Monday, July 10, 2017

"I Know You No Like Devil Bee" - The Bees (1978)

In 1978, taking advantage of rampant headlines about the invasion of Africanized (aka "killer") bees, Alfredo Zacarias directed The Bees, and cinematic history was made.

Some of your universe's critics fail to recognize the brilliance of The Bees, the finest of the killer bee movies. Wizard-8 writes, "most of the movie is boring talk....while it's shorter than the full-length cut of THE SWARM (which runs about 2 1/2 hours!), it feels *longer* due to a sluggish pace." Reviewer insomniac-rod writes, "The f/x are laughable. Poor production values were used for a movie that intended to be a huge hit. We shouldn't accept this kind of crap!" Reviewer callanvass writes, "horrible flick...this has a lame score extremely bad dialog and laughable acting...and more logic lapses then you can think."

I must take issue with callanvass and inform him or her that, in fact, I can think an awful lot of logic lapses, and very few of them appear in The Bees. I disagree with the other reviewers' statements as well. Therefore, I am obligated to describe the brilliance of both the text and the subtext of The Bees.

The film begins with shots of Brazil, over which a narrator explains that African honeybees mated with native South American honeybees to form an aggressive strain of bees that took over all of South America, and that there is no way to control their spread across the entire Western Hemisphere.

As the film proper begins, a man and his son, who both speak English with Mexican accents, prop a ladder against a wall with a sign informing us that the land beyond is a UNESCO scientific project. The man and his son climb over the wall, breaking into the facility and carrying two giant tiki torches. Of course, the man's goal is to steal the honey from the facility so he can feed his large family. "I heard in the village that the Americans keep the best hives in their cage," he says.

Unfortunately, the plan goes awry when the bees are not pacified by the tiki torch smoke. The man and his son run away, leaving the facility open for the bees to easily escape.

Alarmed by the racket outside, Franklin Miller, the facility's director, takes leave of his nightgown-garbed wife Sandy to check on the bees. "Somebody tried to rob the honey," his assistant says. Franklin is frustrated because the would-be thieves let the killer bees loose.

Of course, the break-in has political ramifications as well. The next morning, a mob of torch-bearing villagers breaks into the facility.

Franklin faces them down. "What do you men want here?" he asks, ignoring the fact that more than half of the villagers are women. Without waiting to hear from them he says, "All right, I understand. I know you no like devil bee, but I did not bring devil bee. Devil bees already here, and next year more!"

In what can only be described as a blatantly racist simplified English, Franklin explains that he is working to turn the devil bees into good bees so they can sell the honey for a lot of money in the village.

The mob is pacified until the would-be thief carries his dead son's body into the courtyard. "Devil bees killed my son," the poor father says.

Their mood changing instantly, the mob breaks into the facility and burns everything down. Franklin is killed by the bees but Sandy escapes by hiding in an inexplicably massive freezer room.

At the United Nations, an emergency meeting is held to attempt to deal with the killer bee problem. Dr. John Norman, played by John Saxon pleads for international cooperation. His colleague, a bee communication researcher played by John Carradine, becomes impatient with the discussion and wordlessly breaks a jar full of bees by dropping it on the floor. The diplomats from around the world comically scatter out of the room, chased by the bees.

Elsewhere in New York City, Sandy is returning from Brazil with her suitcases. In her apartment building's elevator, she is assaulted by two seedy-looking men and her makeup case is taken. She escapes the elevator, but the men are trapped with the makeup case, which houses a swarm of killer bees.

The assaulters' screams are as high-pitched and desperate as those of the Brazilians attacked by killer bees.

Upon reaching the lobby, the men run from the elevator. One of them jumps through a glass window to the street.

Still elsewhere in New York City, John Saxon and a woman are in an apartment, embracing and kissing noisily. The apartment door is open, so Sandy simply walks in on them. "Dr. Norman, I presume?"

Sandy fails to inform John Saxon about the assault. She is looking for a place to stay. She has also retrieved her makeup bag from the thieves, which John Saxon places on the couch. While he is helping Sandy in the bedroom, his lady friend opens the case, is stung by a bee, and flees the apartment.

"Will she be all right?" John Saxon asks.

"She'll be dead in a couple minutes," replies Sandy. However, she is speaking about the bee. Mr. Saxon's friend should be fine because she was only stung by one bee.

John Saxon invites Sandy to spend the night in his apartment, after which Sandy can take the queen and drone bees she has smuggled into the country to her previously unmentioned Uncle Ziggy for safe keeping.

In the morning, John Saxon impresses Sandy with his yoga poses.

They are visited by John Carradine's scientist, played by the illustrious Mr. Carradine with a charming German accent. "I vas in ze country," he explains. Mr. Carradine turns out to be Sandy's Uncle Ziggy.

Over breakfast, and after Sandy offers him some salt in his coffee, Uncle Ziggy explains, "Some people from Big Business want to talk to us."

"Big Business?" Mr. Saxon replies, "Why? What do they want?"

"What do you think they want? Money!"

The meeting is quickly set up at a restaurant. The representatives of Big Business want to move quickly to exploit the Africanized bees.

"Are you saying you vant to use these killer bees NOW!" exclaims Uncle Ziggy, shocked. "Just to get more honey?"

Big Business makes it clear they want to use the bees. If the scientists won't play along, there are other ways to get bees into the country. John Saxon, Sandy, and Uncle Ziggy walk out of the meeting, disgusted.

In the next scene, one of the Big Business reps is in Brazil, making a proposition to a honey farmer.

In the very next scene, the same farmer is found dead on a New York-bound airplane that makes an emergency stop in Mexico City. The presence of bees in the belt the man was wearing--the second attempt we have seen to smuggle killer bees from South America into the United States, this one unsuccessful--is given far less attention than airline procedures for calmly making emergency stops.

The film cuts to a beach in the U.S., where bees swarm around the trash and commandeer a woman's bag lunch, which she attempts to eat inside a bathroom. The woman dies immediately, as does a curious jogger outside; the man appears to slap himself to death after encountering another swarm.

Oblivious to the chaos reigning on airplanes and beaches, John Saxon explains his brilliant research program to Sandy. His program involves turning on and off a heat lamp. "As you know, bees orient themselves according to the sun, so east or west, we can have what we want. We can just feed the information into the computer and we're geniuses."

Of course, Sandy is highly impressed by Mr. Saxon's scientific prowess. Their banter ends with Mr. Saxon asking, "Why are you so interested in what's in my genes?"

The chaos spreads through magnificently realized special effects. Clouds of bees appear over the beach and the Southern California mountains, causing spontaneous heart attacks in the onlookers.


Meanwhile, a young girl stumbles upon a cave where millions of bees are swarming and nesting. The girl watches them, unharmed. She appears to have a religious experience seeing such a large amount of insect activity.

Back at the apartment/lab, Sandy makes use of the available video equipment, which appears to have been borrowed from the set of a national newscast, to safely observe the bees under the heat lamp while John Carradine watches the monitor.

The film next offers a comedic vignette in which an elderly cowboy pays foul-mouthed young boys $2 to collect a few bees to sting his legs. The boys use a paper bag to get some bees, unaware of the mass of bees in a nearby tree. Of course, the vignette ends hilariously with a bee attack resulting in at least two deaths.

A newscaster makes a potent political observation: "It is incredible that, despite having the most advanced weapons and the most sophisticated defense systems, the United States seems completely defenseless against this invasion. More news about the bees after this message."

The film has another twist up its cinematic sleeve: a swarm of the killer bees is nesting near a radar dish. The radiation that is apparently emitted constantly from the radar dish is making the bees explode violently out of the aforementioned cave.

However, John Saxon and Sandy (who lost her husband mere days ago) are too preoccupied with the act of kissing that they do not notice the new threat.

It is another mark of the film's cinematic and political brilliance that it cuts from John Saxon and Sandy kissing to President Gerald Ford grand marshaling the Rose Parade in Pasadena. Of course, all those flowers--as well as, apparently, all the Latin American themed parade floats--attract the swarm of killer bees. Chaos reigns as the bees attack the parade, inconveniencing dozens of onlookers.

 In Washington, a government undersecretary of agriculture colludes with the powerful bee industry representatives to kill all the bees. Fortunately, they bring John Saxon in to explain how to succeed, and he presents his plan to, I think, assign a new queen bee to the deadly swarm through the use of some kind of pheromone. Government and industry are fully behind him.

Mr. Saxon makes the three-second drive from Washington to upstate New York to inform Sandy and her Uncle Ziggy that they are going to get everything they want.

The scientists continue their work. John Saxon has discovered that microwave radiation is making the bees configure themselves into new patterns similar to the electronic circuits of a computer: "like the wire printout of a computer," in his words. John Carradine is discovering new patterns in their buzzing and communicative dances. "Zis is ze dance, ze language of ze bees," he says while showing a video. He is working on a way to translate from English into the bee language.

The filmmakers inject a bit of humor into the scene, as Sandy shows up in the video and mimes a kiss toward the camera. "Zat kiss vas for me," Mr. Carradine says to Mr. Saxon. "After all, she is my niece."

Mr. Saxon responds wittily, "That's adding incest to injury."

The U.S. Air Force tests Mr. Saxon's theory by spraying chemicals into the air. (These shots are clearly reminiscent of napalm footage from the Vietnam War.) Success is immediate. St. Louis, Denver, and New Orleans are declared clear of killer bee activity.

Additionally, Uncle Ziggy looks through Sandy's late husband's account books and discovers incriminating transactions between the U.S. Government and South America. Someone was stealing funds from the project.

Meanwhile, Mr. Saxon receives a congratulatory phone call from President Jimmy Carter. (Note: While President Ford appeared as himself, an actor ably plays President Carter from a small, non-oval office.)

The bee threat eliminated at about the one hour mark in the film, Uncle Ziggy brings the matter of the embezzled money to the attention of the undersecretary of agriculture, who agrees to investigate this very serious matter. Uncle Ziggy tells him the only people who know about the crime are himself, Sandy, and John Saxon. As soon as Ziggy leaves the office, the undersecretary picks up his enormous phone. "Hello, this is one of your clients," he says. "I want to take out a contract with some of your people. I want the very best available."

The final act of the film thus becomes a hit man thriller. Two men in suits, presumably the best assassins an international organization can muster, break into Uncle Ziggy's lab and shoot him twice, but a misplaced gunshot breaks open the window between the work area and the bee lab.

John Saxon and Sandy arrive to find a dead gunman and a nearly dead Uncle Ziggy. He tells them the bees know who killed him. "Ze bees. Zey know everything. Zey are...a new species." Then he says, "Zey need your help. You will not fail them?" Then he dies, his last word "Auf wieder..."

The surviving hit man discovers the others in the lab, resulting in a fight scene between the surprisingly capable scientist John Saxon and the hit man. Mr. Saxon finally wins by, perhaps predictably, shoving a box of bees on top of the man's face.

Back in Washington, the bees--who clearly do know everything, including who is responsible for stealing money and taking out contracts on innocent scientists--attack the undersecretary of agriculture from inside his liquor cabinet.

Attacked by bees, the man forgets how to use a doorknob and rolls out the window, falling to the pavement below.

In the politically charged climax to the film, the bees converge on Washington, D.C.

Air Force fighter jets and bombers scramble, bombing the bees and destroying a great deal of property. Paratroopers are dropped into the outskirts of Washington to attack the bees with flame throwers. 

But even the military cannot stop the invasion. The bees take over American city after American city, swarming everywhere, including a baby nursery.

All hope comes down to seven canisters of chemicals that John Saxon puts into an Air Force van for transportation to an air base. Unfortunately, the van's driver makes the mistake of driving over a patch of bees on the road. In the ensuing crash, the chemicals explode.

Not satisfied to cause car crashes, the bees start causing jets and helicopters to crash into the ground.

The humans' only chance is to continue Uncle Ziggy's research on bee language.

In the film's most clever idea, however, we learn that the bees are ahead of the humans in this area of research. They understand English and begin to communicate with John Saxon and Sandy, who take the discovery to the United Nations. Mr. Saxon gives an inspired speech.

"At various times during the long history of the earth, when sudden change threatened the delicate balance of nature, nature always attempted to correct this imbalance by evolving new and higher forms of life which could adapt to the new, threatening circumstances. Forms of life which could not adapt mercilessly were made extinct. Now, as never before in our long history, the earth is being threatened by mankind. Ourselves. By our destruction of the environment and our pollution of the atmosphere. So once again, nature is reacting, this time attempting to defend itself against man's unrestrained tampering. And the chosen instrument of this defense is this new species of killer bee, created by some electronically stimulated genetic mutation."

He goes on to say, "Furthermore, this species has established meaningful and serious communication with my colleague Mrs. Miller and myself."

The ambassador from the U.K. says what everyone is thinking: "Good lord. This chap's gone completely raging bonkers."

"No, sir," replies Mr. Saxon. "They have communicated a warning that unless we stop abusing their environment, that they will eliminate mankind from it completely."

The Secretary General cuts Mr. Saxon off, so Sandy says, "You have to listen! You have to listen to what the bees have to say!"

When Mr. Saxon is forcibly removed from the chamber, Sandy continues: "You fools! You idiots! Now you leave them no choice!"

On cue, the bees smash through the windows and invade the U.N. However, they do not attack. Their buzzing approximates English, but it is impossible to make out what they are saying. Mr. Saxon takes the microphone to address the delegations. He tells them they need to accept the bees' terms. "I know you will accept. There's no other way to survive."

The film ends. The credits roll over footage of bees and a score that would not be out of place if written by Mike Post, on a Stephen J. Cannell TV show from the mid 1980s.

While on its surface The Bees is an entertaining nature-attacks romp in the mold of such classics as The Swarm, The Deadly Bees, and The Savage Bees, behind its shenanigans lies a taut, subversive political manifesto. The film could even be described as an anti-American screed in which the United States and, by extension, the United Nations are brought to their collective knees with poetic justice by bees rising up from the oppressed nations of South America.

One of the filmmakers' cleverest manifestations of their political agenda is naming John Saxon's character John Norman, a reference to the Saxons and the Normans, two peoples who settled and conquered England. Ironically, it is the U.K. ambassador to the U.N. who describes Dr. Norman as "completely raging bonkers."

Another realization of the filmmakers' agenda is John Carradine's German accent, which consists entirely of replacing the sound of the letter W with the sound of the letter V, and the sound of TH with the sound of Z.

As with many of the classics discussed here at Senseless Cinema, it is a pity that no sequel followed the brilliant success of The Bees. It is truly unfortunate that Alfredo Zacarias is the only person on earth who knows what happened after the fateful U.N. showdown in which that august body surrendered to the combined forces of the bees of the world. The mind reels picturing the sequel Mr. Zacarias could have made about the paradise that would exist if the bees became the masters of the earth.