There’s an old showbiz adage, often attributed to the great W.C. Fields, which offers the advice to “never work with children or animals.” It’s believed that the reasoning behind this is that children and animals are not only unpredictable, but they also steal any scene in which they appear. In the case of animals, it can go one further; the unpredictability can be downright dangerous, and one only needs to look as far as the 1981 exploitation film Roar for evidence.
Roar is the story of an animal researcher named Hank (The Exorcist producer Noel Marshall) who has put together a sanctuary of sorts in Africa in which he lives alongside dozens of lions, tigers, jaguars, panthers, and cheetahs in an attempt to study how the different types of cats can interact and coexist with each other. His wife Madelaine (Tippi Hedren from The Birds and Marnie), daughter Melanie (Melanie Griffith from Body Double and Cecil B. DeMented), and sons John (Hooper’s John Marshall) and Jerry (Jerry Marshall in his only screen appearance) come from America to visit him, but arrive when he is not at the compound and find themselves face-to-face with a tribe of jungle cats that see the humans as intruders.
To make matters worse, the cats are in the midst of a power struggle, as a troublemaking rogue lion named Togar has decided to challenge the alpha lion, a powerful cat named Robbie, for dominance of the pride. Circumstances are complicated further when members of a wildlife council, determined to kick Hank and his cats off of the land, decide to take matters into their own hands and start hunting the animals. Madelaine and the kids struggle to fend off the cats while they wait for Hank to return and save them.
Roar is the brainchild of Noel Marshall, who not only played the male lead in the movie, but also produced, directed, and wrote the screenplay (with additional writing credit given to Ted Cassidy, better known as Lurch from “The Addams Family”). The film’s production was truly a family affair; married to Tippi Hedren at the time, Marshall basically cast his own wife and their respective children as themselves in the movie, and even used Hedren’s pet lion, Christian, as one of the four-legged stars.
Another of Marshall’s sons, Joel, served as an art director on the production. The film took eleven years to complete from conception to delivery, partially because of the over 150 large felines of several different species that had to be procured from zoos, circuses, and sanctuaries for the shoots. The first observation that a casual horror fan might make about Roar is that it is not a horror movie. Onscreen, Roar runs the gamut from cute animal adventure to slapstick comedy. It only becomes a horror movie when the story behind the production is revealed.
Because the various jungle cats in the film were so unpredictable, Noel Marshall included a title card at the beginning of Roar that shared the writing and directing credits with them. Also because of the volatile nature of the beasts, over seventy members of the cast and crew were injured in some way on the set. Noel Marshall himself was attacked so many times that he contracted gangrene from his wounds, a nasty disease from which he needed years to fully recover.
Melanie Griffith was mauled on the face, nearly losing an eye in an attack that required the young actress to have reconstructive facial surgery. Tippi Hedren was not only bitten on the head by a lion, but the actress also broke her leg when she was thrown off of an elephant. John Marshall needed 56 stitches to close his bite wound, and his brother Jerry was also chomped on the foot.
The attacks were not limited to just the onscreen talent, either; cinematographer Jan de Bont (Cujo, Flatliners) was mauled badly on the head, needing well over a hundred stitches to sew his scalp back together, and assistant director Doron Kauper (Breaker! Breaker!) was almost fatally wounded when a lion bit open his throat. And those are just some of the higher-profile maulings. When a lion attack appears onscreen in Roar, chances are that it was a real attack; the blood in the scenes is actual blood from the actors.
During the opening credits of Roar, the seal of the American Humane Society is shown onscreen along with the declaration that “although some scenes appear to show animals being injured, they were never actually hurt.” However, that may not be entirely true. In 1978, a dam near the movie’s filming location broke and flooded the set, and the rumor is that three of the larger lions, one of which was Robbie, the King lion, were killed.
A year later, a brush fire forced the evacuation of the cast, crew, and animals from the area, and although none of them were killed, several animals were hurt during the process (Noel Marshall was bitten during the melee while saving a cheetah). So, although the cats fared much better than the humans, the production of Roar was dangerous for everyone involved, whether they walked on two legs or four.
Roar has drawn comparisons to other lion movies like Born Free and Napoleon and Samantha, but thanks to the cinematography of Jan de Bont, the film also has a look that is similar to other wilderness horror movies like Grizzly and Prophecy. Much of Roar was filmed during the daylight hours in the same canyons north of Los Angeles where movies like Duel and Apache were also shot. Because of the risk involved, de Bont had his crew film the lions from inside cages whenever he could in order to keep them safe from the dangerous beasts.
He also used a five-camera setup which allowed him and his camera operators to roll film and just let the cats do whatever they wanted to do – which much of the time was nothing, but when the cats did perform, de Bont got the shot from many different angles at once. The inconsistency of the cats coupled with the inherent danger involved with working with wild animals proved challenging, but Jan de Bont and his cameramen were able to capture enough footage of the lions to make Roar an interesting movie.
After the filming of Roar, Tippi Hedren converted part of the filming location into a wildlife preserve and, to this day, still cares for the lions from the movie and their offspring through the Roar Foundation. She also co-wrote a book called “Cats of Shambala” about the production of the movie. She and Noel Marshall divorced shortly after the completion of Roar, but they, and the world, will always have the memories of the most dangerous movie ever made.