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LOS ANGELES (AP) — “No animals were harmed during the making of ‘Roar.’ But 70 members of the cast and crew were.” So claims a trailer for the theatrical re-release of a little-seen 1981 adventure film starring Tippi Hedren, daughter Melanie Griffith and 150 lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and elephants.
Touted as the most dangerous movie ever made, Roar was the ill-fated brainchild of Alfred Hitchcock muse Hedren and her then-husband, Exorcist producer Noel Marshall. Years past schedule and millions over budget, Hollywood eventually lost interest in Roar, and the film was never released in North America.
Now, 34 years later, Drafthouse Films is giving Roar its big-screen due, re-releasing it in six theaters nationwide on Friday, then expanding it to about 50 cities through May. A DVD release is planned for later this summer.
The story loosely follows a wildlife preservationist whose family comes to visit him and is attacked in their home by the animals. Most of the film has the cast running and hiding in fear as they narrowly escape the all too real danger. Dozens of scenes show full grown lions chasing the actors, pawing at their faces and even wrestling them to the ground.
While the exact number of on-set injuries remains a point of contention, the shoot was an OSHA nightmare. Many wounds were well-documented in press coverage at the time and also in Hedren’s 1985 book The Cats of Shambala, referring to her Shambala Preserve north of Los Angeles, where Roar was filmed.
In one instance, Hedren was bitten on the back of the head by a lion. She also suffered fractures and skin grafts after being thrown by an elephant. Then-teenager Melanie Griffith — who quit the project for a time because she didn’t want to come out of it with “half a face,” according to her mother — returned to the set, only to be mauled and clawed by a lion.
Marshall, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, suffered so many bites, including a few that made the final cut, that he was eventually stricken with gangrene. And Dutch cinematographer Jan de Bont, in his first U.S. shoot, required 120 stitches after being scalped by a lion.
“I got bit really bad early on,” said Noel Marshall‘s son, John Marshall, who wore many hats on set in addition to acting in the film. He recalled a harrowing moment when a male lion latched onto his head. It took six men 25 minutes to separate the two. That encounter required 56 stitches.
“It was a very traumatic bite. But I went back two days later,” he said.
Noel Marshall (who died in 2010) was a fearless and unsympathetic leader during the shoot at Shambala, where the family lived. According to his son, the director often refused to call “cut,” even when the actors (mostly family members) cried out for help. He never wanted to lose a take. He also couldn’t show any weakness in front of the animals, his son said.
“Melanie and Tippi would try to gravitate to scenes with me. I would put their lives ahead of mine and they knew that,” said John Marshall, who was basically the only person on set who could stand up to his father.
As one of the few cast members willing to help promote the Roar re-release, John Marshall said he still gets nightmares about the experience.
“Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time. But it was stupid,” he said.
During the production, the Shambala Preserve set, located in rustic Soledad Canyon 50 miles north of Los Angeles, was destroyed by two wild fires and one flood. A few lions escaped during the deluge and local law enforcement had to shoot three of them.
And yet, as authentic as the terror is, Roar‘s flimsy story and cheesy script are sorely lacking. Even Hedren admitted as much after seeing the film at its Australia premiere.
The $17 million film only made $2 million internationally. It was also the death knell for Hedren’s marriage to Noel Marshall.
And Roar‘s problems continue.
Hedren had invited The Associated Press to her Shambala home for an interview about Roar and concerns regarding promotion of the re-release. But she canceled when the Board of Directors of the preserve and her Roar Foundation asked her not to speak publicly about the film.
Through a spokesman, Hedren did tell the AP that promotion for the re-release was filled with “inaccuracies” and that she was “not thrilled.” She added, “There are too many for me to even begin to comment.”
Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the hip, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, uses press quotes like “snuff version of Swiss Family Robinson” in its promos for Roar.
“I think she’s just lately come to not really be so proud of the film anymore,” said Alamo Drafthouse founder and CEO Tim League, who was tipped off to its existence (and harrowing production) by indie director Greg Marcks. He immediately went in search of the rights holder and reached a deal with Olive Films to co-release the film.
League tried to contact Hedren before announcing Drafthouse’s plans to re-release the film but didn’t hear back until after the announcement was made.
“The whole thing is a mess,” said League. “A fascinating and lovable mess.”
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Melvin Van Peebles