek out humans. This all fits with the Nature Takes Revenge trope, but it doesn’t fit well with the mutated virus, eco-doom story.

Poor Susan — Actress Susan Backlinie started to develop an unfortunate niche. In DotA she plays Mandy Young, the disgruntled wife of Frank the lawyer. She is the first person to be attacked and killed by the animals. Backlinie was also the first victim of the shark in Jaws. Happily for Backlinie, she got less doomed roles in future films (even if small roles). She was also one of the animal trainers for DotA.

Bear Reunion — For a brief spell of the mid-70s, killer bears had a burst of popularity. DotA was a sort of reunion for folks involved in prior killer bear films. Director William Girdler also directed the 1976 animal-attack film Grizzly (sometimes referred to as Jaws-on-land). This film also starred Christopher George as the hero, and Richard Jaekel in a supporting role. Susan Backlinie co-starred in 1975’s The Grizzly and the Treasure.

Bottom line? DotA is almost hard to watch. For the first three quarters of the film, it is slow and awkward. It is too easy for the viewer’s mind to wander or find something else to do. The plain-people-surviving-badly plot is a tired one, and not especially well crafted in the script. None of the characters come across with enough depth to really care what happens to them. The animals are not frightening (the dogs seem almost happy at times), unless one is already afraid of animals. The last quarter of the film picks up the pace, so is more watchable. As sci-fi, DotA is rather poor. As an eco-doom story, it hits the Undo button in the end. As an animals-attack film, it is mediocre.

1 comment:

Randall Landers said...

The other constant that this film perpetuates is the Native American guide as the one who first notices what's going on. It's repeated in dozens of movies, even in PREDATOR.