Directed By: Bruce Geller
Starring: Ben Johnson, Michael Parks, Paul Hecht
Trivia: The bees in this movie were real, and still had their stingers. They were kept under control with the help of both smoke and highly attractive synthetic bee pheromones
Man, this movie scared the shit out of me when I was a kid! I must have been 6 or 7 when I first saw it on TV, and I was convinced those bees were on their way north, and were coming straight for me. Watching The Savage Bees proved to be a fairly traumatic experience, and it definitely contributed to a fear of bees that plagued me for at least a decade.
Arriving in the U.S. by way of a Brazilian freighter, a swarm of African killer bees descends on the New Orleans area just in time to disrupt Mardi Gras. The first sign of trouble occurs 20 miles away, where Sheriff Donald McKew (Ben Johnson) finds his beloved dog dead. Assuming it was poisoned, he drives the carcass into New Orleans so that tests can be run on it. Following an autopsy performed by Assistant Medical Director Jeff DuRand (Michael Parks), it’s determined the dog was killed not by poison, but by bees (dozens are found in the poor thing’s stomach). With the help of Entomology expert Jeannie Devereaux (Gretchen Corbett), Jeff learns that the bees originated in South Africa, and are a particularly violent species of insect. While Sheriff McKew is dealing with more attacks in his small town, Jeff and Jeannie are trying to convince the authorities in New Orleans that the annual Mardi Gras parade should be cancelled. Through it all, the bees continue to attack, leaving a number of dead bodies in their wake.
Considering it had been about 38 years since I last saw The Savage Bees, I was surprised how much of it I remembered. In one scene, a young girl is walking through a field, only to be attacked by a swarm of bees (it’s a well-shot sequence, too, with director Bruce Geller giving us a “bees-eye” view of the action, starting high above the field and descending quickly towards the unsuspecting victim). A later attack, involving a young couple in costume on their way to Mardi Gras, also stuck with me (the guy was dressed as a pirate, and was swinging his sword wildly to prevent the bees from stinging him. Even when I was a kid, I knew this wasn’t the best way to stop a swarm of bees), and I never forgot the final sequence, which takes place in the Louisiana Superdome. I’m no longer afraid of bees, but watching these scenes again still made me a little uneasy.
As made-for-TV movies go, The Savage Bees has its moments, but it has its weaknesses as well. Chief among them is the wooden performance of Ben Johnson, a usually dependable actor who, only a few short years before making this film, won an Academy Award for his turn in Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. Having seen him in that movie, as well as Dillinger, The Town That Dreaded Sundown, and, of course, Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, I knew he favored a more laid-back approach (you could never accuse him of over-acting), but as the sheriff caught in the middle of a dangerous situation, Johnson is positively lifeless. In the end, though, it doesn’t detract from the film’s effectiveness. With a fair number of vicious bee attacks, shown in surprisingly graphic detail, The Savage Bees may just burn itself into your memory the same way it did mine.