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“The Bees”: These mutant super-smart killer bees can talk to humans, but also prey on their flesh!
In the mid-70s, a low-budget horror film about killer bees, imaginatively-titled The Bees — starring John Saxon, John Carradine and the lovely former Playboy Playmate Angel Tompkins — was quickly rushed into production in Mexico City by the film’s U.S. distributor, New World Pictures, in order to cash-in on the presumed future box-office success of Irwin Allen’s big-budget disaster feature The Swarm, which was going to be released in the summer of ’78. Read all about The Bees below, and watch it over on Night Flight Plus.
At the time, during the mid-to-late 70s, Americans were repeatedly told there was a real threat that Africanized honeybee swarms were already making their way across our unprotected southern border after traveling up from Mexico and warmer Central and South American countries.
Entomologists (insect experts) and various public officials tasked with warning Americans of this imminent attack told us that — after mating with the more docile American honeybees, which had made the U.S. their home after first immigrating here from Europe — this new breed of super-sized bee (they’re “Africanized”!) not only had superior pollinating skills and resistance to known bee diseases, but they were also likely to be very aggressive and very defensive about protecting their hives (“…and some, I assume, are good bees.”).
We were told they sometimes chased their victims for distances up to a quarter of a mile, repeatedly stinging them over and over in what were called “swarming events,” and no matter what we did, lots of people were going to fucking die.
Hollywood, of course, loves to make movies about humans being attacked by animals (particularly after the mega-success of Jaws in 1975), especially if they’ve been exposed to chemicals or radiation and have mutated into something otherworldly.
Some of the first nature-runs-amok horror flicks featuring killer bees were black and white b-movies (ha!) like Mysterious Island (1961), and The Deadly Bees (1966), and lets not forget that awesome episode (1964’s “Zzzzz”) of the original “Outer Limits” series when bees turned their queen bee (Joanna Frank) into a seductive human woman named Regina in order to advance their species.
Queen Bee Regina (Joanna Frank) in “The Outer Limits”
Nearly a decade later, there was a pretty good TV movie, The Killer Bees — produced for the ABC network and airing on February 26, 1974 — which starried “Charlie’s Angels”‘s sultry Kate Jackson and grand dame actress Gloria Swanson, who plays Madame Van Bohlen, who ends up having psychic powers over the swarm of killer bees she’s found in her vineyard (with set decoration by Charles B. Pierce!).
This was followed up by another TV movie, Bruce Geller’s Emmy- winning The Savage Bees (1976), and even NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” had a recurring parody sketch called “The Killer Bees,” featuring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd and various guest stars, which was apparently despised by the network but loved by the show’s creator, Lorne Michaels.
In 1974, right at the height of the disaster movie craze, the so-called “Master of Disaster” — director Irwin Allen — announced that he, too, was going to follow up his recent blockbuster hits, 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and 1974’s The Towering Inferno with his own killer bee epic, The Swarm.
The Swarm‘s distributor, Warner Brothers, was so sure they had a massive hit on their hands — the cast was a veritable who’s who of Hollywood legends, including Michael Caine, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray (in his final film role) and Henry Fonda, among many others — that when they learned that another much-smaller film distributor, New World Pictures, had rushed their own killer bee movie into production, and it was likely to appear on screens before theirs, they they actually paid that film distributor to delay their film’s release so it wouldn’t coincide with the theatrical release of The Swarm.
New World’s film, The Bees, was a Mexican-American co-production that was being shot in Mexico, in and around Estudios Churubusco (Churubusco Studios), located in the borough of Coyoacán in central Mexico City.
The film’s producer, Alfredo Zacarías (born Alfredo Héctor Zacarías Bustos, the son of Lebanese-Mexican director Miguel Zacarías), was hoping his own killer bee movie would provide him with success in the United States, thereby enabling him to make bigger budget movies. He even filmed every scene in The Bees twice, in English and Spanish, in order to ensure that the dubbing in either language would match properly.
The Bees was originally to be written and directed by legendary exploitation film director Jack Hill, but the producer and Hill had such bitter disagreements during the film’s production that he was replaced by Zacarías (sometimes spelled Zacharias).
The plot of The Bees concerns the corporate smuggling of deadly Africanized bees into the United States, who are prized because they’re able to produce honey at a faster rate than non-Africanize bees, which will allow the corporation to maximize their profits, but it creates a catastrophe in the process.
Early on, we’re introduced to Dr. Franklin Miller (Claudio Brook) and his sexy wife, Dr. Sandra Miller (she’s also an entomologist, played by blonde b-movie (!) starlet Angel Tompkins, who was also a former Playboy Playmate of the Year ), who are working on a project in Brazil to transform Africanized killer bees into a hybrid variety which are less aggressive.
That’s before a swarm of the bees escape and begin heading north, mutating into a super-smart species who can think like humans but also prey on human flesh.
Meanwhile, in a remote Brazillian village, two locals, who are trying to steal honey, are stung to death by the mutant killer bees, and then the remaining villagers go beserk and start lighting everything on fire in order to kill them, and they subsequently kill Dr. Franklin Miller.
Around the same time, an entomologist in New York, Dr. John Norman, who is apparently also a Kung Fu master in addition to knowing all about bees (played by legendary b-movie (!) actor John Saxon) and Dr. Sigmund “Uncle Ziggy” Hummel (the venerable John Carradine, who adopts a hilariously awful German accent for the role) are also trying to domesticate the new breed of killer bees.
Dr. Hummel — poor old Carradine’s twisted-up hands were showing signs of severe arthritis at the time — has been watching the bees on a closed-circuit TV for so long that he’s learned to speak with them.
Hummel introduces Dr. Norman to his niece, the sad recently-widowed Sandra Miller.
Dr. Hummel: “Hey, zat kiss vas for me! After all, she is my niece!”
Dr. Norman: “That’s adding incest to injury!”
Dr. Norman, meanwhile, comes up with the idea to release a pheremone into the environment which he believes will confuse the male bees and cause them to try to mate with other male bees.
Yes, believe it or not, his proposal suggests the use of a chemical which turns the bees homosexual (“That reminds me of a certain neighborhood I know in L.A.,” says one U.N. delegate later when he’s told their plan).
John Saxon kicks some ass in The Bees
Unfortunately for Saxon’s Dr. Norman, the bees become immune to the pheremone.
In one of the movie’s best scenes, the bees show up at his apartment, where he’s spending time with his new girlfriend, Dr. Sandra Miller (Tompkins) and the bees begin to “speak” to the couple in their buzzy bee language.
Dr. Sandra Miller: “You have to listen! You have to listen to what the bees have to say!”
The lovely Angel Tompkins, from her 1972 Playboy photo shoot
Drs. Norman and Miller are told by the bees that they want humans to stop polluting the environment and they enlist Dr. Norman to deliver their ultimatum to the United Nations.
Dr. Norman: “The Earth is being threatened by mankind, by our destruction of the environment and our pollution of the atmosphere… either we share this world with [the bees] or we vanish as a species.”
The bees, however, burst into the conference room at the U.N. in order to plead their case to the delegates, and Dr. Norman ends up translating into English what he says they’re telling him (“You want us to conduct peace negotiations with BUGS?!” asks one delegate).
Jack Hill (right) directing Spider Baby
Jack Hill — who doesn’t get a screen credit here despite writing the script that Zacarías essentially shot — has said that the bees in his original script didn’t talk to the entomologists.
He also claims that he did the research and came up with the idea of the pheremone which turned the male bees into homosexuals.
As it turned out, when Irwin Allen’s The Swarm was released into U.S. theaters on July 14, 1978, it proved to be such a horrendous box office bomb that it was yanked off theater screens after just two weeks.
A reviewer for The Sunday Times called it “simply the worst film ever made,” while another, Richard Velt in the Wilmington Morning Star, wrote: “The Swarm may not be the worst movie ever made. I’d have to see them all to be sure. It’s certainly as bad as any I’ve seen.”
Four months later, on November 17, 1978, just before Thanksgiving, New World Pictures released The Bees, probably realizing that their low-budget PG-rated film wasn’t going to set the world on fire either, and it didn’t.
Critics savaged this one too, upon its release — we’ve read that Vincent Canby of the New York Times called The Bees a “a warm glass of phlegm posing as a motion picture,” which might be one of the best movie review quotes ever if it’s an actual quote — but we all know that critics don’t always get it right.
Today, The Bees has a much-loved cult following after it was released on VHS by Warner Home Video sometime in the 1980s, with box cover text which reads, in part:
“This tingling thriller mixes humor and horror in its message: that unless our species learns to live in harmony with nature, nature may some day rise up to teach us a lesson. One that will sting.”
More recently the film has been released in 2013 on DVD by our content partner, MVD.
Four years after leaving the project, Jack Hill — who first starting out making both nudist films and a few “nudie cuties,” including a few he made with his UCLA classmate, Francis Ford Coppola, before directing films for American International Pictures under the watchful eye of producer Roger Corman — finally walked away from filmmaking during the production of Sorceress in 1982, which was plagued by both fire and rain and an extremely low budget (Hill took his name off the film, which turned out to be a big hit, and it was the last time he and Corman ever worked together).
The last movie officially directed by Hill — who directed Spider Baby (1964), Pit Stop (1969), The Big Doll House (1971), The Big Bird Cage (1972), Coffy (1973), Foxy Brown (1974), and The Swinging Cheerleaders (1974), among others — was the 1976 film Switchblade Sisters.
Zacarías, meanwhile, went on to direct Demonoid: Messanger of Death (it was also distributed internationally as Macabra), which has a cult following of its own.