Decade of the Animals: Eco-Horror and the Cinematic Lessons of the 1970s

Sean Posey | Society & Culture | Analysis | February 13, 2019

When Michael Myers donned the Captain Kirk mask in the 1978 classic Halloween (yes, that's a mask of William Shatner) he helped change horror movies forever. For most of the next decade and beyond, the horror subgenre of the slasher film dominated drive-ins, multiplexes and video store shelves.

But before Halloween surged at the box office, another now almost forgotten horror genre made waves by combining the environmental anxieties of the era with giant, murderous rabbits, vengeful dogs and bloodthirsty frogs, among other angry critters. The "Nature Strikes Back!" films of the 1970s ran the gamut from schlock masterpieces and haunting classics to the downright unwatchable. However, these films are also part of a time capsule - giving us a glimpse into an era when a building environmental crisis seemed to provoke real soul searching. What were we doing to animals and the natural world? What might they in turn do to us?

In the opening of her seminal 1962 book "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson describes an idealized American town where nature and man are still in balance, at least for a time. Foxes and deer frolic amidst orchards and fields of grain, and a general bucolic feeling pervades. But soon "a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community," Carson writes. In particular, the birds disappeared. "It was a spring without voices."

She was writing about the chemical industry and the destructive effects of pesticides on animals and the environment. "Silent Spring" played a key role in ushering in the environmental movement, which gained strength as the 1960s progressed. But in the film world, in an unplanned coincidence, Alfred Hitchcock answered Carlson's question: "The birds... where had they gone?"

The Birds hit theaters less than a year after "Silent Spring" debuted, and it quickly captured the nation's imagination. The site of something so benign as the common avian viciously turning on man terrified audiences and helped redefine horror. But it wouldn't be until the 1970s that the "eco-horror" film fully blossomed.

The 1972 cult classic Frogs, which ushered in the era's eco-horror films, replaces Hitchcock's birds with an unlikely assortment of reptiles and amphibians - all bent on extracting revenge on a polluting Florida patriarch and his unlikeable family. In the film, Jason Crockett (Ray Milland) is a cranky millionaire intent on wiping out the frog population in and around his private island so that he and his clan can properly celebrate the Fourth of July.

A wildlife photographer named Pickett Smith (Sam Elliott), who is working on a story in the area and encounters the rampant pollution, tries to dissuade him from launching his own private war on the local frog population, to no avail. "I still believe man is master of the world," Crockett tells him.

But the amphibians and reptiles are one step ahead of the game. Guided by the omnipresent frogs, which never seem to directly attack anyone themselves, a bevy of snakes, lizards and even an alligator snapping turtle wreak death and destruction on the dullard cast members. Smith leads a small contingent off the island, where it appears that a mass animal uprising is under way. Crockett refuses to leave and is trapped in his mansion as hordes of frogs - in all of their croaking wrath - descend on him.

Frogs was released the same year DDT - which was applied over Florida for years in a quest to eliminate fresh and saltwater mosquitoes - was banned. The first Earth Day had been held two years previous. "Environmentalism, much like the anti-war subculture, started to influence not only activists and the newfound socially aware, but also the style and consciousness of the new eco-horror films," writes Lee Gambin.

After Frogs, the eco-horror genre gathered steam. Perhaps the most unintentionally funny film to follow was Night of the Lepus, which premiered only months after Frogs. It opens with a news broadcast reminiscent of the TV segments from Night of the Living Dead. But instead of warning of the walking dead, the broadcaster informs the audience of the growing problem of invasive species in Australia and the American Southwest - namely the rabbit. This was a real-life problem, and the issue of invasive species was one of the most readily recognizable environmental topics of the time. Interestingly enough, the broadcaster compares rapidly multiplying rabbits to the human population explosion, a popular intellectual to subjects after Paul R. Ehrlich's 1968 book "The Population Bomb" debuted.

As the film opens, a beleaguered rancher (Rory Calhoun) enlists a group of scientists to help tame a scourge of rabbits in Arizona. They attempt to use an experimental serum in order to scramble the animals' breeding cycle, but one of the scientific team's children switches an injected rabbit she's fond of with one in the control group. When the rabbit makes it back to the wild, it helps breed a group of oversized killer bunnies.

The director used close-ups scenes to depict "giant rabbits" in miniature sets, and in scenes where they attack up close, actors in fuzzy bunny costumes were used. Never again will you hear rabbits referred to being "as big as wolves and just as vicious." And never again will you see a character grimacing in horror as he watches a caravan of adorable but murderous rabbits appear in his rearview mirror. But beneath the bargain-basement special effects is a message about humanity's harmful tampering with ecosystems and the deleterious effects of introducing invasive species.

Oddly enough, despite featuring a fearsome animal munching on unsuspecting bathers, Jaws, released in 1975, isn't much of an eco-horror film. As entertaining and suspenseful as it is, there's a never a concrete reason given for the great white's assault on Amity Island. If anything, Jaws is more about masculinity and the relationships between men than it's about man's relationship with animals and the environment. Nevertheless, it helped spawn numerous '70s films about how tampering with animals and the natural world will bring down nature's wrath, including Piranha (Then... you were shocked by the great white shark - Now... you are at the mercy of 1000 jaws!), Tentacles (It's turning the beach ... into a buffet! ) and Grizzly (Not since JAWS has the terror been like this!).

So many eco-horror films were made in the '70s that sub-genres soon emerged, including films dedicated to deadly domestic animals. Before Cujo became a household word, 1977's The Pack introduced man's best friend as a murderous foe. In the film, a swift tourist trade is part of the backbone of a small fishing island during season, but well-heeled visitors from the city have a bad habit of leaving their recently adopted dogs behind when it's time to return to their regular lives.

The film follows one such canine that's abandoned by a departing family before joining a pack of wild dogs living in a derelict building. When a readily available food supply runs out, the dogs come for the island's human population. The Pack shows that humanity's disregard for animal life doesn't stop at wild fauna.

A group of trapped tourists who are part of the main cast are depicted as either clueless or venal. It's left to a scientist, played by Joe Don Baker, to save the group. However, Baker's character also sympathizes with the attacking animals, and at the film's end, after the main pack has been destroyed, he saves the helpless abandoned dog we've been following throughout the movie from being killed by a vengeful tourist. In The Pack, man's carelessness and disregard for the animal world extends even to a subspecies that's been his companion for at least 14,000 years.

In 1974, F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina of the University of California found that chlorinated fluorocarbon gases, then found in everything from aerosol spray cans to refrigeration units, were seriously damaging the ozone layer, which helps block ultraviolet light from the sun. That environmental emergency was used as the central conceit in the 1977 film Day of the Animals, which incorporated a real-life environmental emergency to a greater degree than most eco-horror films.

The central plot involves a group of hikers ascending a mountain in Northern California just as a mysterious psychosis begins to effect wild animals in the area. The higher the altitude they ascend to, the more animals begin to act strangely, until finally, they attack. What's driving them? The hole in the ozone layer is allowing in ultraviolet radiation that in turn is causing the animals to kill, though in a karmic twist, they only target humans.

The cast consists of an assemblage of telling archetypes: a Navajo Indian who is the first to sense the rift in the natural world, a racist and misogynistic advertising executive (Leslie Nielsen) who himself goes crazy, and a New York socialite (with no love for nature) who berates her put-upon son. In the town below, news reports reveal the connection between the ozone hole and attacking animals. "God sent a plague down on us because we're just a bunch of no-good fellers," one of the yokels exclaims.

Mountain lions, bears, wolves and snakes (left over from Frogs?) proceed to chomp, tear and dismember the hiking expedition and the nearby town as martial law is declared and troops in environmental suits move in. But the animals themselves also soon die and the "shift in the ozone level" normalizes, according to news reports.

The film's pre-credit sequence announces that this is a scenario that "COULD" actually happen. As silly as it is (and as awesome as a shirtless Leslie Nielsen challenging a bear to a wrestling match is), Day of the Animals is an earnest film that's a time capsule from an era when a pending environmental crisis could be counted on to at least inspire some political action. CFCs were ultimately phased out under the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

Probably the best of the many '70s eco-horror movies is the Australian classic The Long Weekend. Focusing on an estranged couple seeking to rekindle their relationship over a weekend getaway to an isolated seashore in the bush, the film is much more of a psychological horror picture where the danger is never fully shown. The screenwriter gradually reveals the deep rifts that have eaten away at the couple's relationship as the tension builds, one that is echoed by the rifts between man and the natural world. As the two fight, litter, spray insecticide and, in the case of the husband, shoot a dugong (a kind of sea cow), animals and the landscape around them begin to grow hostile.

"My premise was that Mother Nature has her own autoimmune system, so when humans start behaving like cancer cells, she attacks," screenwriter Everett De Roche said in a 2012 interview. No one animal (a mutated bear in 1979's The Prophecy or worms in the case of 1976's Squirm) is responsible for the mayhem that ensues.

It's as if the environment itself wants to do away with the couple. In a way that few other films of its kind succeed in doing, The Long Weekend gives the viewer the sense that the ecosystem and all the animals it supports are attempting to strike back against humans.

This is reflected in the atmospheric soundtrack. A long, slow death rattle punctuates parts of the film, almost as if nature itself were crying out in agony and outrage. The Long Weekend is not only one of the best eco-horror films of any age, it's also a grim warning from the end of a decade where the environment, albeit briefly, seemed to take center stage in the cultural and political world.

By the 1980s, eco-horror films were on the wane. Dystopian productions such as the Mad Max series - also classics of Australian cinema, like The Long Weekend - figured strongly in a cinematic decade more concerned with nuclear annihilation and urban collapse than ecological crises. Films such as Escape From New York, Blade Runner,The Running Man, The Quiet Earth and Night of the Comet cashed in on the new trend. In more recent years, The Day After Tomorrow and The Road have been among a spate of films with an even grimmer outlook than the '70s eco-horror genre.

The idea of animals taking revenge against man now seems quaint. Indeed, we are currently going through what scientists call the Sixth extinction or the Holocene extinction. Approximately 20 percent of all species on Earth face extinction - a number that could increase to 50 percent by the end of the century. It wouldn't make much sense to produce a film like Frogs today as amphibian populations have been in decline for the past 20 years, according to Science magazine. A third of amphibian species are currently at risk of extinction with chemical pollution being a large contributor to their plight. Perhaps the Jason Crocketts of the world won in the end?

The eco-horror films of the future might feature poisonous jellyfish, sea snakes and other creatures that could expand their natural ranges as ecosystems change due to global warming. Or perhaps now we've come to realize that man is the most dangerous and terrifying animal of all. Rising seas, desertification, chemical pollution, scorching temperatures and other disasters (e.g. California wildfires) - all linked to manmade climate change - now seem to be nature's way of dealing with us. And that's a reality more horrifying than any screenplay.