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‘Holy F*cking Sh*t’ Discovery of ‘Roar,’ the Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made

'Holy F*cking Sh*t' Discovery of 'Roar,' the Most Dangerous Movie Ever Made

“We look for ‘holy fucking shit’ movies,” James Shapiro recently explained to Indiewire in the matter-of-fact tone of an archaeologist. In fact, he is an archaeologist of sorts: he’s the Chief Operating Officer of Drafthouse Films, which, among other things, re-releases repertory movies that are, in his words, “lost in time and ripe for rediscovery.” He and the Drafthouse team pluck would-be cult classics (such as “Miami Connection” or “The Visitor”) from the catacombs of cinema’s graveyard, asking themselves, “What can we show in the theaters that is so batshit crazy that it’ll shock, excite and entertain people?'”

This year, the answer to that question had something to do with lions, tigers, scalped cinematographers and Melanie Griffith. While in line at a film festival, Drafthouse Films founder Tim League overheard a conversation about a crazy movie that had never been released stateside. The premise sounded too preposterous to be true. Intrigued, League phoned Shapiro and asked him to get his hands on a copy.

“I watched it with my girlfriend and our three cats, who were as excited about the movie as I was,” said Shapiro. “My first thought was, ‘I cannot believe this movie exists.’ I didn’t even have to finish it. I started emailing [League] and was like, ‘Get everybody to watch it. Now.'”

Roar” is easily one of the most outlandish production stories in movie history. (Its debacles make “Apocalypse Now” and “Fitzcarraldo” look like children’s birthday parties.) For 11 years, producer-director Noel Marshall (“The Exorcist”), his wife, the actress Tippi Hedren (“The Birds”), and their children, including then-fledging actress Melanie Griffith, lived, ate and slept in the company of 150 lions, tigers, cheetahs and jaguars.

“It was totally normal to them in the same way that someone’s got a couple of cats,” said Shapiro. Though “Roar” began as Marshall and Hedren’s effort to raise awareness about the conservation of big cats, it evolved — or, rather, devolved — into a frenzied turf war that pit man against beast. Unlike, say, the set of “Jaws,” the crew was not in cages. “They were holding cameras and boom mics, getting caught up in the action and being attacked,” said Christian Parkes, Drafthouse’s Chief Brand Officer. Because their whims dictated the narrative, the big cats literally share writing and directing credits on the film.

READ MORE: Drafthouse Films Acquires ’80s Cult Classic ‘Roar,’ Plans Theatrical Release

Some of the injuries sustained in the course of production: cinematographer Jan de Bont was scalped, requiring 220 stitches; Griffith was mauled by a lion, which required facial reconstructive surgery; an A.D. narrowly escaped death when a lion missed his jugular by an inch; Hedren, who was also attacked by birds on the set of “The Birds,” endured a fractured leg and multiple scalp wounds; and Marshall himself was wounded so many times that he was hospitalized with gangrene.

“Noel Marshall claimed he willed the gangrene out of his body,” said Parkes. “He was that crazy and that driven.” Ultimately, 70 members of the cast and crew were injured, providing Drafthouse with its brilliant re-release tagline: “No animals were harmed in the making of this movie. 70 members of the cast and crew were.”

That’s just the bodily damage. Two years of production and a dozen horror stories later, financiers pulled out completely, leaving Marshall and Hedren to their own devices. The couple sold virtually everything they owned to put their heads in the lion’s mouth once again, using the remainder of Marshall’s dividends from “The Exorcist,” which he executive produced, to revive production. Naturally, the second half of the production was visited by several of the 10 plagues — two floods, a wildfire and a devastating feline illness ravaged the set. In the end, the film cost $17 million dollars (in 1981 dollars).

“By the time that it got finished, it already smelled like failure to distributors,” said Shapiro. “Roar” was never released in the U.S. It received a one-week international release in 1981, raking in less than $2 million and a plethora of bad reviews. It was deemed “the most expensive home movie ever made.”

Fast forward more than 30 years: John Marshall, one of Noel Marshall’s sons, was trying to sell his father’s one-of-a-kind home movie online when he got a call from Drafthouse. “He was ready for the world to discover this film, like, ‘Finally, someone gets it!'” said Shapiro. “At that point, we were basically willing to do anything to get the rights.” The junior Marshall pointed Drafthouse toward Olive Films, which Shapiro said had bought “Roar” as the afterthought of a larger deal, “not really knowing what it was.” Olive, which specializes in re-releases of studio films on DVD and Blu-ray, was immediately interested in entering a dialogue. The challenge was going to be the revenue split. Because they view their films as passion projects, the Drafthouse team prefers to acquire all of the rights to their releases, thus maintaining control of the revenue stream. “If we’re going to put our souls into a release, we should be benefitting,” said Shapiro. 

Shapiro officially recommended against the deal, citing the rights split as an unsound financial decision. But nothing will stop an impassioned Tim League. “He gets so excited about these movies and falls so in love,” said Shapiro. “It doesn’t always look like the best business decision on paper. But he’s like, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care! I love this movie and we’re going to do it big. Don’t worry, we’ll make a lot of money.'” In an unprecedented move for the company, Drafthouse conceded to the rights split. And so the forgotten movie a family nearly died for was on its way to the canon of cult classics.

As is the strange beauty of specialty re-releases, the very reasons “Roar” initially scared away distributors turned out to be the major hooks for its revival. Take, for example, its absurdly incongruent tone. “Roar” was conceived as a family-friendly film, but the result is a Disney adventure dressed up in a snuff costume. The cheerful score belies the mortal peril that’s writ large on the faces of the family as they deliver canned lines tinged with palpable fear. In one scene, Marshall, channeling Mr. Rogers, says, “Hello, lions!” before diving into a mass of big cats; all the while, it’s unclear whether they’re playing with him or attacking him. The distinction hardly matters; the lions themselves don’t know the difference, and Melanie Griffith’s now-infamous face-mauling scene ends the same either way. “People don’t know whether to laugh or whether to scream,” said Parkes. “In most cases, they end up doing both. That’s pretty awesome.” 

Drafthouse decided to expose “Roar” as the thrilling memento mori it truly is. “In the ’80s, the marketing campaign was, ‘Here’s a family film that’s not appropriate for family viewing,'” said Shapiro. Drafthouse, meanwhile, harnessed the power of hyperbole to promote the film’s deranged, rip-roaring spirit front and center. Amid the barrage of hyperbolic advertisements in our modern world, “Roar” is a rare occasion of veritable mind-boggle. “It actually is the most dangerous movie ever made,” said Shapiro. “This movie just lends itself to hyperbole, because it’s impossible to sit down and watch it and not have your mouth open in complete astonishment.”

Aided by what Shapiro describes as a “holy grail” of marketing materials — the team uncovered items, such as negatives and production photos, from a remote dumpster that hadn’t been touched since 1981— Drafthouse went out to the press. Buzzworthy claims poured in by the second. “It’s like watching a live-action ‘Lion King’ as Mufasa holds a switchblade to your throat,” wrote Matt Barone of Complex. The critical response owed much to the film’s sheer improbability. “We’re living in a time now, 30 years later, where you just can’t do this,” said Shapiro. “You only see this in YouTube videos from Eastern Europe.”

Since its April 15 re-release, “Roar” has played in 100 theaters nationwide (on 19 screens at its widest) and screened to mostly late-night audiences. At a box office total of $102,445, it is now the number one repertory film of 2015. Shapiro referred to the recent success of “Jurassic World,” this year’s top-grossing blockbuster. “It’s no wonder audiences flock to see dinosaurs eating people in 3-D,” he said. “It’s kind of like what ‘Roar’ is, just for real.”

Drafthouse, for its part, has affirmed its identity as the bygone video store clerk who recommends movies that must be seen to be believed. Said Shapiro: “If we go, ‘Hey, this is a movie you’ve never heard of, but it’s insane and you’re going to love it,’ there’s an added level of trust there because we can refer to stuff like ‘Roar.'”

READ MORE: Tim League Reveals ‘Mega-Awesome Distribution Strategies’ at Film Independent Keynote

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ROAR is so cool. I watched it as a child in the 80s or 90s here on german television. But didn’t know the actors were in real danger then XD


For a movie site, you guys really don’t know much about movies at all.


It’s hilarious that you think you found something that nobody has known about. Maybe you might unearth Carnival of Souls next.




"… an A.D. narrowly escaped death when a lion missed his jugular by an inch…"

Way to go, Cat! Great taste in victims…-:)!

Hieronymous Von Pillory

This puts Tippi’s nonsense criticisms and slanders of Hitchcock in context. She’s an actual braindead psycho.

Super Amanda

Great review and fun faux trailer to watch! Thank you and please everyone support an end to exotic cat ownership on the USA. These magnificent creatures belong in the wild or in accredited sanctuaries.


Who can even believe "no animals" were harmed in any other way? This is BS.


Congratulations, NOT A MEDAL FINISHER, you’re a total twat.


Saw this at a member’s-only screening in Columbus, Ohio. It’s certainly one of the most thrilling and unbelievable movie’s that I’ve ever seen. Frighteningly entertaining. I believe Drafthouse said they were aiming to release on DVD and Blu-Ray later this year, although there are a few existing DVD copies floating around (even if they are $92.00 on Amazon.)


Love this statement from the article: Because they view their films as passion projects, the Drafthouse team prefers to acquire all of the rights to their releases, thus maintaining control of the revenue stream.

Ha ha! It’s cool to just want to get paid for your work; not sure why they had to pretend that their passion for film made them want the money.


    “Because they view their films as passion projects, the Drafthouse team prefers to acquire all of the rights to their releases, thus maintaining control of the revenue stream.” Translates loosely to ‘We would like to keep 100% of the money we make off the risk/hard work of other people, but we want you to think we do it for the love of films’ Copywrite monopolists disgust me with this two faced act.


I remember seeing this way back and I even remember buying the Roar mangazine tghat came out at the time.


Damn this sounds cool! I want to see this.

Dennis Harvey

Why is this piece running weeks after the re-release came and went in theaters, not to mention after dozens of articles elsewhere told the same story?


The Conqueror, that was a dangerous movie.


Back in April I saw on article from one of the crew members on Stage 32 about this. Fascinating story!


When will Roar be released on DVD? Does anyone know?

Not a Medal Finisher

Congratulations, you’re only "discovering" this film 2 months after Consequence of Sound did.


    Loved this movie. HATE people where hurt. Had no idea they didn’t handle this better. Just saw it last nite on cable. LOVE the concept not the stupidly.

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