In the wake of the gargantuan success that was Jaws, studios and production companies decided it was only fair that they try to make their millions on cash-grab film efforts aiming to reproduce the results of the box office phenomenon. Generally described as the “nature runs amok” films, most of them were big business at the drive-ins across America during the seventies. Even big time directors got in on the action, director Irwin Allen, best know for his disaster films (Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, etc.), directed the 1978 Michael Caine vehicle The Swarm, in which killer African bees descend on American cities. Director William Girdler, while a much lesser known name then as he is now, was no different even though his aim was much lower than Allen’s: the B movie exploitation circuit.
Prior to directing Day of the Animals, Girdler had made his name directing low budget features, usually containing action and horror themes. His first major hit came in 1974 with Abby, a blaxploitation film that was heavily indebted to The Exorcist.Despite being a major hit for the director — it racked up $9 million in its two week run — Warner Brothers found it too derivative and pulled it from theaters quickly. His next picture, Sheba Baby, stayed close to his exploitation roots. Starring Pam Grier, it hoped to capitalize on her success starring in Foxy Brown and Coffy. While its legacy is that of a sub-par Grier film, it was nonetheless a success for its director and backers.
One year after the release of Jaws, Girdler would direct what would become his biggest hit, Grizzly. Hoping to recapture the magic they experienced during their first viewing of Jaws, audiences flocked to the film, helping it to gross $39 million worldwide. It would appear that Girdler was onto something, so he returned to the genre that yielded him such profitable results in 1977; thus, the fan favorite Day of the Animals was born.
The plot of Day of the Animals goes something like this: A group of hikers are on an excursion into the mountains, and miss the fact that the depletion of the ozone layer is causing animals to become overly aggressive, supposedly due to toxins from the sun’s radiation. The higher up one goes, the worse the radiation, and the more severe the animal attacks. Snakes, wolves, bears, hawks, and even tiny, normally less aggressive cute animals such as chipmunks get involved in the onslaught. With no options of communication and no way to defend themselves, our hiker friends are at a rather sizeable disadvantage, which leads to understandable stress and division within the group on how to handle their situation. Soon, one member of the group played by Leslie Neilson, starts to become just as infuriated as the animals that are attacking them, resulting in him murdering and raping members of the group. His actions lead up to a shirtless showdown in the pouring rain with a giant Grizzly bear, a scene that earns the film its cult status among film buffs.
Despite the obvious goofy nature of the film (nature runs amok films had a way of playing the man vs nature theme for laughs, intentionally or not. I will explore the best exception to this rule in my next post), the filmmakers seem to have an interest in imparting an environmental message to its audience in between the animal attacks. While the message is heavy handed and the execution muffed, at least the filmmakers made an effort to educate while they entertain. And since our environmental situation has only gotten worse since 1977, the message is still a timely one.
Upon its release, Day of the Animals was not the success that the filmmakers had hoped for. Girdler would go on to film his follow-up film The Manitou*, a major hit in 1978. Sadly, this would be Girdler’s last film as he would be killed later in the year, the result of a helicopter crash while scouting for locations during preproduction of his tenth film. Despite passing at such a young age (Girdler was 30 at the time of his death), he was able to leave a rather substantial filmography, nine films directed in seven years, many of which would serve to endear him to future film fans with a love for the odd and obscure.
*Much to my dismay, I have never gotten a chance to view this one. I have heard that its unintentional hilarity is mind blowing.