Friday, September 30, 2011

How an Abandoned Zoo Made it to the Silver Screen

- A desolate, dystopian looking Silverdome in Pontiac, MI as seen in the trailer for "Real Steel."

On October 7, "Real Steel" will hit theaters. Set in the "near future," the film stars that guy who played "Wolverine" in X-Men as a former boxer who now plays major league Rock'em Sock'em Robots in Detroit. That's what I gathered from the trailer and Wikipedia anyways. Here's a more accurate synopsis:
"Robots have replaced humans in boxing. Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) loses a chance to become a boxing champion when robots take over, and he becomes a small-time promoter. When he has difficulty making a living, he reluctantly teams up with his son Max (Dakota Goyo) to build a robot that can contend for the championship."

- The Detroit People Mover at least gets some new trains in the "near future."

If you ask me (and let's be honest, you didn't, but you're reading this anyways), the premise of the movie sounds awful and the trailer makes it seem every bit as cliche, dull and predictable as the plot description does. I couldn't have cared less, until I caught a glimpse of the trailer the other night while watching It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Filmed on location in Detroit, Michigan, the film features many Motor City landmarks including one that not many people know about or get to see these days. Check out the trailer here.

- Detroit's Cobo Arena as seen in the trailer for "Real Steel." The place where Nancy Kerrigan got attacked is now a robot fight club.

The trailer screams Detroit. From views of the Silverdome (where 93,000 people once watched Hulk Hogan defeat Andre the Giant) to that of the Renaissance Center and the People Mover to the Eminem track that plays as the background music. In it, there's a place that many viewers will see, but few will recognize - The abandoned Belle Island Children's Zoo aka Safariland.

You get your first glimpse of it when you see "Wolverine," his kid and their robot walking out to a fight:


They then apparently meet this guy who starts the matches by ringing the bell and wishing he wasn't 26 years too late to audition for Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome:


Two robots square off. Remember, the premise of this movie is that no one cares anymore about human boxing. It's all about robot boxing. Yes, robots. Yes, this is a real movie:


Wolverine and his kid watch as their robot fights another robot. Lots of people watch from the catwalks and under the thatched roof of a nearby building:


A wide shot gives a better view of the whole scene and when I saw that brief glimpse, I knew what the place was:


I had been there two years ago - The Belle Isle Children's Zoo.


Belle Isle is a 982 acre park in the Detroit River just across from downtown. The Detroit Zoo opened there in 1910, but moved to a bigger location in 1956 (the same year that Richard Matheson wrote a short story called "steel," which "Real Steel" is based off of). The Belle Isle location was left as a small Children's Zoo and in 1980 was renovated and re-branded as "Safariland," which is when it received the thatched roofs and catwalk structures seen above. By 2002, financial difficulties forced the zoo's closure. In 2004 a local bond issue was passed to fund its reopening. Instead, then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick used the money to build a new zoo literally right next door. His good friend got the contract, the new zoo only displays deer. Kilpatrick eventually resigned before becoming a convicted felon for a number of scandals and the Belle Isle Zoo remained abandoned.


Above: Robots fight in the trailer for "Real Steel"
Below: The same area seen a few years earlier.


Back in 2009, some friends and I made a trip to Detroit. Seicer, Dr. Venkman and myself met up with our pal Al Duce, who runs; a guide to Detroit's abandoned ruins. The zoo was the last place we visited on our two day tour of the abandoned Motor City. Belle Isle is a beautiful park. Despite the abandoned zoo, aquarium, golf course and yacht club, the park is crowded with people on summer days (Belle Isle at night is another subject though). The day we arrived, the park was packed wtih picnics and people walking the beach. We hiked through the moquito filled woods and heat to find our way into the zoo, which was a solitary and serene setting hidden from the view of the typical parkgoer by the trees.


Above: Wolverine and his kid walk to their robot fight under the Belle Isle catwalks.
Below: The Belle Isle catwalks as photographed in 2009.


The zoo is almost an island within the island itself. The faux Safari evoking structures echo the "Dharma Initiative" from the television show "Lost." My fear of snakes that hot summer day didn't bother me too much as the mosquitos kept me moving too fast to look down for any serpent threats. You can't hear the nearby sounds of downtown Detroit, or the people in the park for that matter. The zoo is a different world.


We walked past the collapsed gates that once held barbed wire high above the animal paddocks and walked out into overgown fields that resembled the African Sahara.



We climbed up onto the catwalks that once allowed visitors to overlook the roaming animals and that would one day hold some extras in a movie who would watch "the dude who played Wolverine" battle with some CGI robots.


In the center of the zoo is the largest structure. It holds numerous areas for sitting and relaxing as well as restrooms and a visitor center. In "Real Steel," this is the building that serves as the backdrop for the abandoned zoo robot fight. When we were there in 2009, the visitor center still had power. The air conditioning was on full blast and the lights still worked despite the place having been vandalized to hell.


- The visitor center.

The place seemed more fitting a setting for "Jurassic Park" than some movie about fighting robots. The animals and visitors were gone, the quiet of the zoo was interupted only by the sounds of the wooden catwalk creaking beneath our footsteps and the shutters of our cameras.

- The remains of one of the animal paddocks.


When it came time to leave, we opted out of the mosquito infested backwoods and chose to exit just as the zoo's guests had at one point: literally through the exit. We cut through some brush and under one of the thatched buildings, pushing our way through the rusted turnstyles and out back onto Belle Isle.

- The exit.

DreamWorks spent $80 Million to make a film based on Richard Matheson's short story and already has plans for a sequel. The movie comes out a week from today. It looks awful. I won't lie though, I'll probably go see it just to see the scenes filmed at the zoo.

As for the future of the abandoned Belle Isle Children's Zoo: its only visitors these days are curious photographers and the occasional hollywood film crew. Slowly, the wooden structures are rotting and the overgrowth of nature is taking back the zoo in the name of Belle Isle. The memories of past visitors, both zoo guests and trespassers, are what the zoo itself has become - a memory of different times in Detroit.

- Detroit as viewed from the shore of Belle Isle.


  1. I'm not gonna lie... seeing the pics side by side is actually kinda awesome!
    (oh and i totally agree this movie just seems... out there) :P

  2. REally awesome post. I've been through Belle Isle before as well. I used to live in Detroit and Belle Isle was one of those ultra sad Detroit places to go and visit. The other ones that come to mind are the Aquarium (also on Belle) and the old train station on the other end of downtown. I believe they used that building in Transformers? I guess there's something about Detroit's landscape that attracts action hero type movie makers!

  3. found this from a thread on 4chan.
    epic post good sir and also I loved the movie!

    1. dude! thanks so much for these pictures! im watching real steel and just had to pause it go find out where those scenes were filmed, found belle isle on wiki then came across you when searching for stuff on the zoo...very cool!... i love them even more because this isnt the first time ive gone hunting and ended up looking at abandoned places in detroit--its sad that the city has lost so much but personally i looovvve how creepy yet beautiful they are now:) I'm heading to the U.S next year, will definitely be looking up your friend from

  4. Good thing the movie was actually better than u expected

  5. Great post, thanks! I was just out there last weekend cross country skiing, and was curious about the history of the Zoo. The Isle is getting a lot of press recently as it was taken over by the State Parks Department. Yesterday I heard on WDET they might be tearing down the zoo though -- it's fantastic you've recorded a little bit of their history and architecture.