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Day of the Animals: Leslie Nielsen meets the Preston Sturges of ’70s schlock

How determined on inserting a strong ecological theme were the filmmakers?

Day of the Animals: From the files of Leslie Nielsen.
Day of the Animals: From the files of Leslie Nielsen.

Who didn’t like Leslie Nielsen, the white haired journeyman actor who went from B movies and recurring character roles in episodic TV dramas to breaking typecast and becoming an overnight comedy sensation?

Day of the Animals (1977)

After his successful collaborations with the writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (Police Squad!, Airplane! The Naked Gun(s)) Nielsen became a regular on the talk show circuit. In keeping with the dignity and seriousness of the format, he took to bringing along a device called “Le Farter” to shock and embarrass the host and panelists. The rubber contraption fit in the palm of his hand, and emitted rude noises authentic enough to make the listener reach for a can of Febreze. And speaking of environmental hazards, I recently picked up a copy of an old favorite, the 1977 eco-horror laugh fest Day of the Animals. And with it came a little gratis history. Long before climate change movies (Cli-fi) warranted a genre all its own, Hollywood released a handful of what were then called “natural horror” films. A decade after The Birds kicked things off, the subject of climate change became prime fodder for low-budget exploitation epics like Soylent Green, Frogs, and this little gem.

Before bringing out the Animals, here’s a list of ten things I learned about Leslie Nielsen while researching this piece:

1) He was born Leslie William Nielsen on February 11, 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan, the son of a Constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was too old for the part when Hollywood got around to adapting the cartoon, but in his day, Nielsen would have made a top-notch Dudley Do-Right, much better than his Magoo.

2) His older brother, Erik Nielsen (1924–2008), was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada during the 1980s.

3) His half-uncle was legendary motion picture veteran Jean Hersholt, the man Oscar honored by naming the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award after him.

4) Following a short stint as a disc jockey, Nielsen enrolled at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, his premature white mane an everlasting tribute to his mentor. Speaking of his milky locks, the only time I recall seeing Nielsen genuinely unamused was when “Stuttering” John Melendez, Howard Stern’s emissary of pungent wonderings, asked whether or not his pubic hair was white.

5) After moving to New York, Nielsen studied at the prestigious Actor’s Studio.

6) Nielsen first appeared on TV in 1948 opposite Charlton Heston in an episode of Studio One. Eleven years later, he tested for the part of “Messala” in Ben-Hur, a role that eventually earned Stephen Boyd an Oscar nomination.

7) Throughout his career he appeared in over 170 television series, frequently cast as lawmen, doctors, military officials and the occasional heavy.

8) According to IMDB, Nielsen was considered for the role of Jack Torrance in The Shining.

9) John Landis’ scatter-gun skit comedy Kentucky Fried Movie, not Airplane! (or the supreme Bob Hope/Jackie Gleason stink bomb, How to Commit Marriage) marked Nielsen’s first foray into irreverent, bad taste parody. Both were written by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. His first appearance for ZAZ was in the brief Feel-O-Rama parody of sensory gimmickry in movie theaters.

10) Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker on why they saw Nielsen as “a fish in water” and chose him for the role of Frank Drebin: “You could have cast funny people and done it with everybody winking, goofing off, and silly...we wanted people to be oblivious to the comedy.” With the aid of three meshugenah kids from Wisconsin, Nielsen smoothly transitioned from dependable ’B’ list character actor to beloved deadpan buffoon. Drebin and the numerous parodies that followed (Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Spy Hard, Wrongfully Accused, etc.) made Nielsen the new Jacques Clouseau. And one would be sorely remiss not to cite his ability to fill out a space suit for his second big screen appearance: who can ever forget when Shakespeare went sci-fi in Forbidden Planet?

It had been decades since my last sighting of Day of the Animals and in this case, my memory served me well. The opening crawl alerts us to the dangers of fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans and the damaging effects they have on the Earth’s protective ozone layer. How determined on inserting a strong ecological theme were the filmmakers? When they underline the “could” in “This could happen in the near future,” you know they’re not kidding.

With disaster films a thing of the past, Hollywood looked to low-budget horror films as a means of drawing audiences with a co-mingling of nostalgic stars and fresh-faced up-and-comers. Christopher George stars as Steve Buckner, a tour guide set to lead a group of a dozen or so mostly recognizable faces on a hike through Alpine Country. But a local ranger warns that there’s trouble in the air, and what with the string of recent accidents, now might not be a good time for such a venture. Too late: a cash-strapped Steve has apparently deposited the checks. The supporting players board the two helicopters that deposited them atop the mountain.

Nielsen co-stars as Paul Jenson, a smarmy wise-cracking account executive who instantly gets on the nerves of Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara), a Native American who doesn’t like answering to the name “Kemosabe.” For the youngsters in the audience, there’s teenage swooners Bob Denning (Andrew Stevens) and Beth Hughes (Kathleen Bracken). Stevens is the son of Stella Stevens. Married to the star, Linda Day George appears as a newscaster on vacation. Rounding out the cast are Richard Jaeckel as a professorial nerd, Roy Moore as the football player with terminal cancer, and former Warner Bros. contract player Ruth Roman, who at age 55 would be better suited to play adolescent Johnny’s (Bobby Porter) granny, not mother. And you’ve all seen Susan Backlinie; she plays Mandy Young. The name might not spark any neurons, but you’re sure to remember her as the blonde swimmer who didn’t make it much past the credits in Jaws.

Not since Tippi Hedren’s jungle gym doubled as an aviary have so many birds assembled to observe humankind. Suffice it to say the plethora of predatory POV cutaways to birds and beasts add menace and there are several fight scenes that, when slowed, reveal a knock-down drag-out between man and department store stuffed animal. We’re led to believe that the sudden move towards violent behavior on the part of the prey is destined to rub off on the predators, yet the only one in the cast to show any signs of psychosis is Nielsen. The one image that remains forever inside me is one of a shirtless Nielsen suddenly going ballistic, marching half the cast up the mountain and presumably towards safety. It’s one thing for Nielsen to strip down to the waist like the alpha male he is, but to suddenly start swinging at both Ruth Roman and a little boy is patently hilarious. After all, it’s the day of the animals, not the day of the account executive. When asked about the experience, Nielsen told an interviewer, “I had to weave and play around with a honey bear, and I could wrestle with him a little bit. But there’s no way you can even wrestle a honey bear, let alone a grizzly bear that’s standing ten feet to eleven feet tall! Can you imagine? But it was fascinating to work that close to that kind of animal.”

Director William Girdler was the Preston Sturges of ’70s schlock. In six short years, Girdler signed nine pics, all in the horror and action genres. He hit his stride with Abby, a blaxploitation variation on The Exorcist that featured an appearance by the incomparable Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life). The film performed well in its first month until Warner Bros. filed suit. As a result, the film has been impossible to see in a decent form since its release. That was soon followed by the Pam Grier potboiler Sheba, Baby! and Grizzly, another “nature attacks” film that does for Jaws what Abby did for The Exorcist. In that sense, it’s a noble precursor to Day of the Animals. His last film was The Manitou starring Tony Curtis. I saw it opening week, and in retrospect, it’s by far the director’s most original and ambitious work. Avco Embassy’s botched distribution resulted in bad box office and an original negative was thought to have been lost to the ages, but I see that Shout Factory released a blu-ray in 2019 that’s a 4K scan of the original film elements. Can Abby be next?

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Day of the Animals: From the files of Leslie Nielsen.
Day of the Animals: From the files of Leslie Nielsen.

Who didn’t like Leslie Nielsen, the white haired journeyman actor who went from B movies and recurring character roles in episodic TV dramas to breaking typecast and becoming an overnight comedy sensation?

Day of the Animals (1977)

After his successful collaborations with the writing/directing team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (Police Squad!, Airplane! The Naked Gun(s)) Nielsen became a regular on the talk show circuit. In keeping with the dignity and seriousness of the format, he took to bringing along a device called “Le Farter” to shock and embarrass the host and panelists. The rubber contraption fit in the palm of his hand, and emitted rude noises authentic enough to make the listener reach for a can of Febreze. And speaking of environmental hazards, I recently picked up a copy of an old favorite, the 1977 eco-horror laugh fest Day of the Animals. And with it came a little gratis history. Long before climate change movies (Cli-fi) warranted a genre all its own, Hollywood released a handful of what were then called “natural horror” films. A decade after The Birds kicked things off, the subject of climate change became prime fodder for low-budget exploitation epics like Soylent Green, Frogs, and this little gem.

Before bringing out the Animals, here’s a list of ten things I learned about Leslie Nielsen while researching this piece:

1) He was born Leslie William Nielsen on February 11, 1926 in Regina, Saskatchewan, the son of a Constable in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He was too old for the part when Hollywood got around to adapting the cartoon, but in his day, Nielsen would have made a top-notch Dudley Do-Right, much better than his Magoo.

2) His older brother, Erik Nielsen (1924–2008), was Deputy Prime Minister of Canada during the 1980s.

3) His half-uncle was legendary motion picture veteran Jean Hersholt, the man Oscar honored by naming the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award after him.

4) Following a short stint as a disc jockey, Nielsen enrolled at the Lorne Greene Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, his premature white mane an everlasting tribute to his mentor. Speaking of his milky locks, the only time I recall seeing Nielsen genuinely unamused was when “Stuttering” John Melendez, Howard Stern’s emissary of pungent wonderings, asked whether or not his pubic hair was white.

5) After moving to New York, Nielsen studied at the prestigious Actor’s Studio.

6) Nielsen first appeared on TV in 1948 opposite Charlton Heston in an episode of Studio One. Eleven years later, he tested for the part of “Messala” in Ben-Hur, a role that eventually earned Stephen Boyd an Oscar nomination.

7) Throughout his career he appeared in over 170 television series, frequently cast as lawmen, doctors, military officials and the occasional heavy.

8) According to IMDB, Nielsen was considered for the role of Jack Torrance in The Shining.

9) John Landis’ scatter-gun skit comedy Kentucky Fried Movie, not Airplane! (or the supreme Bob Hope/Jackie Gleason stink bomb, How to Commit Marriage) marked Nielsen’s first foray into irreverent, bad taste parody. Both were written by David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker. His first appearance for ZAZ was in the brief Feel-O-Rama parody of sensory gimmickry in movie theaters.

10) Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker on why they saw Nielsen as “a fish in water” and chose him for the role of Frank Drebin: “You could have cast funny people and done it with everybody winking, goofing off, and silly...we wanted people to be oblivious to the comedy.” With the aid of three meshugenah kids from Wisconsin, Nielsen smoothly transitioned from dependable ’B’ list character actor to beloved deadpan buffoon. Drebin and the numerous parodies that followed (Dracula: Dead and Loving It, Spy Hard, Wrongfully Accused, etc.) made Nielsen the new Jacques Clouseau. And one would be sorely remiss not to cite his ability to fill out a space suit for his second big screen appearance: who can ever forget when Shakespeare went sci-fi in Forbidden Planet?

It had been decades since my last sighting of Day of the Animals and in this case, my memory served me well. The opening crawl alerts us to the dangers of fluorocarbon gases used in aerosol spray cans and the damaging effects they have on the Earth’s protective ozone layer. How determined on inserting a strong ecological theme were the filmmakers? When they underline the “could” in “This could happen in the near future,” you know they’re not kidding.

With disaster films a thing of the past, Hollywood looked to low-budget horror films as a means of drawing audiences with a co-mingling of nostalgic stars and fresh-faced up-and-comers. Christopher George stars as Steve Buckner, a tour guide set to lead a group of a dozen or so mostly recognizable faces on a hike through Alpine Country. But a local ranger warns that there’s trouble in the air, and what with the string of recent accidents, now might not be a good time for such a venture. Too late: a cash-strapped Steve has apparently deposited the checks. The supporting players board the two helicopters that deposited them atop the mountain.

Nielsen co-stars as Paul Jenson, a smarmy wise-cracking account executive who instantly gets on the nerves of Daniel Santee (Michael Ansara), a Native American who doesn’t like answering to the name “Kemosabe.” For the youngsters in the audience, there’s teenage swooners Bob Denning (Andrew Stevens) and Beth Hughes (Kathleen Bracken). Stevens is the son of Stella Stevens. Married to the star, Linda Day George appears as a newscaster on vacation. Rounding out the cast are Richard Jaeckel as a professorial nerd, Roy Moore as the football player with terminal cancer, and former Warner Bros. contract player Ruth Roman, who at age 55 would be better suited to play adolescent Johnny’s (Bobby Porter) granny, not mother. And you’ve all seen Susan Backlinie; she plays Mandy Young. The name might not spark any neurons, but you’re sure to remember her as the blonde swimmer who didn’t make it much past the credits in Jaws.

Not since Tippi Hedren’s jungle gym doubled as an aviary have so many birds assembled to observe humankind. Suffice it to say the plethora of predatory POV cutaways to birds and beasts add menace and there are several fight scenes that, when slowed, reveal a knock-down drag-out between man and department store stuffed animal. We’re led to believe that the sudden move towards violent behavior on the part of the prey is destined to rub off on the predators, yet the only one in the cast to show any signs of psychosis is Nielsen. The one image that remains forever inside me is one of a shirtless Nielsen suddenly going ballistic, marching half the cast up the mountain and presumably towards safety. It’s one thing for Nielsen to strip down to the waist like the alpha male he is, but to suddenly start swinging at both Ruth Roman and a little boy is patently hilarious. After all, it’s the day of the animals, not the day of the account executive. When asked about the experience, Nielsen told an interviewer, “I had to weave and play around with a honey bear, and I could wrestle with him a little bit. But there’s no way you can even wrestle a honey bear, let alone a grizzly bear that’s standing ten feet to eleven feet tall! Can you imagine? But it was fascinating to work that close to that kind of animal.”

Director William Girdler was the Preston Sturges of ’70s schlock. In six short years, Girdler signed nine pics, all in the horror and action genres. He hit his stride with Abby, a blaxploitation variation on The Exorcist that featured an appearance by the incomparable Juanita Moore (Imitation of Life). The film performed well in its first month until Warner Bros. filed suit. As a result, the film has been impossible to see in a decent form since its release. That was soon followed by the Pam Grier potboiler Sheba, Baby! and Grizzly, another “nature attacks” film that does for Jaws what Abby did for The Exorcist. In that sense, it’s a noble precursor to Day of the Animals. His last film was The Manitou starring Tony Curtis. I saw it opening week, and in retrospect, it’s by far the director’s most original and ambitious work. Avco Embassy’s botched distribution resulted in bad box office and an original negative was thought to have been lost to the ages, but I see that Shout Factory released a blu-ray in 2019 that’s a 4K scan of the original film elements. Can Abby be next?

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