While Judge Bill Gibron has often had a terrifying dream about being eaten by some squirrels, he has to admit that this William Girdler fright fest is a wonderful "wilderness gone wicked" extravaganza.
Our review of Day of the Animals (1977), published November 28th, 2013, is also available.
Something is out there…something so evil it paralyzes the soul.
Local mountaineer Steve Buckner (Christopher George, Grizzly) gives guided tours of America's amazing wilderness regions, using survivalist methods and his knowledge of nature to create a kind of Outward Bound experience for his groups. As he prepares to take another ragtag assemblage into the boondocks, he mulls over the potential problems. His current collection includes a female reporter (Lynda Day George, Pieces), an angry advertising executive (Leslie Nielsen, Airplane!), a failed football star (Paul Mantee), a shy scientist (Richard Jaeckel, Starman), a shrill socialite (Ruth Roman, Strangers on a Train) dragging along her delinquent son, and two couples each trying to reestablish/reaffirm their relationships. After a rocky start, things seem fine. Then a wolf attack sets the group on edge. It's not long before everyone notices that the animals appear to be ganging up on them, killing the tour's members off one by one. The government believes that the depleted ozone layer and the effects of harmful ultraviolet rays have something to do with the rash of attacks and is evacuating the higher elevations—including the area where the campers are trapped. Quickly, the question becomes who will live and who will die during this unusual, unsettling Day of the Animals.
The '70s was a high time for "nature run amuck" cinema. Thanks to the success of Jaws, and to a lesser extent, the wonderful B-movie blasts of Bert I. Gordon's Food of the Gods films, the notion of wildlife getting revenge on the human co-inhabitants of planet Earth seemed rather timely. After all, the ecology movement was making major strides as a social reform and people were paying more attention to their environment than ever before. Yet it's interesting to note that one filmmaker, best known for his eccentric exploitation fare, really took the subject very seriously. William Girdler, responsible for some of the most outrageous offerings the drive-in has ever known, was used to making movies with tantalizing titles like Three on a Meathook and Asylum of Satan. But he soon became known as the knock-off king when he fashioned a pair of low-budget takes on two monster mainstream hits—1974's Abby (a nod to William Friedkin's The Exorcist) and 1976's Grizzly (substituting a bear for Spielberg's man-eating shark). His next-to-last film (Girdler would make the Native American possession picture The Manitou before a fatal helicopter crash in 1978), Day of the Animals is his final statement on the subject of man vs. nature. Girdler was only 30 years old when he died.
As a political declaration, Day of the Animals (a TV re-titling of the film's more mysterious Something is Out There tag) is pretty weak. While it earns points for being more environmentally conscious than other efforts of the time (the plot revolves around the then-novel conceit of our depleted ozone layer), it is nothing more than a standard woodland-creatures-gone-gonzo thriller. Girdler, applying many of the tricks he learned on his "Claws" copy, utilizes a very basic premise (a group of nature lovers on a survivalist hike) and lots of amazing animal footage to sell his scares. The resulting film is both scenic and sinister, a combination of terror and travelogue that may confuse some genre fans. Instead of non-stop animal antics, Girdler wants to celebrate the great outdoors, giving their power and majesty the right amount of respect before letting his critters go crazy. His visuals manage that feat effectively. For their time, the attacks are also very successful (though a classic sequence with leaping, flying rats is a pure camp highlight) and happen with such randomness that they create a nice level of dread. While we don't like all the people we meet during this excursion into disaster, the notion that anyone can die at any time keeps us on our guard. It makes for a very suspenseful cinematic experience.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Day of the Animals though is Leslie Nielsen's unnerving performance as an ad executive with a notable nasty streak. We are so used to this cinematic stalwart playing variations on his Airplane!/Police Squad persona that to witness him actually turn on the villainy is refreshing—and eye opening. From his smarmy line readings (he develops detrimental nicknames for everyone he hates) to the sequence where his true tainted colors finally show through, he gives the movie of a center of menace that few other actors can command. Far outshining the rest of the cast—Christopher George and his wife Lynda Day George acquit themselves nicely, while Ruth Roman manages to turn a tired divorcee into a work of whining wonder—Nielsen's nod elevates everything around it. As a matter of fact, when his character meets his mandated fate, the film almost falters. It takes a couple of killer action scenes (including a pitch-perfect attack by a pack of wild dogs) to help us over the anticlimactic hurdle. Still, there is more to Day of the Animals than just Nielsen chewing the scenery and animals chewing Nielsen (among others). Girdler delivers several gripping sequences where silence—and the use of an abandoned town—add to the overall angst of the situation. Certainly, some of the effects work lessens the impact of the killings, rendering them comic instead of creepy, but overall, this is an excellent slice of schlock made even meatier by the pseudo-social message and the acting chops of those involved.
Sadly, Media Blasters' release of this title leaves something to be desired. Not since Shadows Run Black has this critic run into such a cinematic atrocity. On this DVD, the film is offered in two distinct versions—the 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen theatrical release transfer and a pan-and-scan 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen TV master. Both look abysmal. With the boob-tube presentation, the 1.33:1 full-frame image has obviously been cropped (lots of chopped-off head tops here) and then given the moveable optical printer treatment. The colors are consistent, but an odd fogginess fills the frame, rendering the details soft and occasionally indistinct. Far worse, however, is the big-screen version. Loaded with defects, modulating hues, and editing errors, Something is Out There is nearly unwatchable. It is hard to imagine anyone putting this disc into their pricey home theater setup and thinking they are getting a decent DVD treat. The visuals here are very bad indeed. On the sound side, the Dolby Digital Mono 1.0 is acceptable and professional.
As for bonus features, we are treated to a full-length audio commentary (on the TV version) with stars Jon Cedar and Lynda Day George, moderated by that narrative whore Scott Spiegel. Apparently unable to let an off-title DVD release exist without his participation, Mr. Evil Dead guides the pair through Girdler's onset demands, working with domesticated (if still deadly) wild animals and the abject beauty of the locations. Never taking the situation too seriously, our cast members enjoy this reminiscent trip back in time. Equally interesting is a 22-minute featurette called "Something Was Out There: Day of the Animals 30 Years Later." This time, Cedar is joined on-screen by fellow thespian Paul Mantee and actress/animal wrangler Susan Backlinie. Each discusses the physicality of the shoot, how they came to be involved in the project, and the lasting impact of the movie's environmental message. Add in some trailers and a gallery of publicity photos and production stills and you have a nice selection of supplementary materials.
While the technical aspects of this release are substandard at best, Girdler delivers one of the better examples of environmental evil in the genre's brief bonanza. Whether you believe that Something is Out There, or that this truly is the Day of the Animals, this fright-flick flashback is a lot of fun. Too bad the tech specs are so subpar.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Media Blasters
• Two Different Versions of the Film -- TV version Day of the Animals and theatrical version Something is Out There
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