Franco Prosperi is known for his mondo shocumentary work with Mondo Cane and Africa Addio, but he also released one proper fictional feature in 1984 – Wild Beasts, or its Italian equivalent Belve feroci. The film sits primarily in the animals-gone-wild mold of the horror genre, but Prosperi’s screenplay also manages to slip in some environmental themes including the tainting of a city’s water supply with PCP. Wild Beasts is a fun but often problematic venture, with a straightforward plot that allows Prosperi room to experiment with all kinds of large animals during the filming.
Wild Beasts follows zoologist Rupert Berner (John Aldrich, or Tony DiLeo) and his partner Laura (Lorraine De Selle) as they study the odd behavior of animals in the city zoo – only to find out that their tainted water supply has led them to rebel despite their training and close relationship to Berner. Tigers, cheetahs, elephants, and bears flood the city streets, running rampant and even causing an airplane crash. In a rather unrelated chain of events, Laura’s daughter Suzy (Louisa Lloyd) is chased by a bear at her ballet class.
Prosperi’s film is best remembered because of its risky use of large animals, including multiple human-animal interactions. The film’s beasts are not simply editing effects or puppets (for the most part), and instead Prosperi films some truly dangerous situations that involve putting the leads in direct contact with lions, cheetahs, and bears. That stands out in Wild Beasts, making the movie a lot more tense than other nature-attacks horror films where the barrier between human and animal is clear. One stand-out moment occurs during a car/cheetah chase sequence, the cheetah rampaging down a highway after a speeding car that results in many car crashes and an unfortunate explosion.
It’s important to note that Wild Beasts effectively utilizes its animal characters, because the rest of the plot involving humans is rather lackluster. Prosperi’s script is surprisingly sanitized of a clearly defined theme; he flip-flops on the message he’s trying to spread. At first, there’s a focus on the relationships between mothers and their offspring, with both Rupert and Laura noting the viciousness of big cats with their cubs, and then a correlation with Laura’s absence in her daughter Suzy’s life. But from there, Prosperi messily cuts between the two storylines, Suzy’s plight with the bear being nearly unbearable (pun intended) because of how annoying her character can be, at least in the English audio.
The A-plot about nature fighting back and humanity tainting its own vitality isn’t much better. Wild Beasts‘ focus is on action – whether it be big cats stalking prey in a subway, or elephants causing a power outage at an airport – which is good for gore enthusiasts but bad for anyone looking for something more thematically weighty. The film wants to spread its ecological message, but Prosperi doesn’t know the best way to do so. In the end, Prosperi’s most effective themes occur when he uses other people’s quotes about the spread of humanity’s poison, missing an opportunity for government conspiracy in the climax. More interesting is the eventual PCP poisoning of a group of a children, a short vignette that doesn’t have enough time to develop.
Wild Beasts is a mixed bag. It features some admittedly entertaining animal scenes, ones where the audience truly feels the danger of filming these moments. But Prosperi’s penchant for animal abuse – rats set on fire, cows mauled by cats – is difficult to watch, and even if he claims no animals were harmed in the making of the film, it’s pretty clear that some were. That means that Wild Beasts won’t be for everyone, but it doesn’t help that the film fails to successfully unearth thematic material about ecology and human pollution. Prosperi’s only fictional work does contain wild beasts, but it also doesn’t seem to know whether human or animal beasts are worse.