Tuesday, June 13, 2023

WILD BEASTS: When Animals Attack

by Patrick Bromley
Is this the greatest animal attack movie ever made?

Throughout the history of horror movies, there have been quite a few entries in the “when animals attack” subgenre. In most cases, these animals rise up and fight back against humankind as a warning for how we are treating the planet – a subgenre known as “eco-horror” that includes such killer animal films as Long Weekend, Food of the Gods, or Day of the Animals. Sometimes, the motivation for the animal attack is just a single bad apple; think Jaws and its many knock-offs, from Grizzly to Tentacles to Razorback.

And, just sometimes, sometimes the animals attack because they’re high on PCP.

That’s the premise for Wild Beasts (aka Belve Feroci), the 1984 killer animal movie from Franco Prosperi, best known as one of the filmmakers responsible for Mondo Cane. Shot in Berlin with an Italian cast and crew and dubbed into English, Wild Beasts is the killer animal movie to end all killer animal movies. It opens with shots of empty needles littering the streets and gutters, though it’s not until pretty late in the film that we are given the context for these images: PCP has gotten into the city’s water supply and the animals are all HIGH ON ANGEL DUST. They proceed to attack. That’s the movie.
Oh, but what attacks they make. We see rats gnawing people to death. We see a cheetah chase a woman down the street. We see an elephant trample people. We see a tiger run rampant on a subway car. We see a German Shepherd maul its blind owner (if there’s one thing The Beyond taught us, it’s that you don’t want a German Shepherd as your seeing eye dog if you’re in an Italian horror movie). In the movie’s greatest and most insane moment, we see a polar bear attack a dance studio FULL OF CHILDREN. All of this is staged for maximum goriness, though it’s usually the aftermath of the attacks that show the gnarliest makeup effects. Nothing less should be expected from the director of Mondo Cane.

And because this is an Italian horror film, there is the unfortunate and inexcusable animal death on display, primarily a sequence in which real rats are set on real fire. It’s the same kind of irresponsible cruelty that makes it hard to enjoy even a masterpiece like Cannibal Holocaust (though let’s be honest: there are a lot of reasons why it’s hard to “enjoy” Cannibal Holocaust), made even more egregious by the fact that the rest of the movie is truly crazy fun. Just when you’re starting to enjoy yourself, you remember that Prosperi lit some animals on fire just to get a shot and you feel bad all over again.

Though the wall-to-wall animal attacks don’t quite have the same kind of recklessly dangerous realism as, say, Roar, the obvious use of actual large animals in nearly all of the scenes (except for you, polar bear) does give Wild Beasts a sense of genuine menace. Much as I hate to admit it, the scene of the rats burning actually informs all of the other animal attack sequences and makes them feel more dangerous specifically because it tells us that the people making this movie are irresponsible, putting the movie before safety to living things. With that in mind, it’s easy to imagine that the actors are in genuine peril even when they aren’t. Too bad the filmmakers couldn’t come up with a way of creating that feeling without resorting to reckless cruelty.
The human characters in Wild Beasts exist as animal fodder; the closest the movie comes to a protagonist is the zoologist played by Lorraine De Selle (of Cannibal Ferox and House at the Edge of the Park fame), who spends most of the running time trying to reach her adolescent daughter, who, despite being a child, is briefly shown topless the first time we meet her because this is a movie made by a madman.

In addition to Wild Beasts and Mondo Cane, Prosperi directed and co-directed movies like Africa Blood and Guts and Goodbye Uncle Tom, a film devoted to recreating the atrocities committed during the slave trade of the 1800s. The man was no stranger to controversy. Wild Beasts was his final film, so it’s fitting he went out with a bang. A PCP-fueled bang.

But beyond its animal insanity, Wild Beasts has even more surprises in store. After reveling in tooth-and-claw-based atrocities for nearly 90 minutes, the movie stops cold to become an anti-drug PSA on the dangers of barbiturates, feeling more at home in the drug scare films of the ‘50s and ‘60s than it does in a 1984 Italian horror film. Then the movie morphs once more into another well-known subgenre of horror in its final moments (let’s just say the animals aren’t the only ones who drank the tainted water) before shrugging its shoulders altogether. It’s an ending that makes about as much logical sense as the 90 minutes that precede it, because Wild Beasts is the gift that keeps on giving. There have been a lot of killer animal movies, but this one might be the craziest.

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