Thursday, January 3, 2013

Day of the Animals (1977) dir. William Girdler

Logline: A group on a survival expedition (featuring an assortment of folks incapable of surviving anything but a day spa) finds itself in trouble high up on the mountains of Northern California on the hottest day of the year as the collected animals of the area decide the landscape would be more scenic with some colorful swatches of blood red mixed in.

Animal(s) of Choicehawks, wolves, bears, cougars, lizards, vultures, Leslie Nielsen, owls, dogs, rats, and snakes, oh my.

Thinking Ecologically: Day of the Animals is the perfect inaugural entry for this month-long series concerning animal-and-ecology-centric horror flicks not merely because it prominently features both, but because it also fancies itself as a sort of message film, delivering a somber and stern warning about the reprecussions of humankind's actions in relation to its environment, all bundled up in the gift wrap of exploitation filmmaking. This message isn't one that viewers need infer, as it's slapped smugly on the surface: an opening title crawl informs us that humanity's overuse of aerosol spray cans and the resultant release of fluorocarbon gases have eaten holes in the ozone, allowing an excess of harmful ultraviolet rays to reach the surface, "adversely affecting all living things." The destructive use of fluorocarbon gases in aerosol cans was a hot topic in the 1970s, and the U.S. government would ban their use in all aerosol products the year after Day of the Animals' release, which is not to imply that the film had the slightest impact on turning public opinion towards this decision (people would have had to have actually seen the film for that to happen, and this was no big hit). Moreover, the film's engagement with popular scientific research involving holes in the ozone and the presence of excess ultraviolet rays begins and ends with the credit scroll, as it chooses to simply invent what exactly those "adverse effects" on creatures big and small might be, boldly claiming that "this motion picture dramatizes what COULD happen in the near future IF we continue to do nothing." The film's hypothesis is that exposure to high levels of ultraviolet radiation is a lot like exposure to rabies, ratcheting up the exposed's mindless aggression before leading to the breakdown of the central nervous system and death. It's nonsense, and we know now (and possibly knew then? This sort of historical info is tough to search out) that UV radiation can lead to-- at worst-- skin cancer or eye damage, not the desire to commit rape and murder that the film implies. 

Curiously, the film doesn't present its rabies-esque UV plague as a worldwide ecological disaster, but one isolated to the unfortunate wildlife and human population at high Californian altitudes, triggered by the thinner, damaged atmosphere's failure to absorb the radiation. While this has a certain scientific logic to it, it becomes complicated by the film's conclusion, which presupposes a) the UV disease will disappear on days that aren't quite so sunny, and-- conversely-- will affect everyone immediately on hot days (in essence, the ozone will correct itself), b) many humans are immune to the effects of UV radiation and its accompanying psychological breakdown, c) some non-human animals can survive it too, d) an entire ecosystem can be destroyed but humanity will persevere. One supposes that the film is attempting to present its events as a call to action or a warning shot, signaling the potential larger disaster by way of microcosm, but its use of baldly erroneous science to do so (all while championing human exceptionalism in the face of apocalypse) fails to convey even a cursorily useful ecological message. Amusingly, the film returns numerous times to moments of its characters overhearing news of the UV disease and assuming it's part of a War of the Worlds-styled radio play,

Thinking About Animals: Unlike most of the other films that will be covered this month, Day of the Animals uses a wide variety of animals to achieve its horrific ends, rather than allowing one species to become the primary antagonists. Although the affected animals are presented as rabid brutes, their methods and motivations aren't as uncomplicated as that. The animals act contrary to their normal behavior, but in ways that are beneficial, rather than destructive, to their existence. Animals begin working together to acquire their human food (a group of mountain lions start hunting the hikers in a pack) and develop new skills which one hiker brands as "evolutionary adaptation" (such as when some unseen animals learn how to open and swipe the food from the hikers' secured food containers). What's most interesting is seeing that the animals are not attacking each other, even across species lines, and are in fact joining together to observe and stalk the humans (a single shot featuring a bear, a mountain lion, and a wolf pack walking together is particularly evocative), leading one character to comment that they're "like an army!"

This UV-inspired animal rebellion against humanity is intriguing from a perspective totally divorced from its ecological cause. The group of humans being led on this so-called survival expedition is hardly fit for real survival situations, consisting as it does of dopey city slickers (a cranky wealthy woman, a boisterous ad executive, a nerdy engineer, a child who throws rocks at animals, a crippled ex-football player) and considering that their major survival activity is hiking towards a helicopter palett drop of food. The diversity of predatory wildlife in these Californian mountain forests makes plain that it's a dangerous place to be, regardless of UV levels, and that the uncritical human desire to master its dangers is best revised with that in mind. Allowing the wild elements of nature to seem benign to us (so much so that we will willingly enter them unprepared for all of their threats) is invariably an error. Additionally, the film also asks us to recognize the feral nature inherent in those domesticated animals we've grown so accustomed to through its repeated use of affected pet dogs as attackers, leading Susan Day George's character to moan, "But they're dogs. Just dogs!" How quickly we forget that dogs have teeth too.

Finally: although the film primarily stresses the differences between human beings and animals (in that the aggression and death caused by the UV radiation affects mostly non-human animals), the fact that Leslie Nielsen's character also becomes "infected" demonstrates-- if for only a moment-- that we are indeed animals. At the same time, his deadly (for him) mano-a-mano wrestling match with a bear that interrupts his attempted rape of a fellow hiker demonstrates humankind's gross overvaluing of its abilities in relation to physically superior creatures.

Evaluation in Brief: A fine mini-ecological horror from director William Girdler, who hoped and failed to capture with this film the same box office returns that his previous year's animal horror, Grizzly, had managed to wrangle. The stakes are rather small considering the likely global consequences of the ecological disaster being exploited, but the film's appeal is bolstered by some solid visual work with trained wild animals and (on occasion) genuine suspense and surprise as the beasts make short work of an array of characters whom you might expect to make it through the apocalypse.

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