For years I knew of the 1981 film Roar only because of its frequent inclusion on lists like “Biggest Bombs of All Time.” I knew the basics: apparently it was some sort of homemade kid-friendly comedy/adventure about a family who lives with a bunch of lions. Since it wasn’t a horror movie (or so I thought), Roar didn’t register all that highly on my list of “Bizarre Cult Movies I Simply Must Track Down.”
Fortunately, there are much wiser movie geeks than myself, and apparently a good number of them work for outfits like Drafthouse Films and Olive Films; that’s who’ll be resurrecting this staggeringly fascinating early-’80s relic for a theatrical run and a DVD release. And to those folks, I can only say this: Thank You.
Although Roar simply must be seen to be believed, I’ll try to give you a small sampling of the madness therein. For example, here’s an image of celebrated cinematographer Jan de Bont, from the set of Roar, his first American film. Notice how the back of his head is all stitched up because he’d recently been attacked by an untrained lion!
Now think about that image while you read this colorful piece about the history of Roar, as written by Drafthouse chief / hardcore movie geek Tim League. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:
“For six years, (lead actress Tippi) Hedren and her daughter—the emerging young actress, Melanie Griffith—along with Marshall and his three sons lived, slept and ate with a growing pride of lions inside their home.”
Yes, you read that right: mom, dad, and three kids lived with dozens of untamed lions for the better part of a decade, just to make a movie.
“The cast and crew endured countless injuries, with over 70 bloody attacks documented. While nobody was killed, there were several close calls, most notably de Bont being scalped by a lion resulting in 220 stitches on his head. Hedren endured a fractured leg and deep scalp wounds. Griffith was mauled by a lion, resulting over 100 stitches and reconstructive surgery.”
How was this even allowed to continue?!?
“The production also endured multiple floods—including one that wiped out the entire set—wildfires, a feline illness that decimated their cat population and non-stop financing woes.”
Sheesh. Now it’s just getting to be depressing. All told, writer / producer / director / lead actor Noel Marshall and his wife / leading lady Tippi Hedren sunk about $17 million and ten years(!) into the production of Roar, and the result was a one-week 1981 release that earned a lot of bad reviews but only about $2 million in box office receipts. It seems like one could write a book about how the hell Roar ever happened (Ms. Hedren actually did; a 1985 book called Cats of Shambala) but as fascinating as the history may be — the film itself is a virtually hypnotic display of absolute wrongness.
There’s no question that Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren loved their animal friends. Roar is absolutely packed with roaming lions, frisky tigers, and demonstrative elephants, but the way in which the actors grapple, wrestle, and frolic with the creatures is nothing short of, well, stupid. One can’t help but think of the horrific documentary Grizzly Man (2005) as Noel Marshall “plays” with five hyperactive young lions (the guy looks like he could be devoured at any second) or when Tippi Hedren allows herself to be tossed around by an energetic elephant. And it’s not just the grown-ups who are tossing themselves into harm’s way; Marshall’s two sons and Hedren’s daughter (the very young Melanie Griffith) are repeatedly batted, bruised, and clawed.
Basically, it’s nice to know that nobody was killed on the set of Roar, because the film itself almost plays like a snuff flick waiting to happen.
The plot? Well… there’s not much to Roar in a narrative sense. (Hey, you try shooting a movie over the course of ten years and see how you fare in the continuity department.) Basically, Hank (Marshall) spends a lot of time hanging around his giant house with a huge pride of lions who knock him over a whole lot, much to the chagrin of his justifiably skittish friend Mativo. But when Hank heads off to meet his estranged wife and their three bored teenagers at the bus station, well, that’s when slightly more stuff starts to happen.
Story thread “A” follows Hank and Mativo as they head one way, and story thread “B” follows Madelaine (Hedren) and the kids as they head the other way, end up at the big house, and spend about 35 minutes running for their lives as a bunch of curious tigers, lions, and leopards lope, leap, and lounge all over the place. There’s also a cursory subplot about a nasty hunter who wants to kill Hank’s cats, but most of Roar feels a lot like six stupidly brave actors, 200 unpredictably wild animals, and a whole bunch of ill-conceived improvisation. (Also keep an eye out for the late, great character actor Zakes Mokae in one scene.)
But what Roar lacks in plot, it more than makes up for in audacity, unpredictability, and full-bore insanity. It’s a surprisingly well-edited piece of foolhardy craziness, to be sure, particularly when Madelaine and the kids finally show up at the house, stumble over about 100 lions, and get stuck in what sure feels like a live-action Looney Tunes short. And there’s simply no denying that for all its bad ideas and aimless storytelling, Roar does feature some legitimately excellent cinematography from the young Mr. de Bont. From basic shots of animals at play to the much more creative photography employed in the elaborate set pieces, Roar may not tell a particularly gripping story, but it’s as beautiful to look at as it is certifiably insane. Which is a lot.
One could ramble on and on about a film that combines good intentions and bad ideas so consistently, so thoroughly, and so entertainingly, but if you have even a passing interest in big cats, big bombs, and a stunning array of big mistakes, you simply have to see Roar. The original tag line stated, “You’ll never see a film like this again,” and while we can all be grateful for that, we can also be glad that the movie lives on, if only in a “HOLY SHIT! I can’t believe what I’m watching!” sort of way.
Roar is being re-released by Drafthouse Films later this year, with a DVD release from Olive Films to follow soon after.