Schlock Value: Wild Beasts
Disclaimer: The film in question this week is extremely disturbing and is not for the faint of heart. Proceed with EXTREME caution.
Way back in college, I had my first experience with mondo cinema: the 1980 “shockumentary” Cannibal Holocaust. The film featured a myriad of horrifying and sensational footage that depicted graphic brutality, sexual assault, and real animal violence. Nothing could have prepared me for this. I was shocked, appalled and sick to my stomach. This, of course, was the desired effect. Mondo films can be traced back to 1962 with the release of Mondo Cane, an Italian documentary made up of unrelated vignettes showcasing mankind’s depravity, including ancient tribal rituals, dances, and, of course, animal sacrifice. The film was a surprise hit among the exploitation crowd, and spawned numerous sequels and copycats including Mondo Cane 2, The Faces of Death series, and the aforementioned Cannibal Holocaust. This week, I’ll be taking a look at the final film from mondo godfather Franco Prosperi: 1984’s Wild Beasts.
I was able to find multiple posters for this flick in various languages, and they're all awesome. Most, if not all of them, feature a cityscape and an enormous, snarling cat (either a tiger or panther) over a chaotic stampede of lions, cheetahs, elephants, rats, and various livestock. It’s interesting to note that depending on where the film was being released, the posters also had varying degrees of violence. For example, the US poster, though absolutely gorgeous, is 100% bloodless and overall pretty tame compared to their European counterparts, which did not shy away from the carnage; exploding airplanes, mangled vehicles, bloodied human corpses. And the trailer is exactly what you would expect from a film with such a poster. Bookended by the words “Violentata dall’uomo la natura si ribella” (Raped by man, nature revolts), it doubles down on the bestial rampage, showcasing some of the film’s big action set pieces: elephants crashing through walls, a cheetah chasing down a car, a polar bear breaking into a school. It’s all very exciting.
Set in “a Northern European city,” the film opens with an establishing montage of the nastiest, filthiest parts of the city, with tons of used hypodermic needles everywhere, interspersed with shots of local rivers and streams. Basically, 1970s New York City. Over at the city zoo, we’re introduced to Rupert Berner, the zoo’s veterinarian, and his friend/lover Laura Schwarz. They notice the lion cubs are behaving strangely, but what they don't realize is that phencyclidine (or PCP, as we call it on the streets) has contaminated the city’s water supply. Before Rupert can discover the cause of the lions’ behavior, the security system at the zoo malfunctions, unleashing the the entire drugged-out animal population into the city where they begin their killing spree. While Rupert races around town with a local detective trying to round up the loose animals with a tranquilizer gun, Laura rushes to rescue her pre-teen daughter Suzy from her dance class.
As far as the narrative goes, that’s pretty much it. The rest of the film is made up of incredible animal attack sequences; a couple necking in a car are torn apart by man-eating rats, a cheetah chases down a woman in a yellow Volkswagen Beetle, an airplane crashes and explodes trying to avoid a herd of elephants, a tiger invades a subway car full of people, a herd of bulls stampedes through the city demolishing storefronts, and a polar bear crashes Suzy’s dance class. But it’s clear by the end of the film that the troubles have only just started and, without spoiling the twist ending, a bunch of zoo animals strung out on PCP is definitely going to be the least of their worries.
Taking it at face value, Wild Beasts is a solid thriller that delivers on everything it promised. It’s mostly 90 minutes of animals on PCP attacking a city. The acting is about what you’d expect given what little there was to work with (mondo fans will be happy to see Cannibal Ferox’s Lorraine De Salle as Laura), but I really have to praise the top-notch gore effects and the frighteningly realistic animal attack sequences, which were supervised by professional circus trainers. Prosperi’s mondo experience really comes in handy here, as the animal attacks blur the line between what is real and what is not, creating a tangible sense of fear for the humans involved. Unfortunately, however, there are a handful of scenes that are a little too real, and it’s clear the production had little or no regard for the animals on set. In addition to real horse heads being chopped up and fed to tigers in the opening minutes, a cat is shown being torn apart by rats, which are subsequently set ablaze by the local authorities, and a lion and hyena are let loose in a pen full of livestock.
I really have to laugh at the irony of a film that begins with the quote: “Our madness engulfs everything and infects innocent victims such as children or animals” and then proceeds to abuse animals for the sake of a movie. Admittedly, this film is much more tame when compared to the popular mondo films of the’60s and ‘70s, but I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now. And, if legitimate animal violence isn’t bad enough, the first time we’re introduced to Laura’s daughter, a girl no older than twelve, she is briefly shown topless. Ugh. No thanks.
It’s unfortunate that these scenes exist because they spoil what is otherwise a highly enjoyable film, and it’s because of them that I cannot give Wild Beasts my endorsement. Instead, check out 1977’s Day of the Animals starring Leslie Nielsen or 1978’s The Beasts are on the Streets, which has almost the exact same plot as Wild Beasts, but without all the real animal violence. You’ll be better off.