Born in the “nature gone amuck” wake left by the blockbuster JAWS (1975), SAVAGE HARVEST tells the story of an American family – Derek, his wife Maggie and her kids from an earlier marriage – living in Kenya, Africa during a five-year drought that is driving the animals mad. Soon the poor family is being terrorized by a pride of vicious lions (who only kill the help, of course) that surrounds and traps them in their house. Casey, a safari guide and Maggie’s ex-husband, must use his smarts to save his family and this involves turning their cherished Mercedes Benz into a moving cage that can escort them safely away from this NIGHT OF THE LIVING LIONS scenario. Ah, white folk problems circa the early 80s. Here's a clip to give you a taste:
SAVAGE HARVEST was a relatively medium-sized film with a budget quoted as being $5.2 million. Filming took place in the summer of 1980, mostly in Brazil and two weeks in Kenya, where the locals were apparently angered that all of the animals were imported from The Gentle Jungle based in Colton, California. Director Robert L. Collins was a TV veteran and this was only his second theatrical feature. (Curiously, his theatrical feature previous to this one was WALK PROUD , a Latino gang flick headlined by Robby Benson (!). The film is also M.I.A. on home video and we’ll get to it one day.) The script was by Collins and Robert Blees, another TV vet; based on a story by Ken Noyle and Ralph Helfer, a renowned animal trainer in Hollywood going back to the 1950s and owner of the aforementioned Gentle Jungle. The film benefitted from the casting of the hot-off-of-ALIEN Tom Skerritt as the hero guide and the bizarre casting of Michelle Philips from The Mamas and The Papas as his wife (according to reports, Melinda Dillon was originally cast in the role). Of course, the real stars were the lions trained to menace our leads:
The film aimed for box office bucks with a “this could happen to you” tagline that cried “based on a true incident” on the posters. While locating a story about a white American family that escapes some wild beasts by fortifying their Mercedes Benz proved rather hard, an educated stab in the dark is that the story may come from the infamous (and reportedly faked) “tourist eaten by lions while his family watches” footage originally found in the Italian Mondo documentary ULTIME GRIDA DALLA SAVANA (aka SAVAGE MAN, SAVAGE BEAST; 1975).
|Two films about man-eaters!|
Alas, the film did poorly when it debuted in New York and Los Angeles in late May 1981. Variety reported that it opened on 6 screens in L.A. and did an abysmal $4,000 take at those theaters its first weekend. Reviews were just as middling as well, with one review praising the work by the lions more than the leads. Variety offering this gem: “Skerritt has the good sense to mumble most of his banal lines.” (According to this IMDb post, Skerritt was at the Lincoln Center for a screening of ALIEN in 2010 and when someone brought up the film in the Q&A session afterward, he initially didn’t remember it and then said, “Oh…God.”)
Pittsburgh Press, June 6, 1980:
Box Office review, July 1980:
The film was quickly off screens and hit heavy rotation on HBO the following year. What it never hit was domestic home video, which is surprising given the number of crazed animal films that did get released. One possible theory for its non-release is the soundtrack. One scene has Skerritt trying to calm his kids down and they sing two songs by The Beatles. Perhaps music rights issues are holding it up a release here? It has appeared on VHS in places like the UK and Japan and in 2010 it had a rare airing on MGMHD. Yet to this day it is still M.I.A. on U.S. home video.