Day of the Animals (1977)

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?

-Brandon Ledet

Cocaine Bear (2023)

I’m not sure how I didn’t recognize from promotional materials that Scott Seiss, best known online for his character of a retail employee who responds to F.A.C.s (that’s an acronym I just made up for “Frequent Asshole Comments”) the way that every retail employee wishes that they could, was the male paramedic in Cocaine Bear. He’s in pretty much every trailer! Further, I have no idea how I still didn’t put that together after seeing this video, in which he hypes Cocaine Bear in the same manner, noting that you don’t have to have done homework before seeing the movie and that there won’t be a dozen thinkpieces exploring the possible meanings behind the film’s ending. There’s no long-beloved intellectual property of which this is an adaptation (unless you count the actual 1985 events which very loosely inspired the plot), no secret clues about who’s going to be the villain in the next MCU feature, nothing to inspire a MatPat Film Theory video. Cocaine Bear is just a comedy-horror-thriller about a bear who does cocaine, and the people who find themselves caught in its freakout. And it’s a delight. 

Multiple story threads find themselves woven together from their disparate origins in the opening act of the film, as disparate parties are drawn together to Blood Mountain, a Georgia peak located in the Chattahoochee National Forest. After a drug drop goes south due to the delivery man bashing his skull on an airplane bulkhead while attempting to exit and parachute, a number of interested people become invested in trying to find the drugs that are missing on the mountain, as well as the law enforcement in pursuit of the traffickers. Kingpin Syd (Ray Liotta) sends his lieutenant Daveed (O’Shea Jackson, Jr.) to the national park to find and recover the duffel bags, and tells him to bring along Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), Syd’s son who left the family business at the urging of his recently deceased wife Joanie, which the sociopathic Syd thinks means that his boy will be ready to get back into the trade. In Tennessee where the dead parachuter’s body has landed, Detective Bob (Isiah Whitlock Jr. of The Wire) leaves his new dog with Deputy Reba (Ayoola Smart) as he travels across state lines and out of his jurisdiction in pursuit of Syd, who he’s been chasing for years. Local middle schooler Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school so that she can paint a picture of the park’s Secret Falls, an outing she was supposed to take with her mother Sari (Keri Russell) but which has been postponed due to Sari’s boyfriend inviting the two of them to Nashville for the weekend instead. At the park itself, Ranger Liz (character actress Margo Martindale) is preparing for a park inspection by Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), on whom she has a crush. And, of course, deep in the woods, there’s a mama bear who’s developing a taste for nose candy. 

As I was leaving the auditorium after the screening, a woman behind me declared, “Well, that sucked.” My viewing companion was also less than enthused on our drive away from the theater, although he was bemused by my passionate defense of the film. I’ve seen and heard criticism of the story, and while I wouldn’t exactly call the film’s composition an elegant puzzle box, it was very fun and moved at a great pace; I was never bored, and there was never a prolonged period of time between laughs. Not every joke landed for everyone in the audience, but there were some jokes that didn’t provoke a laugh from me while others produced a laugh only from me, and that’s a good balance for a comedy to strike. Maybe in future viewings I’ll find that some of the punchlines that didn’t land this time will land the next time, and I can say definitively that this is a comedy that I will watch again, which isn’t something that I say very often. I’ve long been a fan of campy, self-aware horror comedies, and long been opposed to movies that attempt to ape that specific genre and do it poorly; Cocaine Bear manages to walk that tightrope deftly, mostly by not calling attention to itself. 

I’ve lost count of how many movies and TV shows of the past decade attempted to cash in on nostalgia for the 1980s, but this film manages to capture the quintessence of movies from that era and combine it with the modern cinematic eye in a way that doesn’t call attention to itself. With a 1985 setting, a lazier filmmaker would fill the soundtrack with songs from that year specifically and exclusively, but there’s greater verisimilitude in the text by including music that was recent and not just current. The film starts out with the Jefferson Starship track “Jane” (1979) and includes the 1984 track “The Warrior” by Scandal and featuring Patty Smyth, 1978’s “Too Hot ta Trot” by the Commodores, and even “On the Wings of Love” by Jeffrey Osborne (1982), which is plot-relevant in the scene in which it appears. It’s a small thing, but I appreciate it and the way that it evokes and inscribes its time period without worshipping it, like IT or Stranger Things. We’re not presented with an endless parade of 1980s pop culture or media—Remember Ghostbusters? Remember Nightmare on Elm Street? Remember G.I. Joe?—and, in fact, there’s very little reference to the media of the time at all. Outside of the use of actual contemporary media footage taken when Andrew Thornton landed, parachute undeployed, in an old man’s driveway and the appearance of a few of the era’s anti-drug PSAs, the only material reference to contemporary events comes in the form of the delivery of a new-and-improved Smokey the Bear stand-up to the ranger station. You’re not taken out of the reality of the moment because the period elements draw attention to themselves; you just exist there. There’s something that’s just so true about Keri Russell’s pink jumpsuit and the way that her purse strap has a big knot tied in it to shorten it; I don’t know what’s not to love. It’s grisly, fun, and campy, and I loved it. 

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond