Before The Tiger King There Was: Roar (1981) - Reviewed

Before I begin with the Drafthouse Films’ restoration and re-release of Noel Marshall’s deathly dangerous labor of love and home movie Roar, I have to quote Roger Ebert’s review of John Waters’ Pink Flamingos:  “How do you review a movie like this?”  To attempt to break this down objectively and analyze it as a film is more difficult than you’d initially think.  Neither a dramatic piece of storytelling nor a documentary, Roar occupies that rare, bizarre island of misfit toys where we’re not sure how to regard the film in question as anything other than a curious object.  

"Damn you, lion. I don't wanna
make out right now!!!"

Unintentionally more in line with Prosperi and Jacopetti’s Mondo Cane than Born Free or The Bear, the Marshalls’ (including Tippi Hedren and a young Melanie Griffith) attempt at showcasing the possibility of humans and wild untrained animals co-habiting together not only serves to further disprove their na├»ve, foolhardy notions but is the cinematic equivalent of listening to a Wesley Willis record.  In other words, few films broadcast with a megaphone the sheer unbridled insanity of its chief creator, Noel Marshall.  What was meant to be a family film is instead a nerve wracking insight into a crazy person who attempted something most of the Jackass team would turn down!

Coming off the success of producing William Friedkin’s The Exorcist, Noel Marshall garnered enough financial clout to throw at whatever he wanted, which quickly turned into raising lion cubs to adulthood and living with them at home.  Eventually ballooning into a thinly veiled idea of a wildlife preservation film, Roar seemed like the kind of home movie that was as misguided, unplanned and unprofessional of an endeavor only Hollywood types as out of touch with reality as the Marshalls could have made.  Enlisting his own family as the cast, cinematographer Jan De Bont (director of Speed and Twister), a professional Hollywood crew and over 110 wild animals including but not limited to elephants, lions and tigers, thus began what has gone down in Hollywood history as the most dangerous film ever made. 

Over 70 members of the cast and crew suffered major injuries, including scalp injuries to De Bont and Melanie Griffith.  What’s more, most of the maulings happen right in front of the camera in scene after scene, with the bearded, maniacal Marshall running wildly with open arms to break up lion fights and wrestle with animals who have no problem taking his head in their jaws over and over.  The chaos and terror on the set of this thing is palpable with actors running away in fear for their lives as they’re chased, jumped, bitten and scratched by these animals.  While an argument can be made as to who was more irresponsibly insane, Noel Marshall or the late Timothy Treadwell of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, the sheer number of injuries involved on the set of Roar speaks volumes.  Watching Roar, it’s kind of amazing to see just how far Marshall got with dragging his family and numerous professionals into an obviously life threatening situation.  Reportedly one of the sons, John, attested Noel wouldn’t yell cut even as his family cried out in terror as they were being savaged by lions.       

At the end of the day, does Roar work as a film?  Not really, no.  There’s not really a story or a script to speak of here, just a bunch of footage of animal attacks on humans shot in widescreen and hastily edited together into something vaguely resembling a film.  It’s not an informative Discovery Channel documentary that will enrich your knowledge of wild animals.  But in terms of the sheer shock and awe on display of a group of people in Hollywood who thought they were above natural order and could live happily with dangerous animals, Roar will more than exceed your expectations in terms of how it will floor you with its exploitation.  

You really just cannot believe what you’re seeing as four lions bite and claw at Marshall while also playing tug of war with a bandage he’s desperately trying to wrap around his hand dripping with fresh blood.  If you thought the antics of people like Treadwell or Steve Irwin were jaw dropping with how close to death they placed themselves, you either forgot about Roar or never knew of it.  Nothing like Roar has ever happened before and hopefully nothing like it will happen again.  It is, without a doubt, the most deeply insane film I have ever laid eyes on.

-Andrew Kotwicki