Animal Cruelty in Film (2023)

I have to confess that this is probably the most difficult blog post I’ve ever written. Largely, I think, because I imagined at the outset that I’d find that instances of animal cruelty in film are almost non-existent. However, it seems that the use of animals on film sets and as part of other entertainments are all too often still resulting in casualties. Please be forewarned that this article will contain some links to graphic and potentially distressing material.

Particularly Britain is termed a ‘nation of animal lovers’ and certainly by the amount of money that goes into people’s care for their pets it can be taken as being true. Despite this, it has taken some years to properly legislate the use of animals in circus performances and horse racing remains an attraction for many. This is despite the numerous fatalities caused by racing every year. The site *warning for graphic images at that link* collates lists of horses destroyed on race tracks due to catastrophic injuries. During Cheltenham this year, since March 12th, 9 horses have died.

Of course, animals have been a focus of film and television, in both fiction and documentary projects. Certainly, in the horror genre animals are the basis for monsters, protectors of families and distressed victims depending on the direction of the story. Killing a beloved family pet is usually a cheap shock in horror, used to emphasise the evil of the killer/killers at the centre of the film. In this same trope, particularly dogs are used as potential dangers to the killer who must be neutralised. Animals in horror often display somewhat psychic abilities which aid in alerting their owners to the fact that someone is not safe to be around.

While these tropes are tired and likely to result in hardened horror fans rolling their eyes, some of these depictions can be disturbing. Certainly, offers a user-compiled database of films in which an animal (not just dogs as the title suggests) is injured or dies. This offers potential viewers of a film to filter out those scenes they would rather not see. The vast majority of scenes in which animals are hurt or killed on screen are totally fictional and the product of hard work and trust between animal and trainer, but there still exist some examples of the most dreadful abuse used for entertainment.

Through my research for this, I’ve landed on Umberto Lenzi as one of the most prolific offenders for using unsimulated animal cruelty. His work in the ‘cannibal boom’ of the video nasty era features regular scenes in which animals are engaged in fights, or in which actors enact violent acts upon animals purely for the camera. Sacrifice! and Cannibal Ferox are perhaps the most famous.

Lenzi justified his use of cruelty for the ‘realism’. He was keen to invoke the spirit of the jungle and native tribes as vicious and saw that reflecting the realism of real death and violence was the only way to do this. The video nasty era was punctuated by pearl-clutching Conservatives regarding the content of films in terms of violence, but very little concern over genuine cruelty to animals. This is perhaps a given considering the Tories’ particular brand of bloodlust for foxes.

On Ferox, he argued with actor Giovanni Lambardo Radice over the actor’s refusal to kill a pig. During a complicated set-up for the shot involving a double for Radice, he accidentally delivered a substantial cut to his double’s hand. Radice later suggested that he had avenged the death of the pig. However, it is perhaps performers’ disagreeing with what is to be done, yet still taking part in some way which allows it to happen. The most confusing example of this, for me, is Min-sik Choi in Oldboy, continuing to take part in the consumption of live octopodes despite his religion forbidding it. This again ties in to problems with directors using their power over sets to search for authenticity and encouraging the complicity of cast and crew in this one vision.

Arguably the most famous example of real cruelty being used in film is within Cannibal Holocaust. It is, undoubtedly, a massively important film within the horror genre due to its innovative shooting style and censor-challenging extremes. The extremes within it have inspired modern filmmakers in terms of content and production. However, it is difficult to separate the real horror of that film while still championing its importance. Ruggero Deodato has since expressed regret that the animals had been killed in that way, suggesting that his mentality was different at the time. He has also suggested that his background in the Italian countryside meant that he was regularly confronted with slaughter, in comparison with modern society in which everything arrives pre-packed and is distanced from the idea and practices of slaughter. I’d say he has a point in this and we do certainly live in a society where animal consumption is an everyday occurrence, with little thought given to how it arrived in a supermarket. However, the deliberate staging of animal torture and death is a long way away from the killing of animals for food. The cast and crew maintained that all animals killed had been given to the tribe to eat. There still exist cuts in which all animal cruelty has been cut, which I believe points to the fact that real animal cruelty is a taboo which people would rather avoid, given the choice.

At this point, I’d like to mention Mario Bava, who regrets his use of a real, live bug being pinned in his film A Bay of Blood, without any qualifiers or excuses. Even modern BBFC guidelines would not find a problem in what he did, but the fact that he identified it as wrong and something he regretted has been one genuinely uplifting fact I’ve discovered in the writing of this piece.

Earlier, I referred to the tyranny of some directors in creating authenticity on screen and how in exploitation and horror films, thanks to the content, this results in the physical and emotional abuse of performers. While this is abhorrent and something I’ve already spoken at length about in the Tarantino thinkpiece, there is a crucial difference and that is that at some point, a performer will make a decision to enter a film set: an animal never makes that choice.

There are surprisingly few regulations which prevent the ill-treatment of animals. The BBFC ( lists that they comply with two specific laws considering the treatment of animals. These are The Cinematograph Films (Animals) Act 1937 and The Animal Welfare Act 2006. The first law makes it illegal to ‘show any scene organised or directed for the purposes of the film that involves actual cruelty to animals’. This was introduced largely to outlaw the deliberate tripping of horses in Westerns. The law means that no film can be passed if it contains:

the cruel infliction of pain or terror

the cruel goading of any animal to fury

However, it is made clear within the act that they are concerned with cruelty, rather than killing. Documentary footage from slaughter houses or animals killed swiftly and humanely. I have huge arguments about what constitutes a humane killing in the context of a sentient being for the purposes of entertainment, but that would take me above any half-way reasonable word count. The 2006 act merely prohibits the broadcast of any animal fight. These acts seem woefully ineffective and really make me worry about how many films I’ve seen which have contained genuine animal cruelty.

At least we have the comfort and security of the No Animals Were Harmed message at the close of the credits from the American Humane Association, who are at least watching the big-budget, modern productions to make sure no animals are harmed. Apart from the fact that the AHA has been revealed to be an institution which is full of massive failings and conflicts of interest. This was uncovered by a Hollywood Reporter investigation which showed that accidents involving animals were routinely covered up, downplayed or otherwise went unrecorded. The full article, released in 2013 is here, presented with a warning for graphic descriptions and photographs that people who may be sensitive to that kind of material – Amongst other current scandals permeating the Hollywood bubble, perhaps this deserves more attention.

Throughout this article I’ve drawn attention to films in which animal cruelty is taken as a given and presented alongside human-on-human violence. However, there is one film which has been previously argued for as a vegetarian horror film – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The article here explains it better than I ever could – The fact that Hooper gave up eating meat during filming and Guillermo del Toro is cited as a viewer who gave up meat after viewing means I’m quite content to take it as a vegetarian film and that makes me love it even more. Indeed, it is key in the film that the teenagers take the place of the animals in the business that the family no longer run. The kills all take place in ways which mimic the methods of the slaughter house.

Another animal rights film I’d like to draw attention to is Melanie Light’s short The Herd. A critique of the dairy and beauty industries simultaneously, The Herd is a really brilliant, visceral vegan film. The effects are wonderful and it functions well both as a horror film and as an allegory in a way which films often struggle to balance. The social consciousness extends beyond the film itself due to Light’s committed vegan standpoint and her insistence that the catering on the set was also all vegan. While it is profoundly unlikely that all films will follow in this way, it would be nice and certainly demonstrates that powerful film can be made without any abuses enacted.

There is clearly a need for real change, particularly in terms of how large organisations deal with abuses of power. While the treatment of animals may appear as a small issue in the grand scheme of such abuses, it certainly displays how those in power are able to silence those who either have no option of speaking out, or those who at the very least feel that they cannot. Cruelty-free film-making should be on the rise and supported by both consumers and producers.

Animal Cruelty in Film (1)

Author: ScaredSheepless

Film and television fan, with a particular love for horror.View all posts by ScaredSheepless

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