The Savage Bees (1976)

Starring Ben Johnson, Michael Parks, Gretchen Corbett, and Horst Buchholz
Written by Guerdon Trueblood
Directed by Bruce Geller

"A swarm of death is on the loose - and its heading for New Orleans!"

By 1976, the big-budget disaster-movie trend of the seventies must have run its course, with obvious concepts finding realization in titles such as "The Towering Inferno", "The Poseidon Adventure", and "Earthquake". With all the good ideas already taken, and only the modest budget available for a made-for-TV movie like this, along with, I guess, a desire to spend the two months or so of production time in New Orleans, the backers of "The Savage Bees" came up with a somewhat-fresh "high concept" - killer bees and Mardi Gras! If the threat is just a bunch of deadly insects, you don't have to budget for any cheesy scale models or costly explosions. And if the setting is New Orleans during Mardi Gras, you can use your second unit to film the parades and revelers as they happen, then later call out the locals to costume up again as extras for the primary filming.

When a seemingly-abandoned banana boat from Brazil is struck by a large cargo ship, the lack of a crew onboard is a complete mystery. Ben Johnson leads the cast as Sheriff McKew of some unnamed parish outside of New Orleans. (Johnson was great as Sam the Lion in "The Last Picture" show - did that movie curse certain cast and crew members to make crappy New Orleans movies later in their career? Check out who the director was on "A Saintly Switch" for further evidence of this hypothesis). Sheriff McKew discovers that his dog has died under mysterious circumstances: he suspects poisoning and brings the dog all the way into New Orleans to be checked out by the parish coroner. 

"I'm going to New Orleans" he tells his wife.
"During Mardi Gras?" she replies.

Yes, its Fat Tuesday, and so a junior research pathologist, Jeff Durand (Michael Parks), is stuck working at the coroner's office. He pulls a bee stinger out of the dog's many wounds and discovers "dozens" of dead bees in the dog's stomach. Luckily, his former girlfriend Jeannie Devereaux (Gretchen Corbett) is a post-graduate fellow at Tulane in entomology and she supplies the necessary exposition about the fear, now apparently realized, of Africanized bees making it to North America.

All the standard elements of disaster movies are checked off as the story progresses. We have indifferent bureaucrats ("Warn the city? On Mardi Gras?"), tragic early victims that foretell the threat to come (why the little girl was going to choir practice on Fat Tuesday is never really clear), and a vaunted "expert" who is flown in on short notice but who, though he swears he has a scientific solution that will prevent the disaster, succumbs to the bees while trying to swap out the "Killer Queen" with a tame, domestic one who would then breed civility into all future generations of the immigrant bees.

Thus its left up to Jeff and Sheriff McKew to save the day - the next day, Ash Wednesday, actually - with the help of the third act's special guest star, the Superdome. Because bees "become immobile" at forty-five degrees and because they would avoid the immediate cold of a refrigerated warehouse, when they attack Jeannie's VW Bug, McKew has the brainstorm of having her drive into the Superdome, closing the gate, and lowering the ambient air temperature from sixty-one to forty-five degrees faster than the laws of physics and modern HVAC allow. And because the bees were clogging her air intake and Jeff had to push her car in with the police cruiser, when the bees eventually become comatose and fall to the ground, they have an emotional embrace on the fifty yard line. But as the camera pulls back to the upper-tier bleachers, we see one intrepid bee on a seatback still moving, thus paving the way for a possible sequel, which was realized under the creative title, "Revenge of the Savage Bees" (but apparently more widely known as "Terror Out of the Sky").

Because bees and their wranglers make less than SAG minium, "The Savage Bees" was only one of several "killer bees" movies that make up a sub-genre of disaster/"killer creature" flicks, starting with 1967's "The Deadly Bees", and on up through "The Savage Bees" and its sequel as well as two theatrical releases also from 1978: "The Swarm" and - thesaurus be damned! - "The Bees". (And, more recently, an encouraging sign of the resurgence of this sub-genre complete with state-of-the art digital effects may be found in 2005's "Swarmed".) 

Having the impending bee invasion threaten Mardi Gras and filming the whole movie on location makes New Orleans an inimical part of the movie. Why it would be over twenty years later before anyone else thought of having another type of impending disaster threaten Mardi Gras is a travesty and damning testament to the lack of creativity that plagues the production of cheesy B-movies everyone: 2000's "On Hostile Ground" matches "The Savage Bees" just about plot-point by plot-point, but in that made-for-TV movie it is a heroic "damn your bureaucratic regulations" geologist who must overcome indifferent city officials to save Mardi Gras from impending giant.... sinkholes. Really. Its on cable every so often. But it was filmed entirely in Canada, so you can't even enjoy playing "name that location" like you can with "The Savage Bees".

Availability: its sequel has been released on DVD, but "The Savage Bees" has not. But it apparently enjoyed a pretty healthy life on VHS and copies can sometimes be found through the usual on-line collector's resources.