(1977) Directed by William Girdler; Written by William W. Norton and Eleanor E. Norton; Story by Edward L. Montoro; Starring: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Lynda Day George, Richard Jaeckel, Michael Ansara, Ruth Roman, Jon Cedar and Paul Mantee; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara): “Mr. Moore, he’s trying to tell you there is no answer. No fair, no unfair. We just accept.”
Roy Moore (Paul Mantee): “Accept?”
Professor MacGregor (Richard Jaeckel): “Accept.”
Roy Moore: “Well, why don’t we just kill ourselves and be done with it then?”
Professor MacGregor: “Maybe we will. Maybe we already have.”
Director William Girdler is probably best known for the entertaining 1976 Jaws rip-off, Grizzly, and his befuddling swan-song The Manitou (1978), completed before his untimely death in 1980.* Smack-dab between these cinematic wonders, Girdler jumped on the bandwagon of seemingly endless environmental disaster flicks with Day of the Animals.** Forget about a rogue shark or a grizzly. Instead of one species with homicidal ideation, what if all the animals unanimously decided to kill us? With a kitchen-sink premise like that, how could you possibly go wrong? Well, let’s see…
* Not-So-Fun-Fact: Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash, while scouting locations in the Philippines for his next film, The Overlords.
** Fun Fact #1: Day of the Animals was shot on location in the mountainous Northern California towns of Murphys and Long Barn, treating us to some truly gorgeous scenery.
After human industry has dumped countless tons of fluorocarbons into the atmosphere for decades, Earth’s fauna have had enough. The ozone layer is compromised, admitting an increased emission of ultraviolet rays. This in turn upsets the natural balance, somehow causing animals to go haywire. What’s the science behind all this, you might ask? Who knows? Just when this environmental crisis has reached its apex, a group of unsuspecting tourists embark on an excursion to the mountains with minimal food and no weapons. Their peaceful hike soon turns into a trail of terror* when they realize they’re being stalked by the resident wildlife.
* Fun Fact #1: Poor Susan Backlinie (who plays beleaguered hiker Mandy Young) can’t catch a break in these rogue animal flicks. Before she was mauled by a wolf in Day of the Animals, she became the first victim in Jaws (1975).
The characters are a typical mixed bag of personalities, each with back stories that could probably be described in one sentence. Modern audiences accustomed to Leslie Nielsen’s amiable but bumbling comic persona, established in the ‘80s and ‘90s, might be in for a shock with his aggressively loathsome character, Paul Jenson. The combative, racist (and in one scene, rapey) New York ad executive bullies everyone around him, trying to tackle nature as if it were another business conquest. On the plus side, if you ever wanted to see a bare-chested Nielsen wrestling a grizzly, now’s your chance.
The rest of the one-note cast includes Lynda Day George as TV news anchorwoman Terry Marsh. Her character’s main motivation seems to be deflecting the clumsy advances of the group’s rugged but ineffectual leader, Steve Buckner (played by her real-life husband Christopher George). This movie isn’t earning any diversity points for Michael Ansara’s stereotype-laden portrayal of Daniel Santee, a Native American guide. Although he’s visibly irritated by Jenson’s racist barbs, he ends up making a joke about scalping someone in a later (cringeworthy) scene. Clueless, single, middle-aged mom Shirley Goodwyn (Ruth Roman) seemingly exists to whine and complain about roughing it in the wilderness. After his wife Mandy is killed, Frank Young (Jon Cedar) takes a traumatized little girl* under his wing (while alternately yelling at her). Of all the actors, Richard Jaeckel does the best with an underwritten role as Professor MacGregor, creating a surprisingly nuanced character.
* Fun Fact #2: If the girl (Michelle Stacy, listed in the credits as “Little Girl”) looks familiar, she appeared a few years later in Airplane! (1980), as a precocious young passenger with this infamous line.
You might reasonably ask why the environmental phenomenon only seems to affect animals and not humans. After all, we’re just fancy animals that have learned to walk erect, hold tea parties, and earn useless college degrees, right? Well, this is where the movie’s premise stretches to the breaking point. Apparently, some but not all people succumb to the effects. It’s established that the effect is greater at higher altitudes due to stronger exposure to ultraviolet radiation. If so, why do most of the animals seem to disappear, outside of a plot-convenient bear attack, when half of the hikers decide to hoof it to higher ground? Did the movie’s animal handlers take the day off?
One of the cornerstones of genre films from the ‘60s and ‘70s was that there wasn’t always an explanation for everything. A little ambiguity added intrigue to the story, leaving the viewer to reach their own conclusions. In The Birds (1963) no cause is attributed to the avian onslaught. Likewise, in Phase IV (1974), no specific reason (other than some vague cosmic occurrence) was given for the consistent coordinated effort among insects. In both cases, however, the attacks are relentless and calculated. Alas, there’s no such luck in Day of the Animals.
Of course, none of these quibbles are a deal-breaker, but the movie’s biggest infraction is that for most of Day of the Animals’ running time, it’s dreadfully boring. There’s nothing wrong with trying to build suspense, as long as it’s leading somewhere. Unfortunately, we’re treated to interminable shots of various critters giving our hapless adventurers the stink-eye, with little payoff. We spend an inordinate amount of time waiting around for animal attacks, and when they do occur, they’re nothing special. The first attack doesn’t occur until we’re almost 30 minutes into the picture, when a wolf mauls a woman in her sleeping bag, then inexplicably leaves. Instead of something that’s visceral and savage, she walks away with a few cuts and abrasions (hardly the opening scene from Jaws). We’re left with a movie that could have, at the very least, been 90 minutes of brainless fun. Instead, it’s merely yawn-inducing.
Sources: Jon Cedar interview (2011), “Day of the Humans: Paul Mantee” (2011)