Dinosaur Drive-In: Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds

When you get right down to it, most dinosaur movies are missing something. "Good special effects" might be one answer, and "a plot" is an even better one, but if "a trippy jazz-disco musical score" was your reply, then 1977's Japanese monster flick Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds may be just what you have been looking for.

Our story picks up, as so many schlock films do, with an eye, apparently belonging to a young woman wandering around the woods of Mt. Fuji. It sounds as if she is being stalked by the British prog-rock band Jethro Tull, but as she tries to flee Ian Anderson and Co. she ends up falling into a cavern in which several giant eggs are kept on ice. Awakened by the disturbance, what I can only assume is one of Baby Huey's siblings begins cracking out of its shell, providing us with another close-up eye shot (the amount of close-up shots of characters looking offscreen so early in the film makes me wonder if the director was a Spielberg admirer).

The young woman survives the ordeal, although she receives little help from the mining crew that finds her—contrary to what this film shows, vigorously jostling a fall victim down the side of a hill is not a good way to see if she has any serious spinal injuries. She soon dies at a hospital, but not before her story pops up on the evening news and catches the attention of the ambitious young geologist Ashizawa. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our hero—a smug, arrogant scientist who abuses women and becomes so preoccupied with his father's idea that dinosaurs could have survived into the present day that he spends the majority of his screen time doing little more than saying "I know my father was right!" I'm sure he and Maston Thrust would get along famously.

Not long after we meet Ashizawa, the film introduces us to our other main protagonist—Akiko. The film's score tells us that Akiko is Ashizawa's love interest, but that is a bit hard to swallow, especially given the scientist's reprehensible treatment of Akiko later in the film. Like Ashizawa, though, Akiko spends much of the film doing the same thing over and over again—in her case, screaming at the top of her lungs whenever the film's titular monsters (which, as we will see, are not actually dinosaurs or birds at all) come into view.

The majority of the film takes place in and around Lake Saiko, which is bordered by the creepy Aokigahara Forest—a place filled with rocky caverns that is, as the film correctly notes, a popular place to commit suicide. There could hardly be a more perfect setting for a scary monster movie, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, Legend of Dinosaurs doesn't really deliver. As the stilted story kicks into gear, people start disappearing around the lake and, in an unfortunate cameo, Black Beauty loses his head and gets stashed in a tree. Ashizawa uses these events to jump to his favored conclusions. Maybe he is meant to be portrayed as a bad scientist, or maybe, since the actor read the script, he knew what was up and felt fine skipping ahead a bit. "Oh look! A plesiosaur track... I mean, a mysterious track made by some unknown critter. I wonder what it could be...."

I have to say this for the film's monsters, though—they have impeccable timing. The first, an immense plesiosaur, shows up just on time to cause trouble at the annual Dragon Festival. My hypothesis is that it was angered by the pop stylings of a Japanese band dressed up in country-western outfits playing on a floating stage—if that was the first thing I heard upon waking up after slumbering peacefully for hundreds of millions of years, I would be pretty mad, too. Apparently the marine reptile was more a fan of lively disco fusion, and it spares little time in dispatching a group of would-be hoaxers to the nauseatingly chaotic soundtrack.

Not content with slinking around the forest and stashing horses in trees anymore, the plesiosaur shifts gears and starts going after people hanging out in and around the lake. Among its victims is Akiko's diving buddy, who practically serves herself up as a plesiosaur hors d'œuvre on a raft. (To tell you the truth, the plesiosaur-about-to-eat-Akiko's-friend-scene—with its own creepy music—goes on for a bit too long, underscoring the hypothesis that many horror film directors have some pretty deep issues with women, issues that need addressing.) When news of the sightings and attacks reach the ears of a visiting American reporter, the whole town goes nuts over Nessie's vacation to Lake Saiko, and a full-scale "scientific" investigation is launched. Frustratingly, the search doesn't lead anywhere, and most everyone gives up out of boredom. A few hold out hope that the monster is still out there, though, and in my favorite line of the entire film, a reporter explains to a local official "if is a dinosaur, it wouldn't be very strange if there was also a pterodactyl here." No, not strange at all...

Ashizawa, of course, is among those who believe that there really is a plesiosaur in the lake, but he goes diving at a very inopportune time—depth charges and divers don't mix well. It's up to Akiko—who is apparently immune to underwater pressure waves caused by the exploding canisters—to save Ashizawa, and the two eventually find their way out to the side of Mt. Fuji through a conveniently-placed cave. Meanwhile, a pair of hikers wandering around the Aokigahara Forest stumble upon—surprise!—an enormous pterosaur, and when the falsely-named "monster bird" drops by the town everyone is thrown into such a tizzy that they literally blow themselves up. Another lesson from the film—when hiding behind the big pile of depth charges, it's best to make sure your gun's safety is on.

With the lakeshore burnt to a crisp, the film returns to the plight of Akiko and Ashizawa on Mt. Fuji. As if the plesiosaur and pterosaur were not bad enough, it turns out that they were just signs that the massive volcano was about to erupt again, trapping the duo between some very hot rocks and the hungry puppets monsters. As the plesioaur and pterosaur squabble in the forest, Ashizawa reminds us of the dictum "Take a picture, it will last longer." His delay on the rumbling volcano means almost certain death for him and Akiko, and with the roll of the end credits nearly every character introduced in the film—reptile and human alike—has died. The movie isn't just bad, but it makes you feel bad, too.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.