“Day of the Animals” (1977)
Studio: Film Ventures International (FVI)
Starring: Christopher George, Leslie Nielsen, Lynda Day George, Richard Jaeckel, Andrew Stevens
Directed by: William Girdler
Running Time: 97 min.
Synopsis: A hiking group gets attacked by deadly animals in the mountains.
Day of the Animals is one of those “animals attack” or “nature gone wild” films that were very popular in the 1970’s. This sub-genre dates back to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds and that spawned every animal vs. man film from snakes, spiders, bees, ants, frogs, rats, and a big fish named Jaws. Day of the Animals is one of the best of this sub-genre and an excellent film. It mixes a variety of animals like birds, wolves, bears, mountain lions, dogs, and many others. I first saw this film in 1989 on TBS, but heard about it a few years before then. It was one of those films I wanted to see and when I saw it I was very pleased and it became a favorite of mine for years.
The movie is about a group of city folk who take a camping and hiking trip out in the mountains in Northern California. Lead by their guide, Steve Buckner (Christopher George), who assures them that they will have fun up in the mountains and there is nothing to worry about, but this is not an ordinary week in the mountains. Apparently there is a depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer, which is causing the sun to shine strong ultraviolet light carrying some type of solar radiation causing animals at high altitudes to go crazy and kill.
Soon after the hikers are up in the mountains, the town below goes into Marshall Law and starts to evacuate due to the sun’s radiation and animals suddenly attacking people. The hikers are unaware what is going on and what is about to happen to them. After a few brushes with some wild animals, the group realizes something is not right and they try to find help, but there is a struggle of power within each other and the group starts fighting with each other while being stalked by the killer animals.
This is an excellent film and there is a lot to like about this movie. First off, it has a great story that is interesting and very suspenseful. Another is the great cast of characters, where each player gives an awesome performance. The big stand out has to be Leslie Nielsen, who plays an excellent antagonist to Christopher George. This is way before his comedic roles in Airplane and the Naked Gun films. Here you see a great serious actor. Nielsen plays an advertising executive who is one of the hikers on the trip. As things start to go wrong, Nielsen questions George’s decision on what to do and where to go. He plays a good bastard in the film and it is lead to believe that the sun’s radiation might be affecting humans as well, because of Nielsen sudden violent behavior. One great scene has Nielsen battling with a grizzly bear.
The rest of the cast shines as well. Christopher George does a great job as the guide trying to survive and keep the people in the group safe. Also, George’s wife in real life at the time, Lynda Day, plays a news reporter on vacation, does a good job as well. The Georges are no stranger to horror films. Both of them starred in the 1980’s slasher film Pieces and Mortuary, while Christopher appeared in Grizzly, City of the Living Dead, and Graduation Day just to name a few. There are other genre favorites such as Richard Jaeckel (who was also in Grizzly and a number of other films and TV shows) and Andrew Stevens who was in Massacre at Central High and The Fury.
Another big stand out are the animals themselves. Now if this film was made today all the animals would be CGI, but in this film it is the real deal. All the animals are very close to the actors in the scenes, which are probably stunt men and women, but still its real animals and no fakes. Also the way the animals are photographed and how they are edited is very creepy and not just the snakes and spiders they show, but the birds and other animals that are not usually frightening and they make them look really scary.
The music is another big factor in the film. An excellent score by Lalo Schifrin captures the tone of the movie in the music. The opening title credit sequence is great where they show a bunch of different animals up in the mountains and the music over that is very fitting for the film and it is a great start for the movie, which sets the tone. Schifrin has worked on many other great movie scores such as Cool Hand Luke, Bullitt, THX 1138, Enter the Dragon, The Amityville Horror, and The Dirty Harry films. He also worked on a few classic TV show themes such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Starsky and Hutch, and Mission: Impossible.
One scene that has always stuck out for me was a scene with one of the hikers, Frank, (Jon Cedar) and a little girl who make it back to the town to get help. To set the scene up, what happened was that Frank’s wife, Mandy, (played by Susan Backlinie, who was the first victim in Jaws. She was an animal trainer and did stunts on Day of the Animals) is the first one attacked by an animal. She survives, but needs to get medical help. So, the two of them hike down the mountain to get help, but some birds kill Mandy. Frank continues on and finds a little girl, whose parents must have been killed by the animals. He rescues the girl and the two move on.
They make it back to the town (where the group started their trip), but the place is deserted. They hop in a truck before some wild dogs approach them. Unfortunately it does not start. Frank spots his car in the lot and attempts to make it over there. He tells the girl to wait in the truck and when he gets his car he will come and get her. Frank rushes over to the car as the dogs grow in numbers and start to follow. When he gets to his car and opens the door a bunch of snakes jump out and bit him making him fall and become victim to the dogs. The little girl looks on with this heartbreaking look on her face as you hear Frank scream for his life. The scene has great impact when you think there could be some hope for these two getting out of there and now the little girl is left alone again.
Day of the Animals’ director William Girdler did an excellent job with the film and it is one of his best in his short career. He also directed Three on a Meathook, Abby, and another “animal attack” film, Grizzly. Sadly, Girdler was killed in a helicopter crash in the Philippines in 1978. He was only thirty years old when he died. His legacy lives on with a film like Day of the Animals. If you have never seen it, definitely check out this great film.