The late great William Girdler (a genuinely talented filmmaker who was tragically killed in a helicopter accident while shooting a movie in the Philippines) delivered a box office smash in 1976 dubbed “JAWS with claws!” – the visually glorious GRIZZLY (1976). Girdler’s follow up the next year was not at all a direct sequel to his man-eating bear wonder, but instead a movie that used the “ten little Indians” motif and embraced growing concerns about environmental decay – primarily focusing on the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer and its effect on high altitude dwelling critters. The incredibly innovative ad campaign for DAY OF THE ANIMALS set an agenda for an enviro-message featuring the film’s stars Christopher and Lynda Day George “voicing” their concerns about pollutants and aerosols that are doing harm to the planet’s atmosphere.
But outside of the film’s solid “message” lies an sublime eco-horror creature feature that truly epitomizes the nature vs. man subgenre in a frenetic, chaotic and anarchic fury that pits pathetic (and not-so pathetic) humans against vultures, coyotes, cougars, snakes, rats, dogs and even a bear (a leftover reminder of Girdler’s previous monster smash). The film is a well mounted, visually breathtaking scary ride and the message is as crystal clear as the crisp skies Girdler captures with his Todd-AO lens – mother nature is mighty angry and she shall have her revenge. The film tells the story of a group of nature adventurers all going along on a hike up the Californian mountains, all for their own reasons and all under the guidance of Christopher George (a favorite of Girdler’s who also starred in his GRIZZLY). Boasting an all-star cast which includes a loathsome Leslie Neilsen in one of his most ruthlessly uncharacteristically Neilsen roles, the neurotic overbearing Ruth Roman, the stoic Richard Jaeckel (another GRIZZLY alumni) and the magnificent Lynda Day George who sizzles with both sexy spunk and very natural unnatural beauty, DAY OF THE ANIMALS is a wonderful example of William Girdler’s maverick filmmaking that would of easily paved the way for more natural horror cinema if he wasn’t taken under such tragic circumstances. Among the unsympathetic lot are some “shining lights” such as a young working-class couple who have a healthy understanding of the environment whilst their middle-aged and middle-class counterparts (a lawyer and his wife) constantly bicker; thus making a nice narrative juxtaposition to sit in the middle of the balance and imbalances of nature. Susan Backlinie (who played Chrissy the first victim in Steven Spielberg’s JAWS (1975)) plays the uptight lawyer’s wife in Girdler’s film and she is also the first victim. Here is a wonderfully staged and truly terrifying death sequence, which harkens back to Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (1963). It is also interesting to note that Backlinie was one of the animal trainers on the film; an animal activist who worked closely with many of the bird and beast co-stars. Of the aforementioned working class couple, the male member there was handsome, young actor Andrew Stevens who recalls the film…
Diabolique: What did you know about the project before you were cast?
Andrew Stevens: I received a call from my agent to tell me about the project and a role they were casting that I might be right for.
Diabolique: How did the role come about?
Andrew Stevens: I had a routine audition for an indie film and met and read for Bill Girdler and his girlfriend, Avis. Bill was awesome and we were like family – he and Avis and most of the cast (Ansara, Jaekel, Cedar and I) particularly. He went on to direct my mother in THE MANITOU (1978) – his career was on the rise – as was mine. I did THE FURY (1978) and then THE BOYS IN COMPANY ‘C’ (1978), which got me a Golden Globe nomination and, after THE MANITOU, Bill went to Manilla, just after I returned from filming, and died in a helicopter crash while scouting locations.
Diabolique: Did you know about William Girdler before reading the screenplay? If yes, what films of his had you seen?
Andrew Stevens: I knew that he had directed the film GRIZZLY, but I had not seen it or any others.
Diabolique: The film is incredibly progressive in that it talks about the issue of global warming and is fundamentally about the depletion of the ozone layer having disastrous and horrific effects. What are your thoughts about this aspect of the film?
Andrew Stevens: In DOA it was a pretty clumsy and flimsy premise, but audiences were far more naïve (with no internet, social media and smartphones) in the 1970s.
Diabolique: The eco-horror film is very much thematically invested in environmental messages, and this film is a perfect example of this. How important do you think it is for films to have a social message?
Andrew Stevens: It depends on how the “social message” is integrated into the screenplay and how plausible the environmental catalyst is.
Diabolique: This is a magnificent example of the “ten little Indians” trope set in the eco-horror movie mould – what do you love most about the structure of the narrative?
Andrew Stevens: We as actors knew that the script and dialogue were stilted and poorly written and obvious. It’s hard to imagine that forty years later anyone would have an interest in such a marginal film, which actors appeared in because either they were on the way up or on the way down.
Diabolique: You co-star along the likes of some of Hollywood’s greatest character actors, can you talk about them?
Andrew Stevens: I didn’t know who Ruth Roman was but was informed by the other older actors that she had been a star and was a fine actress. She seemed stern to me at the time – personally and as the character. Leslie Neilsen had a hand-held fart-sound device that he concealed and at every opportunity made fart noises while standing next to anyone – saying “Excuse me” – he particularly delighted in ‘farting’ next to women. I had worked with Christopher George previously on a TV movie of the week called THE LAST SURVIVORS (1975). Lynda Day George was lovely – and she and Christopher mostly kept to themselves as a couple on location. Michael Ansara, Richard Jaekel, Paul Mantee and I became inseparable friends and compatriots on the film and played cards (Hearts and Spades) non-stop throughout the production, and ate and drank together every night. John Cedar and I later worked together on the film DEATH HUNT (1981) with Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin.
Diabolique: Susan Backlinie co-stars in the film and she was one of the trainers (her speciality being birds of prey). What do you remember about her and about her work with the animals?
Andrew Stevens: We were all smitten with Susie who had done the opening scene being eaten by a shark while swimming naked in the movie JAWS. Her boyfriend, Monty Cox was the very accomplished animal trainer and also a stuntman – and Susie worked with him and the animals, as well as being an actress in the film. They were great people and were great together.
Diabolique: How much contact did you have with the animals cast in the film?
Andrew Stevens: Always a safe distance.
Diabolique: The film features a wide range of animals – bears, mountain lions, hawks, vultures, wolves, snakes etc. Do you have any personal stories regarding any of these critters?
Andrew Stevens: No, just admiration for Monty and his crew for their work – but I do remember the bear.
Diabolique: I love the character dynamics within the group – the bickering couple attempting to save their marriage, the mutual admiration from the hiking group’s leader and the news anchor, the boy suffocated by his domineering mother etc. What did you enjoy most about this element of the film?
Andrew Stevens: It was a low-budget indie film and I was always a sponge – learning what and what not to do from my numerous experiences. I paid attention to story structure and bad dialogue and obvious and bad exposition and cardboard cut-out characters rather than well-crafted characters with organic development.
Diabolique: What did you like most about your character – who is sympathetic and earnest?
Andrew Stevens: I really don’t recall – I just tried to base my work in reality in a piece that was pretty stilted.
Diabolique: What was the location like?
Andrew Stevens: It was a location in the Californian mountains – but I can’t remember the name of the town. I drove my jeep from LA. The scenery there is gorgeous. We all lived at the motel/lodge for the length of the shoot.
Diabolique: Leslie Neilsen’s character is repugnant and grows into an even more ferociously nasty piece of work – what do you remember most about the confrontation scene with him?
Andrew Stevens: It was a bizarre twist in the film and for us as actors. Prior to that, we were mostly doing silly expository dialogue and suddenly it got serious and Leslie and I had to turn on a “performance”. When we were shooting the scene where Leslie Nielsen goes berserk and kills me, it was cold and wet, and the sound for the entire scene was lost or damaged irreparably from the rain and manufactured rain. The company brought a state of the art (at the time) portable ADR trailer to location and had me loop all of my dialogue for the entire scene while on set. That was highly innovative at the time and a big expense for a small movie.
Diabolique: Did this film – in any way – lead to more prominent roles in movie such as THE FURY?
Andrew Stevens: No, but I suppose as a very young actor, having built a resume of work, even if in indie films and TV might have been somewhat more impressive to a director like Brian De Palma and a producer like Frank Yablans.
Diabolique: What are you most proud of in regards to DAY OF THE ANIMALS?
Andrew Stevens: I don’t’ recall having a “proud” moment. It was a routine role in a routine indie film and I wished both had been better. I did have a particularly strange experience on the film. There was a dinner scheduled at a lodge or restaurant a good distance from our motel. I was for some reason relegated to riding back to the motel with a drunken Edward L. Montoro – babbling unintelligibly – careening down winding, unlit mountain roads and 2-lane curves – like an inebriated Mr. Toad with a Moe Axelrod moustache – I survived – but he remains the subject of speculation after his embezzlement of Film Ventures International and disappearance –never to be heard from again. Dead or alive, who knows?