‘Wild Beasts’ is a Italian film from 1984 which is cagily set in ‘a Northern European city’, even though the next shot immediately establishes the location as Frankfurt, here shown as a sleazy place of pollution and drug abuse, a shithole littered with dirty foam, plastic bags and discarded syringes. We’ve been to Frankfurt, by the way, and it is an exceptionally clean, almost sterile place, although our main memory of it is apple based food stuffs and strong beer. In reality, of course, the film was shot mainly in Italy and, apparently, South Africa.
A somewhat late entry into the ‘nature runs amuck’ sub-genre of seventies films that combined ecological concerns with exploitation tropes, i.e. nature takes revenge against the human s who are fucking up the planet, the film soon moves on to a question that has plagued mankind for many years: what would happen if zoo animals were given PCP? Funnily enough, it turns out to not be a particularly good idea although, in the interests of balance, it should be pointed out that the dose had been administered by accident, through the city’s drug tainted water.
When there is a power cut, the creature’s electronic cages spring open, and the hopped up lions and tigers and bears get out and start tearing apart the zoo keepers, and angry elephants smash through the outer wall and start rampaging down the streets and stomping on people’s heads. There’s all sorts of genuinely surreal juxtapositions and assorted fun to be had at first: a cheetah chases a Volkswagen Beetle, a tiger gets onto the tube, a herd of oxen smash up a pinball arcade. In an unforgivable move, however, the film makers make the apes and monkeys sit it out, thereby missing a stupendous opportunity to create the greatest film ever made. But that’s not the only negative.
The film is often quite astonishing in how closely it places actors and animals together, especially the stunt men, who allow themselves to be wrestled to the ground by hyenas and swatted around by lions on a very regular basis. The suspicion that health and safety rules were not strictly adhered to is confirmed almost immediately when lead perm John Aldrich (playing a character called Rupert) puts a huge tiger in a playful headlock and, later, there is a quite terrifying scene in which an angry polar bear closely pursues some children down a corridor, presumably while an ‘animal expert’ had him in the sights of a high calibre rifle.
Unforgivably, there are also a number of sequences in which the animals are clearly in distress and, worst of all, scenes of actual, quantifiable cruelty, including live rats being torched with a flame thrower and big cats being let into a pen with cows and pigs and horses and filmed as they attack and kill their terrified prey. That’s some unnecessary shit any way you slice it, and clearly indicates that there are beasts behind the camera as well as in front of it.
In the end, as it always bloody does, the PCP wears off, and the animals go back to their usual cuddly, compliant selves (Aldrich tickles the blood stained belly of the previously murderous polar bear, and the happy creature rolls around making contented noises). In a stupid twist ending, it is revealed that children have been drinking the Angel Dust laced water, and have gone kill crazy, too. It all gets sorted out, of course, although, this time, a flamethrower is not employed.