APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

“The most dangerous film ever made.”–Roar promotional materials

“Never work with children or animals.”–

DIRECTED BY: Noel Marshall

FEATURING: Noel Marshall, , , Kyalo Mativo

PLOT: A family runs a wildlife conservation habitat for lions, tigers, leopards, and various exotic wildlife, struggling to coexist peacefully with the animals while maintaining a funding grant.

Still from Roar (1981)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: Roar is a movie that breaks all the rules, including our standards here. The movie itself, on paper, isn’t weird at all. What’s bizarre is the extraordinary circumstances of its making. With a cast of dozens of untrained and barely-half-tamed big cats, unscripted scenes with actors actually getting attacked and bleeding real blood, and the shocking commitment of the crew beyond all limits of sanity, Roar earns its place next to vérité oddities like Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932). Nobody will be crazy enough to make another movie like this again, so there will always be exactly one Roar.

COMMENTS: Roar is the story of a wildlife refuge for exotic animals, particularly those from the African plains, tended by a family with a heavy “live in harmony with nature” message. If that was all we told you, you might expect this to be a specimen from the mid-1970s slew of mediocre G-rated theater spam of the same ilk, family pictures like The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams or The Adventures of the Wilderness Family (from Sunn Classic Pictures and Pacific International Enterprises, respectively). And that is probably the original intent behind Roar (1981), but then things went… wrong.

As the opening titles proudly remind us, no animals were harmed in the making of this movie. But seventy members of the cast and crew were. This only counts the injuries requiring hospital treatment; Hedren later admitted in interviews that the injury total was closer to a hundred or more. Highlights include cinematographer Jan de Bont (lion attack, 220 stitches to the scalp), Tippi Hedren (elephant attack, fractured leg and head injuries), Noel Marshall ( multiple feline attacks, numerous injuries, hospitalized with blood poisoning and gangrene), and John Marshall (lion attack, 56 stitches). Injuries or not, most of the takes with an attack in them ended up in the final film cut. Understandably, staff turnover was brisk, including one incident where twenty members of the production crew walked off the set all at once. Melanie Griffith also left at one point, telling her mother Hedren “I don’t want to come out of this with half a face.” She had a change of heart and returned to complete her role, whereupon she promptly almost lost half her face (lion attack, 100+ stitches and facial reconstructive surgery).

On paper, the story is a big yawn. Patriarch Hank (Noel Marshall) tends a big cat ranch and wildlife preserve, with his family due to pay a visit. He goes to the airport to pick them up, but in one of those mix-ups we have since avoided by inventing mobile phones, they’ve headed out to the ranch on their own. Wife Madeline (Tippi Hedren), daughter Melanie (Melanie Griffith), and sons John and Jerry (John and Jerry Marshall) turn up at the ranch house and spend most of the movie running away from the big cats. Hank comes back from the airport with friend Mativo (Kyalo Mativo), but their journey is beset by—wait for it—more lions. Eventually there is a reunion at the ranch, a confrontation with poachers, and a sudden shift to a happy ending as the family collapses on the floorboards of a shack only to wake up surrounded by lions, who are now behaving gently, for no apparent reason. Spiritual African music swells to sing about being one with nature.

An easy way to become one with nature is to enter its digestive tract. Throughout the running time of Roar, we cringe in terror as the cast attempts to act while mobbed by half-wild animals. Siegfried & Roy, in their most daring stage acts, never came close to this level of peril (until the attack that ended their careers). The Marshall family take to hiding in closets, in barrels, and behind flimsy doors as the lions half-playfully smash everything in their path. Lions, tigers, and cheetahs (oh my!) chase the humans around and claw, bite, or knock down every human they find. If you took a time machine back to ancient Rome to watch a damnatio ad bestias execution, you would not see a more authentic snuff film. Except that nobody was killed… miraculously.

Besides the savage maulings, Roar packs in a few other interesting scenes. There are impressive motorcycle stunts. Tippi Hedren tries to keep her composure as an elephant flings her from his back. The cast attempts some improv comedy here and there, but mostly just screams and clutches at their bloody, ripped clothing. Noel Marshall is an especially fanatical kind of crazy as Hank. At one point, when visiting grant funding committee members get chewed on and retreat in terror, Hank comes after them, himself bloody, yelling at them for being such… pussies. “Aw what the hell’s wrong with you, all you got’s a few scratches!” Clearly he had more balls than brains, both in and out of character.

Roar is not so much a movie as a documentary about deranged people becoming chew toys while attempting to film a movie. The wildlife gets a partial credit for writing and directing (really!), making it unique enough that it’s worth the Apocrypha slot. It is also the only movie to our knowledge that had an actual safeword (“Noel”), intended to be used when a cast member got in over their head with a lion. So how do we take Roar? You could argue that it’s actually a great horror movie. After all, consider any other scare film you can name: what does it use for gore? Fake corn syrup blood and rubber limbs? Gosh, that’s adorable!

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“‘Roar’ feels like Walt Disney decided to make a snuff version of ‘Swiss Family Robinson.’ It may be the single most irresponsible thing I’ve ever seen as a movie… Perhaps my favorite kind of strange or insane film is the personal passion project, and ‘Roar’ is one of the most remarkable examples… You’ll want witnesses who can back you up when you try to describe the film to people later, because even after seeing it three times, I still can’t believe the damn thing exists.”–Drew McWeeny, Uproxx (2015 re-release)

(This movie was nominated for review by Steve McCallister, who pointed out that Roar “seems like a natural for this list — not only for its bizarre scenes, but also because of its fraught production…. really one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

4 thoughts on “APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ROAR (1981)”

  1. I have shown this film to about a dozen people via DVD and the result is always the same: jaws dropped through the most of the film. Near the top of my personal list of weird films, just for the act of it actually being made.

  2. One thing I enjoy, in a sort of schadenfreude way, about this movie is how it demonstrates the inverse of the “El Mariachi”-type behind-the-scenes story. Like Robert Rodriguez, Noel Marshall pumped all his money and went into considerable debt making this movie, this true passion project that put his soul on celluloid … but unlike “El Mariachi,” “Roar” was terrible and a complete flop.

  3. Tales of Melanie Griffith’s injuries on this movie have been exaggerated over the years… she just needed a few stitches. Plastic surgery wasn’t as impressive back then as it is now. Look at her early 80’s movies… no trace of any damage at all. (Got this info from the cinematographer, who did a Q&A after a screening of Roar in Portland, OR several years ago.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.