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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Wild Beasts (1984) review



Lorraine de Selle (Laura), John Aldrich (Rupert), Ugo Bologna (Inspector Braun), Louisa Lloyd (Suzy), John Stacy (Zookeeper)

Directed by Franco Prosperi

The Short Version: Italy's late entry in the 'Killer Animal' sweepstakes force-feeds us an eco-political message amidst scenes of rats devouring human breasts and faces, elephants squashing heads, and scenes of lions and tigers ecstatically ripping human bodies to pieces. It's often surreal, especially with the inclusion of jazz and metal cues infrequently accompanying the gory spectacle. It has a lot in common with Girdler's DAY OF THE ANIMALS (1977), but swaps out that films ozone depletion for an ambiguous explanation of PCP ending up first in a zoo's water supply before a citywide problem affecting humans is introduced during the conclusion. Prosperi's mix of eco-politics and gore is often well made, sometimes sloppy, but always an interesting piece of  trashy political exploitation.

A large quantity of PCP mysteriously finds its way into the water supply of a metropolitan zoo. The various wild animals become enraged, break out of their cages and proceed on a rampage of death and destruction within the concrete jungle of a thriving European city.

Franco Prosperi returns to his Mondo stomping grounds with a straight up horror film that contains subtle, if explicit nuances of the shockumentaries he and his former filmmaking partner, Gualtiero Jacopetti were doing over twenty years earlier with pictures like the enormously influential and controversial MONDO CANE (1962). Prosperi's script also manages to instill some glaring ecological and socio-political themes one often finds in Italian movies, just not always in brutally violent Italian blood splatterers such as this one.

The filmmakers provide a bridge between the hugely popular Disaster movies of the 1970s and the Nature Amuck films from the same decade; those films also posing political underpinnings and sometimes heavy-handed environmentalist propagandizing that still thrives in society today. Instead of earthquakes, or towering infernos, it's a city overrun with PCP plagued animals -- subway train passengers are attacked by tigers, a school is invaded by a polar bear, elephants rampage at an airport and more.

Along with the similar Made For Television movies like MANEATERS ARE LOOSE! and THE BEASTS ARE ON THE STREETS (both 1978), WILD BEASTS proved hauntingly prophetic when in October of 2011, a menagerie of wild animals escaped from a private zoo in Ohio, including lions and tigers. There were no human casualties, but most all of the various animals were killed.

As per the Italian Mondo and Cannibal antecedents, there's a bit of that all too real animal violence that clashes with the obviously fake attacks on mankind. The very beginning of the movie echoes Prosperi's passed successes and controversies from those infamous Shockumentaries. The opening credits consist of zookeepers chopping up horses heads and feeding them to hungry tigers. Granted, these animals are already dead (a later scene shows horses inside a slaughterhouse), but the credits begin with a close up of a horse's face. We see the eyes twitch a bit giving the impression the animal is alive. As the camera pans back, we see that the animal is not alive at all as a worker proceeds to split the head in half. The rest of the film never quite hits this level of geekshow barkership, but it's not for a lack of trying.

Later in the film, there's a scene where lions and hyenas attack horses, pigs and cattle inside a slaughterhouse just prior to a mass stampede down a city street. Another features rats being burned alive and stomped on after feasting on a young couple having sex in a car. It's also worth noting that the rat scenes are better than the entirety of the laughable excess of Mattei's RATS, NIGHT OF TERROR (1983).

The rat attack also features a cat being assaulted by dozens of the crazed rodents. It doesn't come off quite as graphic as the more exploitable sequence in Mou Tun Fei's MEN BEHIND THE SUN (1988); but while that scene has apparently been debunked as fake, this scene here is questionable. The camera doesn't linger on it long enough, but both rat and feline put in good performances biting and clawing at each other.

The animal sequences, such as the cheetah, elephant and polar bear sequences (among others) are nothing short of incredible, even though limitations of the day creep in at times. That Prosperi and his crew were able to pull off what they did with the sheer number of animals they had to work with is a feat unto itself. Judging by his own words regarding the making of the film, the behind the scenes was oftentimes harrowing, only not to the level of the fictional rampages that ended up onscreen.

Considering Prosperi's clout and past career, the budget is noticeably larger than the usual Euro-gore epic of the time period, at least it seems so. Shot in South Africa and Italy, the problems behind the scenes point to a troubled production; but you wouldn't be able to tell from how polished the whole enterprise is in what amounts to little more than a glossy, trashy exploitation picture. 

WILD BEASTS is one of a scant few Euro horror films from the mid 80s that showed a lot of promise for Italian genre movies without the credit, "Directed by Dario Argento" attached to them. Fulci was fumbling, Lenzi was becoming lackadaisical, and guys like Bruno Mattei were consistent in their horrifically enjoyable hackwork. DEMONS (1985) from Lamberto Bava and STAGE FRIGHT (1987) from Michele Soavi were prime examples of a ferocious new style for Italian horror that ultimately, by the 1990s, failed to materialize.

Prosperi's last directed film not only addresses what happens when a recreational drug inexplicably finds itself in a zoo's drinking water supply, but addresses a much bigger situation during the last 15 minutes when it becomes known the drug has gotten into the main water system of the city, yet again, we're never told just how this happened. It's here where the film briefly crosses over into another well explored horror sub-genre.

The performances are all decent, if unremarkable. It's dubbed, so difficult to gauge, but judging by the facial expressions, it's standard dialog delivery and the required screaming during attack sequences. 

Lorraine de Selle, a popular face among Euro cult film specialists, plays the main character, Laura Schwarz. The script gives her little to do here and her position is never pointedly defined. She's some sort of zoologist, but she never gives any input as to what started, or how to stop this animal outbreak. That's left up to John Aldrich, the lead actor who reminds me a lot of Edward Albert. Both characters work together and have some form of romantic relationship, but this is never expanded upon. Instead, both characters spend their time being put in harms way, or are on their way to clean up after the next attack. 

The score is mostly underwhelming, although a few cues successfully convey that signature Euro 80s rock sensibility. The jazz pieces seem woefully out of place, although the main theme heard at the start seems almost like a music video amidst quick cuts that aim to visualize the films plotline before the first line of dialog is uttered. 

WILD BEASTS is occasionally offensive, sometimes silly, but always entertaining. Franco Prosperi ended his directorial career on a high note. There's some wobbly moments here and there, but overall, the film impresses with some memorable scenes (sometimes aided by the FX work of Maurizio Trani) that would most definitely have been done with computerized imagery nowadays. 'Nature Amuck' movies were out of vogue at this point, but it's satisfying to see the Italian's take on the subject -- better late than never.

This review is representative of the Camera Obscura PAL R2 DVD.


Franco Macabro said...

So basically this is the Italian version of films like Frogs! and Squirm, where animals suddenly turn against humans...looking forward to it, it seems like in typical Italian rip off fashion, they wanted to go even more over the top with the premise.

venoms5 said...

I'm not even sure this qualified as a rip off at that time, Fran. This type of movie was out of vogue here having been replaced by slashers. But it's definitely over the top!

As I noted in the review, the conclusion goes in a direction that is reminiscent of a totally different horror sub-genre. One of the screen caps is a clue, but I won't say what it is. It's not a huge surprise as it's foreshadowed ahead of time, but it made the movie stand out.

While the Camera Obscura DVD is on the pricey side, the extras are superb.

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