Roar (1981)

The thrill people get from riding roller coasters is different from being hurled over a cliff and plummeting to your own death. Roller coasters contain dips, curves, and loops designed to scare and excite us, but they’re also made with people’s safety in mind. Most people who ride roller coasters are no worse for wear by the end of the ride. People ride roller coasters every day because they are thrilling, yet safe.

Movies are a lot like roller coasters. We jump at horror movies and bite our fingernails when the hero faces certain death, but deep down we know that it’s just a movie. The heroes and villains we watch on screen are actors following a script. The ditsy blonde who gets hacked to pieces in the first act in reality goes home at the end of the day, because she’s an actor, and what happens in movies isn’t real.

That brings us to Roar, the equivalent of placing a bunch of actors inside a mine cart and shoving them over the side of a cliff just to see what happens. Except in this film, it’s not the side of a cliff the actors are facing; it’s 150 wild lions, tigers, and jaguars (oh my).

Roar was written and directed by Noel Marshall, who also portrays the film’s protagonist, Hank. Noel’s then-wife Tippi Hedren is Madelaine, Hank’s wife, and the couple’s three real-life children (John Marshall, Jerry Marshall, and Melanie Griffith) play the couple’s three children. Noel Marshall produced The Exorcist and Tippi Hedren starred in Hitchcock’s The Birds, and Roar is more terrifying than either of those films.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Hank’s African wildlife refuge. Hank has acquired over a hundred wild lions, all of which roam freely both on his property and in his home. People seeing Roar for the first time must have wondered how the actors were able to safely walk among wild lions — and the answer is, it wasn’t that safe. Our first hint of this comes 10 minutes into the film. As Hank is discussing the different lions, one leaps from off screen and hits him the chest, knocking him to the ground. As the actor he was talking to wisely exits stage right, half a dozen lions pile on top of Hank as Noel Marshall shouts “they’re just playing!” It is unclear who he is trying to convince — us, himself, or the lions.

Pretty soon the local officials arrive and inform Hank that his sanctuary is unsafe. We, as viewers, already know this. As Hank counters with how safe it is, lions arrive and attack everybody.

Everyone flees, just in time for Hank’s wife and kids to arrive on a surprise visit. For 20 minutes, the actors run from room to room and hide as wild lions, now covered in blood, attempt to eat them. One of the sons hides in a refrigerator. Another hides in a metal locker, which the lions knock over. The girls hide inside a wooden bookcase, which the lions knock over and destroy. The look of horror on these peoples’ faces is real. There is no doubt that these lions would have killed anyone they could have.

According to IMDB’s trivia section, during the making of Roar, cinematographer Jan de Bont was “mauled and scalped by a lion,” requiring 120 stitches to sew his scalp back on. Assistant director Doron Kauper was bitten on the throat and jaw and almost lost an ear. Jerry Marshall was bitten on the foot; John Marshall was bitten on the head, requiring 56 stitches. Tippi Hedren fractured her leg after being thrown from an elephant, and needed 38 stitches after being bitten by a lioness. Melanie Griffith was mauled, received 50 stitches and plastic surgery, and almost lost an eye. Noel Marshall was injured so many times by the lions that he contracted gangrene.

Yes, lions love to play. And when Hank flees the cabin on his motorcycle in search of help, the lions are still playing. First they play “chase the guy on the motorcycle” and then they play “eat the motorcycle.”

Some other stuff happens. The government people kill some of the lions, some of the lions kill some of the other lions, and all of the lions try to eat all of the actors.

And while all the actors (somehow) lived through the making of this movie, all the animals did not. There was both a fire and a flood on the set. During the chaos, local sheriffs arrived and shot three of the lions, including Robbie, the main lion in the film.

All of this behind-the-scenes knowledge makes watching Roar absolutely terrifying. It’s difficult to watch knowing that most of the blood that appears on screen is real. When the actors are hunkered down trying not to be seen by the lions, it’s difficult not to be afraid for them. It’s almost impossible to watch this film, and, once it starts, it’s almost impossible to look away.

Shortly after the release of this film, Tippi Hedren was quoted as saying there will never be a Roar 2. I think I speak for Tippi, everyone else involved with the making of this film, everyone who watched the film, and the lions themselves when I say that’s a pretty good idea.

Comments are closed.