Posted on April 22, 2016

Day of the Animals (1977): EcoHorror for Earth Day

Dawn

Day of the Animals (William Girdler, 1977) is a bad (dare I say, so bad it’s good) disaster / revenge-of-nature film that screams seventies. Its plot is simple: a group of assorted characters, who shouldn’t be hiking in the best of circumstances, head up into the mountains just as animals start massing and trying to kill all humans—a phenomenon apparently caused by the thinning ozone layer.

There’s bad acting and plot holes as big as those in the ozone layer (not least, after a violent confrontation, one group chooses to continue up the mountain, yet is thereafter shown trekking down, while the other group, which chose to go down the mountain, is subsequently shown hiking up). There’s utterly horrible dialogue and baffling character development—and more than a few offensive comments thrown at the one Native American character. (I won’t even go into how the women are portrayed!)

2. Day of the Animals, Jenson

The incomparable Leslie Nielsen (yes, one reason to see the film) plays a character who starts out as a straightforward obnoxious advertising executive, yet before long he mutates into a bare-chested survivalist, screaming into the rain, declaring allegiance to “Melville’s God,” shoving a mother and her child violently onto the ground, trying to rape a young woman (after telling her, “You belong to me. I own you”), stabbing a man through the abdomen with a walking stick, and then grappling (willingly) with a very large grizzly bear. The only possible excuse for this startling series of events might be that he is the lone person affected by the depleted-ozone-layer-induced madness that otherwise affects only nonhuman animals. You have to make that leap yourself, though, because the film doesn’t.But despite these rather glaring flaws, all of which are fun if approached in the right frame of mind, there are four good reasons to watch Day of the Animals (especially if you’re a horror fan).

-1. First of all, the film takes up the issue not only of environmental damage but, more specifically, the depletion of the ozone layer, in strikingly direct terms. I’ve read environmental critics worrying about how to present the “slow” effects of environmental toxins and climate change in narrative forms that can grab popular attention. Well, Day of the Animals dispels those worries. Suddenly, one day, because of chlorofluorocarbons, a hole opens up in the ozone layer and animals at altitudes of greater than 5,000 feet go insane and attack humans en masse. You couldn’t really get much more immediate and direct than that. And just in case the overly-skeptical viewer remains stubbornly bemused about the causal link between the depleted ozone layer and the animal attacks, the writers throw a virus in at the end (activated by the sun, apparently), and then show us hazard-suit-clad government employees cleaning up in a scene that seems designed to trade on the popularity of The Andromeda Strain (1971).

3. Day of the Animals, ending

In all seriousness, it is striking that Day of the Animals centers its plot on the vanishing ozone layer since it was only in the mid-70s that scientists started to warn about ozone depletion at all (in fact DOTA begins by pointing out the groundbreaking 1974 report of F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina)—and it wasn’t until 1985 that ozone holes first became public knowledge. The film is uncannily prescient, then, in its sense of what dangers impended and in its representation of a threat about which we’ve spent the last forty years becoming increasingly concerned.

-2. Day of the Animals pays repeated homage to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968)—and it’s fun to spot all the intertextual references. Not least, early on, a scene of a news broadcaster dispensing the alarming news about the horrific outbreaks of violence uncannily resonates with NOTLD, as does the cause, which in NOTLD was also due to human intervention (radiation from a space probe). There are also hysterical / catatonic blonde females aplenty, testosterone-fueled intra-group fighting about whether to go up or down (the house or the cellar in NOTLD; up or down the mountain in DOTA), and a dog-attack scene that very much resembles the final zombie assault on the farmhouse in NOTLD (dog paws substituting for zombie hands).

4. Day of the Animals, news

-3. Anyone who has read James Patterson’s Zoo (2012), or seen the recent TV adaptation (CBS, 2015), will definitely be interested in Day of the Animals since . . . well . . . they have the exact same plot. (Patterson perhaps watched and forgot this film in his youth?) In Patterson’s novel, animals similarly start banding together in order to attack humans, and in both cases, animal behavior is being directly shaped by human pollution: CFCs in DOTA and cell phones in Zoo. Of course, the resolution of DOTA is ridiculously contrived, especially when compared to the ending of Patterson’s novel (much more interesting than what transpires in the TV series), which is genuinely thought-provoking, provides no easy answers, and does nothing to let basic human irrationality off the hook.

5. Day of the Animals, lion watching2

-4. Finally, there are some surprisingly visually-compelling moments in Day of the Animals. Some of the shots of the animals themselves, with their manipulation of foreground and background, powerfully suggest the threat the animals pose, especially when we realize how isolated the human characters are in the vast landscape. And one scene, in particular, when a character falls down a cliff, dragged and pecked by birds, cleverly evokes Hitchcock—notably Vertigo (1958) and The Birds (1963).

6. Day of the Animals, Nancy falls, rear projection

Above all, the final shot of DOTA is both visually and theoretically intriguing. It reminded me of an argument that critic Evan Calder Williams makes about how the visual aspects of film can become political. He writes of the last scene of Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Tobe Hooper 1974) that the sun, what should be backdrop, fails, in fact, “to stay back.” “We squint reflexively at the effect, but it cannot be blinked clear.” Williams goes on to say that this effect manifests “secondary material” that “refuses to quit the scene,” how “the swelling mass of the unwanted” presses “up against the edges and into the foreground.”[i]

7. Day of the Animals Collage

For Williams, the fact that nature (the sun) is coming monstrously forward is a metaphor for the economic and political “unwanted” classes (In Texas Chain Saw) coming into prominence. But in Day of the Animals, it is nature itself—the sun, the air we breathe, the animals—that move from background to foreground, warning us that IT will swell into our (puny) lives, and it will destroy those lives if we don’t take care.

You can catch Day of the Animals on Shudder in their “Eco-Terror” collection: https://www.shudder.com/programs


 

[i] Evan Calder Williams, “Sunset with Chainsaw,” Film Quarterly 64.4 (Summer 2011), 32-33.

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