Wild Beasts Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
When PCP gets into the water supply of a city zoo, the drug-crazed beasts – including tigers, lions, cheetahs, hyenas and elephants, as well as seeing-eye dogs and sewer rats – go berserk and rampage through the streets of Rome. (From Severin’s official synopsis)
Despite having only directed (or co-directed) seven movies, Franco Prosperi probably deserves an Academy Lifetime Achievement Award for his creative, fearless, and callous commitment to exploitation filmmaking. Either that or he should’ve been thrown in prison forty years ago. Maybe even both! His career began in 1962, when he and fellow provocateurs Paolo Cavara and Gualtiero Jacopetti made the groundbreaking Mondo Cane (1962), the film that ushered in the ‘Mondo’ shockumentary subgenre. Following that, Jacopetti & Prosperi took more extreme ventures into pseudo-documentary exploitation with Mondo Cane 2 (1963), Africa Addio (aka: Africa Blood and Guts, 1966), and Addio Zio Tom (aka: Goodbye Uncle Tom, 1971). Wild Beasts (Italian: Belve feroci, 1984) was his last film, his most obscure film, and his only non-Mondo film. Though his shockumentaries were often built upon staged events and obvious fiction (especially Goodbye Uncle Tom, which is entirely reenactments), none had followed a through-line narrative structure.
Prosperi’s legacy aside, Wild Beasts is wacky enough on its own merits to spark interest from Italian horror aficionados. The Italians put their mark on the nature-run-amok/natural horror/eco-horror subgenre, despite it being a primarily American B-movie industry. Most were killer shark movies attempting to cash-in on the success of Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), though some changed-up the formula a bit by throwing an alligator or crocodile in place of the shark. The most financially successful was probably Ovidio G. Assonitis’ Tentacles (Italian: Tentacoli, 1977), because it had enough American stars to be confused with a Hollywood production. The most ridiculous was probably Bruno Mattei’s Rats: Night of Terror (Italian: Rats: Notte di terrore, 1983), in which radioactive rodents terrorize bikers in a post-apocalyptic future.
Prosperi maintains a uniquely Italian flavour – thanks in part to appearances from Cannibal Ferox’s (1981) Lorraine De Selle and Nightmare City’s (1980) Ugo Bologna – but Wild Beasts is definitely an extension of the director’s Mondo pedigree. Aside from its already very Mondo-esque travelogue opening titles, the film is anchored mostly on actual animals, rather than chintzy special effects (don’t worry – there are still plenty of those). Like Noel Marshall’s utterly insane Roar (1981), there is a palpable sense of danger to the animal attack footage. The cast is populated with unknowns, whose lack of recognizability makes them feel particularly expendable, and the animal attack sequences are shot and edited with the freneticism of a newsreel. Reportedly, the animals were part of a circus and supervised, but the human control over the situation appears tenuous at best. Prosperi, who is clearly uncomfortable working with actors and plotlines, builds the film’s structure around these unhinged set-pieces – elephants storming an airport, a high-speed car chase with a cheetah, a tiger raid on a stalled subway car, et cetera – lending even more of an off-the-cuff, shockumentary vibe. The side effect is a half-movie worth of laughably tedious, yet entirely earnest character development scenes that wind up being almost as amusing as the manic horror.
Of course, part of the reason these sequences are so frightening is because the filmmakers are capturing the animals at their most furious and frightened. Most movies that are built around animal performances tend to be bad for the creatures themselves – even those made under the watchful eye of the American Humane Society. But the controversy behind forcing critters to ‘act’ for the camera in Hollywood productions pales in comparison to unregulated exploitation market films. And, while basically every country’s independent film market is guilty of animal cruelty, the Italians became notorious for staging real, on-screen animal slaughter for the sake of entertainment. This practice was famously employed for cannibal movies, but had its roots in the Mondos that Prosperi co-directed. It is then not surprising to note that Wild Beasts’ cheerfully trashy fusion of horror and Mondo is hampered by the morally repugnant reality of its animal abuse (the creepy, half-nude introduction of an underage heroine who spends the bulk of the movie in a leotard, is similarly troublesome, for the record). I’d like to warn the wary viewer of horse butchery (the animals are already dead), a short scene where a cat is attacked by rats (the animals appear to be ‘merely’ skirmishing), the same rats being burned alive with flame throwers, and a mortifying sequence in which lions and hyenas attack penned cattle and pigs. The animal-on-human violence, on the other hand, is delightfully gory – on par with the aforementioned cannibal movies, just less focused on mutilated genitalia.
Wild Beasts was released on English-friendly DVD from Camera Obscura in Germany and Another World Entertainment (AWE) in Scandinavia and there was an Italian-only disc from Cecchi Gori Home Video, but no North American or UK options. The best we could do was a VHS tape from Lightning. Severin managed to sort of sneak this Blu-ray debut out between some of its ‘bigger name’ Italian horror titles (they have some very exciting releases on the horizon), making the surprise of its sudden availability a little bit sweeter. As per usual, this 1080p, 1.66:1 transfer is based on scans provided to Severin and I assume all of the remastering was done in-house. The results are a bit disappointing, compared to the company’s best releases, but more or less matches typical Italian B-movie HD transfers. The image is clean and free of obvious compression artifacts. There are signs of DNR, specifically in the softness of some edges and occasional lack of film grain, but these look more like the effects of a less-than-ideal scanning process. In the scan’s defense, cinematographer Guglielmo Mancori used a lot of soft focus and the entire film is very, very dark – itself a side effect of the off-the-cuff filming style. There also aren’t any of the jittery telecine effects seen on lesser Italian-born masters. Color quality is a bit muddy, due again to the general grimness of the movie. Overall, the palette is consistent and warm hues do appear quite vivid.
In keeping with most Italian films from the era, Wild Beasts was shot largely without on-set/location sound and most of the dialogue was dubbed in post. Severin has included both the original English stereo dub, in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and the original Italian mono dub in lossy Dolby Digital 2.0. Besides the compression difference, the two tracks generally match in terms of placement and layering. Unlike the majority of similar exploitation productions, the filmmakers really embraced the stereo format to an almost obnoxious degree. The left and right channels are constantly teeming with natural activity and nonsensical ambient noise. Not content to merely depend on the noises created by the on-screen critters, the filmmakers added a subplot about a blind man that records animal noises, then listens to them for our benefit. Prosperi’s films are known for their great musical soundtracks, as well as their offensive shockumentary material, and Daniele Patucchi’s score is no exception. His smooth jazz melodies and eerie, electronic dissonance sound fantastic, especially on the DTS-HD MA track.
Altered Beasts (15:33, HD) – Director Franco Prosperi talks about failed attempts to shoot the movie in Africa (in part due to the reputation of his Mondo movies), the difficulties of filming with animals in urban areas, ‘stealing’ shots, and his version of the history of PCP/angel dust. He sort of claims that no rats were killed and insists that the other animals went on to live happy lives in zoos and protected parks.
Wild Tony (12:54, HD) – An interview with actor/circus performer Tony DiLeo, who had experience with wild animals in general, but not with the ones specifically used by the production. He expresses regret for the burned rats, claims that the lions didn’t actually eat the cows they were attacking, and asserts admiration for the larger critters that he worked with throughout the film.
Cut After Cut (34:54, HD) – Editor and Mondo movie director Mario Morra discusses his craft, his career as an editor and director, changes in the industry, the controversy of the Mondos, and his work on Wild Beasts.
The Circus is in Town (10:25, HD) – The final retrospective interview features animal wrangler Roberto Tiberti's son Carlo Tiberti, who relates stories of his father’s work and how he and the rest of his family chipped in during the making of Wild Beasts.
House of Wild Beasts (12:42, HD) – A visit to the home of Franco Prosperi that was originally shot as a follow-up to David Gregory’s The Godfathers of Mondo (2003).
The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.