It’s a fairly universal situation: You visit a friend’s place for the first time and notice that he or she owns a giant, human-sized dog. By default, you’re a little uneasy around animals large enough to kill you, but it’s not helping that this beast seems intent on scaling your torso like a rock wall. “Oh, Roscoe’s just being friendly!” your friend assures you. “That’s how he plays. He likes you, see!” Unconvinced, you try to shuffle out of Roscoe’s grip, which only riles the monster-dog further. Soon, someone’s going to the emergency room, and it’s not going to be the hound with your arm clamped in its jaws.
Roar is like that, but it lasts 90 minutes, and it’s all happening to someone else. Noel Marshall’s epically misguided 1981 film, now getting a re-release in theaters filled with fans eager to rediscover this cult curio, begins with the following disclaimer:
“IT IS WITH GREAT PRIDE THAT WE DISPLAY THE SEAL OF THE AMERICAN HUMANE ASSOCIATION. ALTHOUGH SOME SCENES APPEAR TO SHOW ANIMALS BEING INJURED, THEY WERE NEVER ACTUALLY HURT.”
Some scenes in Roar also appear to show humans being injured. They were very much actually hurt. Seventy members of the cast and crew, to be exact, sustained some degree of harm at the hands — er, paws — of Roar’s uncontrollable feline actors. Forget the Oscars; cinematographer Jan de Bont deserves a Congressional Medal of Valor for his commitment to Marshall’s colossal quagmire. A lion practically scalped de Bont while working on set, ripping the skin off of his head to the extent that the man required 220 stitches to keep his dome in one piece. Even as apex predators toyed with their fleshy co-stars like sirloin steaks topped with a little bit of hair, de Bont kept the cameras rolling and captured a rare, surreal experience the likes of which cinema hasn’t seen since. With Roar, filmmaking feels as dangerous and immediate as bomb defusing.
An undeniable sense of fascination courses through Roar, equal parts guilty and morbid. Watching big cats genuinely smack up petrified humans is no laugh in and of itself — with camera assistant Sarah Jones’ death on the set of Midnight Rider still fresh in memory, accidental injury has become a more fraught subject than ever. But Roar keeps the attitude relatively light by firmly establishing that nobody actually died, and better still, repeatedly insisting that everything’s totally fine and the lions are just having a bit of fun and nobody is getting hurt (oh God, the bleeding!).
Noel Marshall conceived Roar as a feature-length salute to his carnivorous, hulking, savannah-dwelling pals. In a massive extended middle finger to the natural order of man and beast, Marshall packed up his family and relocated to southern California’s Shambala Preserve to coexist with an assortment of more than 100 big cats. There, he loosely fictionalized his life, already bordering on insane, to fill out a script saluting the noble lion and the Preserve’s other inhabitants. With a voice like Alan Alda doing a bad impression of Jimmy Stewart, Marshall plays Hank, a vaguely-defined preservationist/natural biologist who’s finally due to reunite with his family at his research facility in the secluded heart of Africa. En route to the lion-infested preserve are wife Madelaine (Marshall’s real-life spouse Tippi Hedren of The Birds fame, who was dealt a broken leg and a nasty case of gangrene during production), daughter Melanie (Marshall’s daughter Melanie Griffith, seven years out from her Working Girls Oscar nomination, who needed facial reconstruction surgery after a run-in with a lion), and sons John and Jerry (the Marshall boys, a concussion apiece). When they arrive at Shambala, Hank’s stepped out to attend to a disturbance in town, leaving his white bread family as easy pickings for the bloodthirsty cats.
The cast members attempt and mostly fail to sustain a brave face while getting batted back and forth like rag dolls. In a standout scene, an elephant curls its trunk around a visibly terrified Hedren and carries her off like its newly-won bride. The unadulterated fear in Hedren’s eyes could never be generated by any actress. It is real. Sharp viewers will notice that her dialogue has also been redubbed; perhaps the mic couldn’t pick up her voice as she flew through the air into the elephant’s grasp, or perhaps it’s because the real Hedren was spewing four-letter words in a fit of panic. Either way, seeing her at the mercy of the elephant, lead lion Togar, or the menagerie of other nightmares sent from the animal kingdom defies mere description. One would hope that regulations have become too stringent to allow a fiasco of Roar-ian proportions to come to pass today. But the baffling, riotous lunacy of Marshall’s untrained pet project has survived, and it’d be a disservice to the cast and crew’s noble sacrifice not to marvel, mouth agape, as the man damn near gets his finger bitten off by a lion.