I can’t believe I let this happen. I got bored enough to wrestle the Cocaine Bear. After finding its trailers punishingly unfunny, I still checked out Elizabeth Banks’s animal attack horror comedy on the big screen, both because Boomer gave it a glowing review and because there was absolutely nothing else of interest in theaters last week. Cocaine Bear‘s violence is sufficiently vicious, and there’s some amusement in listening to Mark Mothersbaugh run rampant on the soundtrack trying to touch on every single style of 80s pop music except the one he was making at the time. It’s just a shame about those jokes; yeesh. I haven’t felt that alienated by an audience’s laughter since the last time I got dragged along to see a Deadpool. The “Can you believe how crazy this is??!!!” meme humor of Cocaine Bear might’ve spoken to me in the past, when I enjoyed similarly bad-on-purpose schlock titles like Zombeavers, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Turbo Kid, but lately I’ve cooled on the genre. My favorite parts were the brief flashes of sincere effort (the CG rendering of a maniac bear tearing into human flesh and the sounds of Mothersbaugh needlessly working overtime on the score), and I wish they were executed in service of something genuinely over-the-top instead of an incoherent 100-minute meme – the same complaint I recently had about the similar title-first-substance-second horror comedy All Jacked Up and Full of Worms. So, I left Cocaine Bear starving for the earnestly bonkers animal attack movie it failed to deliver, which I immediately found at home in the 1977 cult film Day of the Animals.
Day of the Animals follows the same faintly sketched-out story template of Cocaine Bear, in which a group of bland archetype hikers are terrorized by extraordinarily violent mountain animals driven mad by man’s follies. The titular Cocaine Bear goes on its own hyperviolent crime spree when it ingests large quantities of cocaine dumped into its habitat during a botched drug run. In Day of the Animals, the murderous beasts are crazed by a hole in the ozone layer, which the opening credits explain “COULD happen in the near future IF we continue to do nothing to stop this damage to Nature’s protective shield for life on this planet.” Our hikers in peril are torn to shreds by owls, buzzards, mountain lions, dogs, wolves, and bears, oh my. Besides the wider range of killer critters and the far more preposterous motivation for their bloodlust (I’ll leave it to you to deduce which of these two titles was inspired by a real-life news item), there isn’t much difference in the stories that Cocaine Bear & Day of the Animals tell. Still, the tactility & sincerity of the animal attacks in the 70s film go a long way in making it worthy of the ambling journey, even if only as a schlocky novelty. Leslie Nielsen’s casting as a violent, racist bully lurking among the chummier hikers is a great example of that difference, since after Naked Gun just one decade later his presence would’ve been reduced to a cheap, self-spoofing joke. Instead, he’s allowed to be a chest-thumping macho terror that goes just as broad & ridiculous as his career-defining mugging as Frank Drebin in the ZAZ films but heightens the film’s absurdity & menace instead of undercutting them. None of the dozens of disparate, disconnected performers in Cocaine Bear are given the same opportunity to play the scenario straight; they’re all tasked to repeatedly remind the audience it’s all just one big dumb joke with nothing more on its mind than the novelty of its title.
Director William Girdler knows a thing or two about bear attack movies, since his Jaws rip-off Grizzly is pretty much the standard bearer of the genre. There is indeed a real bear onscreen here, one who wrestles Nielsen’s macho brute to death once he’s exhausted all the possible ways he could be cruel to his fellow human beings (presumably because the hole in the ozone layer has also triggered his own worst animal instincts). There’s some humor in the dated staging of this attack, which includes shots of Nielsen aggressively hugging a stunt actor in a bear costume, but there’s also just enough legitimate bear-on-human contact to make it genuinely tense. In general, there’s something unnerving about the way Girdler’s crazed animals appear to leap out of his nature footage inserts, as if they’re crossing a forbidden barrier into reality to tear into the character actors (and, more often, their stunt doubles). I’ve never been kept so on edge by Ed Woodian stock footage reels, since they’re usually so disconnected from the physical action of the main narrative. So, yes, there are some laughably dated visual effects shots in Day of the Animals—most notably a moment of green screen surrealism as one archetypal character actor plummets off a cliff to her death while being pecked at by birds—but its mixed media approach includes enough frames of living, breathing animals sharing the screen with their actor & stunt double victims that the movie feels legitimately dangerous in a way that modern CGI never could.
No offense to Girdler, who between Grizzly and the blacksploitation Exorcist riff Abby has enough cult movie street cred on his own to dodge the comparison, but it’s incredible that Day of the Animals wasn’t directed by Larry Cohen. Its mix of scrappy practical effects, dangerous on-set stunts, and a premise so gimmicky it’s near-psychedelic (especially in the early shots of menacing sunbeams piercing the ozone layer to torment the animals below) are all worthy of Cohen’s most unhinged classics, which I mean as a high compliment. All that’s missing from the Cohen formula, really, is a bizarrely inhuman performance from Michael Moriarty, a role that Nielsen fills ably. If there’s anything that Day of the Animals might’ve benefited borrowing from Cocaine Bear, it might’ve been useful to smuggle some of its titular cocaine into the editing room. There’s an unrushed, stoney-baloney pacing to Day of the Animals that would’ve been much zanier & more streamlined just a few years later, if were made in the era when Elizabeth Banks’s film was set. Otherwise, the superiority in quality flows in the exact opposite direction, with Day of the Animals exemplifying everything Cocaine Bear could have been at its best: brutal, bonkers, ballsy, blessed. It is the genuine pop art novelty that Cocaine Bear attempts to reverse-engineer and, thus, is the far superior work. Then again, I was the only member of the audience not laughing at all of Cocaine Bear‘s ironic, postmodern gags & gore, so what do I know?