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Roar is like Tiger King if the lions ran wild and mauled the cast

‘The most dangerous movie ever made’ is briefly available to stream again

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roar 1981: lions hound Noel Marshall Photo: Drafthouse Films
Matt Patches is an executive editor at Polygon. He has over 15 years of experience reporting on movies and TV, and reviewing pop culture.

Legendary actress Tippi Hedren and her husband Noel Marshall had the best intentions when they set out to shoot Roar. Imagining the film as an ode to African wildlife, and a case for greater preservation efforts, the couple cast themselves and their three children, including a young Melanie Griffith, in a “ferocious comedy” about a family living among big cats. The idyllic scene implodes when things get a bit … wild.

According to reports, none of the lions, tigers, elephants, or other animals that appear on screen were harmed in the making of the 1981 film. Unfortunately, 70 members of the cast and crew were, including Griffith, who was mauled by a lion badly enough to require reconstructive surgery. With a mission to depict unfettered commingling between man and animal, and a number of the bloody mishaps captured on screen, Roar is a jaw-dropping, heart-pounding oddity, and an obvious follow-up watch to Netflix’s salacious Tiger King documentary. Given Tiger King’s recent popularity, with a long-running berth at the top of Netflix’s top 10 most-viewed list, it’s no surprise that Alamo Drafthouse is re-releasing the film beginning at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday, April 15 on Vimeo. It’s part of the company’s new digital Alamo-At-Home programming series, established to keep the company operating with its theaters closed due to coronavirus.

Drafthouse originally dug up and released Roar in 2015, with founder Tim League calling the film a “Holy F***ing S*** masterpiece.” The backstory is almost as surreal as the making-of tale.

Hedren and Marshall embarked on the project after traveling to Africa for another film shoot and falling in love with lions. They eventually imported and bred big cats at their home in Beverly Hills, until the pride became too large to manage in the confines of Los Angeles. The couple eventually relocated their children and pets to a ranch upstate. The pride grew to nearly 100 lions, many of whom lounged around the house, swimming in a pool with young Melanie.

Hedren and Marshall hired none other than Jan de Bont, the cinematographer who went on to direct Speed and Twister, to shoot Roar on their makeshift nature reserve. The human cast expanded to a number of animal trainers who could navigate the big-cat extras, but the production was never safe by Hollywood standards.

Roar: a lion mauls star Noel Marshall Image: Drafthouse Films

“The first time a lion charges you, you think you are about to die,” Marshall wrote in the original 1981 press notes for the film. “Then you realize he was either bluffing or playing, and you find yourself almost dying of laughter.”

Ha ha ha ha …

On top of the injuries (de Bont ended up with 100 stitches before the end of filming), the film encountered everything from floods to feline illnesses and a general collapse of the budget. Marshall was reportedly mauled so many types over the course of the film (with at least one moment appearing in the movie) that he was eventually hospitalized with gangrene.

The family finished Roar and released it independently overseas, but saw virtually no return on their investment. The film is pure ’70s shtick, with a folksy soundtrack backing lion encounters that, uh, definitely do not look like stunts. But unlike Tiger King, the film and characters exude a clear love of these animals. Fictional versions of Hedren and Marshall stand up for the cats, even as they fight for their own lives. The movie has the spin of a Disney blockbuster. We know, because of the behind-the-scenes terror, that the fear in the actors’ eyes is genuine, but the tone is sweet.

Thanks to Drafthouse, and a zeitgeist more curious than ever about our relationship to immense, majestic, razor-clawed creatures, audiences can once again take in the most ill-conceived passion projects committed to film. Like all Alamo-At-Home releases, Roar will stream for one week on Vimeo before running off toward the sunset, back to cult-movie history.

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