Day of the Animals(1977)
Studio: Severin Films
Release date: May 18th, 2021
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
William Girdler wasn’t exactly born into the movie business, but he seemed destined to be a natural huckster. Born into one of Louisville’s most prosperous families, he could have easily taken up the family business; instead, he became obsessed with the movies at an early age, so much so that he eventually had a personal theater installed in his home as a teenager. But this fascination ran deeper than that: even during his Air Force stint, he worked in the A/V department, where he honed his skills making educational videos and documentaries. After his service, he returned home to make commercials, but he knew he could eventually make a feature film—after all, a crucial part of his personal mythology is the (likely) apocryphal claim that he made a movie when he was 8 years old. So when he directed Asylum of Satan in his hometown and formed his own production company, it wasn’t just the beginning of a career—it was the beginning of the larger-than-life legend of William Girdler, exploitation extraordinaire and provocateur, who would carve an indelible path through the grindhouse circuit before his untimely demise at the age of 30 years old, when he perished in a helicopter crash while location scouting for his next movie. I’d like to think he wouldn’t have wanted to go any other way.
During his career, Girdler became synonymous with rip-offs, with Abby and Grizzly proving to be his most infamous duo. However, just about everything he produced was clearly inspired by what was popular at the time, whether it be the burgeoning blaxploitation movement or the success of something like Killer Elite. Girdler embraced this, mounting quick-and-dirty xeroxes of popular movies, injecting them with his own idiosyncratic style and charm on the way to frequent box office success (that didn’t always translate to personal success since Grizzly distributor Edward Montoro infamously withheld the film’s profits, leading to a lawsuit). But the runaway success of Grizzly did present an interesting conundrum for Gridler: where exactly do you go after helming the definitive rip-off of the era? His answer was to double down by reteaming with Montoro for Day of the Animals, which saw Grizzly’s lone critter and raised it to all of the critters. It might not be an actual sequel, but it’s certainly of a piece with Girdler’s most infamous movie because it also feels like the byproduct of a ragtag crew heading off into the wild to scratch out a rugged creature feature with sheer grit and determination.
But it’s also true that Girdler wasn’t just going to rest on his laurels and mount another unrepentant schlock-fest, either. Day of the Animals is a moodier, semi-serious affair that evokes the era’s eco-anxieties with an opening prologue that exploits hole-in-the-ozone layer hysteria and insists the events of this movie could happen if we don’t get our shit together and protect the environment. Ominous shots of wildlife peering over and prowling through their dominion to the strains of Lalo Schiffren’s understated score set an eerie tone, firmly couching the film among its 70s eco-horror peers, which often featured silly premises with the pretense of foreboding portent. Day of the Animals has a similar effect, envisioning a not-too-distant-future where the hole in the ozone layer drives the wildlife insane and terrorizes a bunch of hikers. It’s a grandiose notion pitched on the small scale that Girdler’s relatively middling budget would allow.
In this respect, Day of the Animals is a low-brow, independent counterpart to the era’s epic disaster movies that sported innovative effects work and large ensembles of stars. Girdler couldn’t exactly replicate either one of these, but he does an admirable job approximating with an eclectic cast of character actors (Richard Jaeckel), B-movie staples (Christopher George, Linda Day George), a clever wink (Susan Backlinie, whose presence feels like a thank you note), and Leslie Nielsen (who had done this sort of thing before in The Poseidon Adventure and hadn’t become the comedy act that would define his later career). Leaning on these established screen presences compensates for the thin characterization in the script that diminishes all of the characters to cliches and stereotypes. George is our leading man, an intrepid tour guide leading a crazy quilt of hikers that includes a TV reporter (Day George), a nebbish professor (Jaeckel, doing a total 180 from his Grizzly role), a bickering couple, a native American tour guide (Michael Ansara), a former pro football player, and an overbearing older woman (Ruth Roman) who nags at her young son (Bobby Porter) throughout. And then there’s Nielsen as an advertising executive, though it’s fair to say his defining trait is “racist asshole.”
As the characters wander off into the woods and encounter the hostile wildlife, Day of the Animals becomes increasingly formless, roving between the various splinter groups that break off from the expedition. It makes for a more languid, almost low-key experience that stands in stark contrast to the more frenzied, single-minded Grizzly, which had plenty of graphic carnage to compensate for its threadbare premise. Here, Girdler strains a bit more in stretching it with a bigger scope and scale: it’s not at all unfair to say that Day of the Animals is a string of animal attacks loosely threaded through the characters’ attempt to simply escape the mountainside back to safety.
In keeping Day of the Animals at a lower, almost more solemn pitch, Girdler doesn’t indulge the schlock potential as much as he did in Grizzy, which is one of the most inexplicably violent PG movies ever made. This one has its moments here (Backlinie’s demise is especially gruesome), but most of the attacks involve the creatures (mostly dogs) pouncing at the characters, who wrestle with them on the ground before escaping or perishing. To be fair, the presence of live animals definitely helps, and Girdler presents a menagerie of hawks, snakes, rats, cougars, and bears to heighten the shot-on-location authenticity in a way those bigger Hollywood productions struggle to capture. Day of the Animals just feels a little bit of a maniacal high-wire act, fraught with a genuine sense of peril. It might not be Roar levels of insanity, but Day of the Animals has that “anything goes” sensation that defines so much of Girdler’s work.
To that end, it almost seems fitting that Nielsen manages to steal the show from his animal co-stars as the film’s most indelible menace. Already a racist dirtbag at the beginning of the expedition, he becomes completely unhinged, terrorizing the unfortunate folks who get stuck with him. Between a murder and an attempted rape, it almost feels like Girdler is evoking the Romero principle by insisting that man is the most savage animal after all. Nielsen’s performance has only grown more disturbing in hindsight for anyone who only knows him from his comedy work. There’s an almost uncanny effect to seeing him go completely nuts in the film’s most memorable scene, a wind and rain-swept fit of madness that climaxes with him wrestling with a bear as lightning cascades all around. It’s the sequence that best captures the deranged vibe Girdler seems to have been going for (and that he would completely harness in The Manitou, his ultimate masterpiece).
Even if it struggles to escape the shadow of Grizzly, Day of the Animals is a cool little B-side that reveals a director who was constantly trying to do something new, even when it seemed like he was retreading familiar territory. It’s an utter shame that he died so young because you can’t help but wonder what kind of hell he may have raised in the 80s and beyond, whether it was still on the independent circuit or for a major studio. As such, the legend of William Girdler left us with one of the era’s most fascinating careers and one of its most tantalizing question marks.
Day of the Animals has been well-represented on home video during the past two decades, with both Shriek Show and Scorpion providing some nice DVD and Blu-ray editions, respectively. Now, however, Severin has tossed its hat into the ring with a new Blu-ray that sports a restored 2K transfer and some newly-produced supplements. It should be noted that it only features the original mono track, whereas some past editions have a 5.1 remaster, though I can’t imagine purists will see this as much of a loss. Regardless, the film looks and sounds wonderful, and it represents a huge leap over my old DVD, which didn’t feature the best print. Some occasional damage pops up here and there, but, otherwise, this is a sterling restoration with a more than adequate audio track.
I’ll leave it to the hardcore enthusiasts to decide if it’s better than Scorpion’s presentation, but I imagine that crowd will want this new edition anyway, thanks to the new features, including a new audio commentary track with author/historian Lee Gambin. Stephen Thrower also appears in a 20-minute discussion and retrospective on Montoro that acts as a companion piece to the similar interview on Severin’s recent Grizzly disc. After serving as the main villain in the supplements for that release, his side of the story is told here, though Thrower obviously addresses the elephant in the room when he gets around to Montoro’s various, shady business dealings. Speaking of legends (though I suppose Montoro’s legacy is more infamous), Thrower recounts an unbelievable life that saw Montoro do time in prison for counterfeiting money before becoming a bit of a power player in film distribution (where he appropriately specialized in counterfeit movies like Beyond the Door, Grizzly, and Great White). His story ends with his mysterious disappearance in the 80s, possibly due to a divorce but maybe due to his nefarious association with the mafia; either way, it’s an unbelievable story that feels like it could have been born right out of the exploitation circuit Montoro frequented.
Severin has also produced new interviews with actors Bobby Porter, Andrew Stevens, and Linda Day George, who all give a brief background to their involvement with Girdler’s productions. All of nothing but nice things to say about Girdler, who emerges as something of a tall tale between this and the Grizzly disc. Porter and Stevens also reminisce about their time on-set with Nielsen, and each have their own scattered antecedes, including one involving a stolen car and a missing canister of film that necessitated reshooting one of the film’s more grueling scenes. Animal wrangler Monty Cox also appears and gives some nice background on how he came to be in the family business before discussing the particular perils of Day of the Animals. It’s a nice glimpse into one of the more unsung corners of film production, and this is one of the reasons I’m glad labels are still dedicating resources to supplements: to give these folks some well-deserved time in the spotlight, especially someone like Cox, who has dedicated most of his life to the cause.
Radio spots, TV spots, a trailer, and the film’s alternate title card feature alongside archival material from past releases, including a 21-minute making-of retrospective and a commentary with Day George and Jon Cedar, moderated by Scott Spiegel. As is the case with Grizzly, completists will want to hold on to previous releases that have their own exclusive features. That might take up some shelf space, but let’s look on the bright side: we live in a world where William Girdler movies have multiple editions. Let’s hope they keep coming.
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