In times of widespread panic, you can always rely on horror movies to take advantage of the hysteria. The 70s, in particular, was an anxious period in American history following events such as — but not limited to — the Manson Family murder trials, Vietnam, Watergate, and the rise of “Satanism.” However, there was also a scare craze that pertained to nature involving Africanized killer bees that allegedly gathered in large swarms to kill humans.
In the end, the reports proved to be exaggerated. While Africanized bees did make their way to America, they never endangered the population. These insects still exist to this day, and they’ve posed no more trouble to society than regular bees throughout the years. Still, back in the 70s, the media was buzzing about the alleged deadly swarms, and horror cinema responded accordingly. The Swarm (1978) is arguably the most popular film to emerge from the trend, but The Savage Bees also deserves your attention.
When: November 22, 1976
Directed by Bruce Geller from a script by Guerdon Trueblood, The Savage Bees is a movie that embodies the sensationalism being perpetuated by the media at the time. A killer swarm of African bees has made its way to America from Brazil, and they descend upon a town where they kill dogs, chickens, and human beings. But they have New Orleans during Mardi Gras season in their sights, and it is up to a sheriff (Ben Johnson), an entomologist (Gretchen Corbett), and a coroner (Michael Parks) to save the day.
The Savage Bees may have been informed by the bee paranoia of the zeitgeist, but a certain Steven Spielberg movie from 1975 about a shark undoubtedly inspired its creation as well. The plot shares a couple of similarities with Jaws — a popular holiday town under threat from a natural menace, scientists and law enforcement teaming up to put a stop to the enemy, etc — but that’s not a bad thing at all. If you’re going to mine any movie for influence, always go with one of the best of all time.
But The Savage Bees is more than a clone of Spielberg’s classic that replaces a shark with an insect swarm. There’s a lot to love in this movie, especially the scenes of bee-centric mayhem. The film contains several aerial and POV shots that, when coupled with the buzzy sound mixing, make for some highly suspenseful sequences. The film doesn’t waste any time getting into the heat of the danger either, as one of the early moments sees a little girl being hunted by the charged up insects. I’m usually all for endangered kids in movies, and the fact this one had me rooting for the child to escape says a lot about its ability to put the viewer in the characters’ footsteps.
Then there are the scenes featuring human beings and vehicles covered in bees, which are flat-out gross and heightened by performances that showcase authentic fear. Real bees were used and some of the actors were required to let the insects buzz around them and crawl all over their bodies. While the bees were controlled by experts to prevent the cast from being injured, most viewers will wince during these parts.
Another thing I love about this movie is the way in which it presents the threat as scientifically plausible. While the so-called science of killer bees proved to be nothing more than a hoax at the time, The Savage Bees is a movie that takes its threat seriously. This element of realism works in the film’s favor too, as bees do exist and their stings have killed plenty of people. I don’t recommend watching this one if you’re allergic to the bastards.
That said, the moments of terror are interspersed with some terrific character moments, some of which are loaded with dry humor and a sense of camaraderie between the heroes. The central characters are each given some personality and good lines to work with, and the performances are strong across the board. It never ceases to amaze me that Parks never became an A-list leading man after this and the countless other movies and TV shows he starred in that flew under the radar. This is yet another example of one of his many amazing turns.
The Savage Bees is simple horror done right, and its commitment to using real bees and presenting their invasion in such a sincere manner reaps big rewards. This is a movie that will give you the heebie jeebies and make you wonder why anyone could subject themselves to this kind of torment. But they went through this for our entertainment, and their efforts paid off with a neat little movie to show for it.