The killer bee “nature attack” sub-genre may have been kicked off with the ABC Movie-of-the-Week Killer Bees, starring Gloria Swanson and Kate Jackson, but it was The Savage Bees, airing as NBC Night at the Movie, that really got the ball rolling and its success is probably partly responsible for all the killer ant and spider movies that cropped up on everyone’s television sets during the late 70s.
The popularity of the killer bee movie stemmed from all the talk about the dangers of killer bee swarms heading north towards the United States, this worry was due to the fact that these tiny creatures were an aggressive crossbreed between various European honeybees and the East African lowland honeybee and when this hybrid was introduced to Brazil, in an effort to increase honey production, some twenty-six swarms escaped quarantine and spread throughout South America and up into the United States. Needless to say, this generated a somewhat justified fear and led to this wonderful “nature attack” sub-genre with the film The Savage Bees being one of the best examples.
This particular venture begins like many of its kind with a mystery, and in this case, it is the arrival of a banana boat from Brazil that is surprisingly absent of crew – could this be the work of killer bees or perhaps a sea monster – but the movie proper gets truly underway when local Louisiana Sheriff McKew (Ben Johnson) finds his faithful hound dead in a field, sure that his beloved pet was poisoned by villains he brings the carcass to deputy medical examiner Dr. Jeff DuRand (Michael Parks) for an impromptu autopsy and when the dog’s stomach is revealed to be full of bees Jeff turns to his estranged flame Jeannie Devereaux (Gretchen Corbett), who is an entomologist, and she is able to determine that they are dealing with the African strain of killer bees. Back at the McKew’s parish things are heating up as not only is there a missing little black girl and a local farmer to worry about there is also political fallout to complicate things.
Like many films in this genre, when the protagonists try to get help from government officials they are greeted with skepticism and outright obstruction, in the case of The Savage Bees that comes in the form of Deputy Mayor Pelligrino (James Best) who starts out sounding helpful until he starts to dance the “Washington Sidestep,” wanting to ensure that he is not held accountable for any potential fall out from this bee crisis, and so it becomes perfectly that if they want anything done they’ll have to do it themselves. So, with no backing from the government, it’s up to our small band of plucky heroes, with the aid of South American killer bee expert Dr. Jorge Meuller (Horst Buchholz), to come up with a plan to stop the swarm before more lives are lost. Sadly, things don’t go all that smoothly and the body count does rises, usually due to someone acting like a complete idiot, and the killer bees continue to make themselves an even bigger nuisance until the final showdown at the Superdome, where the bees get a fatal cold shoulder.
• The Brazilian banana boat arriving with a dead crew and its even deadlier cargo could be an homage to the Russian sailing ship The Demeter from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
• In the “Nature Attacks” made-for-television movie Tarantulas: The Deadly Cargo, the eight-legged beasties were unknowingly smuggled aboard a small plane bound for the United States, so I’m not sure why bees here felt the need to travel steerage when they are quite capable of flying to the States on their own.
• This story follows the well-known unwritten movie law that if events of the film take place in and around New Orleans it must be Mardi Gras.
• We get the classic Jaws trope of “We can’t close the beaches, it’s the Fourth of July” with officials here wanting to wait till after Mardi Gras to deal with the killer bee threat.
• I’m assuming that reason we never see the bees attack the Mardi Gras parades had to do with the film’s limited budget.
• The killer bees hate the colours red and black, so they attack Jeannie’s red Volkswagen with unbridled fury, lucky for our heroes nothing else distracted these bees from their trip to death.
The 70s penitent for eco-horror often utilized pollution of some sort of the reason for whatever current creature was posing a threat, like the killer ants from It Happened at Lakewood Manor made deadly by toxic pesticides, but in The Savages Bees these killer swarms are just doing what comes naturally and they are only a threat to North America becomes some idiot thought crossbreeding aggressive killer bees would yield more honey – face it, people, capitalism sucks – and there is no real villain here – other than stupid politicians – as the bees have no real malevolency to them, it’s just there very nature that terrifies us, and what makes The Savage Bees a better entry in the “Nature Attacks” genre than the earlier film Killer Bees is that the bee attacks on display here are quite terrifying, even diving into water will not save you from these persistent killers.
What makes The Savage Bees work is that Guerdon Trueblood’s screenplay is populated by likable and relatable characters and unlike, say in the case of Irwin Allen’s The Swarm, we aren’t rooting for the bees to win. Michael Parks and Gretchen Corbett have great chemistry and Ben Johnson provides a nice stalwart counterpart to our young heroes, and the dialogue between the three has believable moments of humour which gives the trio a good sense of camaraderie, which when you are fighting killer bees is a must, which when you are fighting killer bees is a must. Overall, as a made-for-television movie, this is an above-average effort and with a minimal budget producer/director Bruce Geller was able to pull off a rather effective man vs nature film, making this one well worth tracking down.
The Savage Bees (1976)
Movie Rank - 6.5/10
In the run of killer bee movies, The Savage Bees ranks near the top and much of this has to do with the talented cast Bruce Geller assembled for this made-for-television event, though I’ll admit that James Best as a deputy mayor was an odd choice, and one cannot deny that the few killer bee attacks this film does provide are some of the best and they will really get your skin crawling.