Murders in the Zoo is a 1933 Paramount horror film that is neither supernatural horror nor an Old Dark House movie. In fact you could argue that it’s closer in feel to some of the delightfully lurid tropical melodramas of that era like Kongo and White Woman.
The opening sequence is one of the most startling in horror movie history and still packs quite a punch. The scene is Indo-China and Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is an animal collector who has a rather extreme but undeniably effective means of dealing with men who think they can steal his beautiful young wife away from him.
We know right away that Gorman is mad and dangerous and this is further reinforced on the sea voyage back to the United States. His problem is that his wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) really is very young and very beautiful and she attracts feckless young men the way a flame attracts moths. Eric Gorman is clearly pathologically jealous, and with good reason. Evelyn is not the sort of woman who pays much attention to trifles like her marriage vows, especially when hunky young men cross her path. And they just keep on crossing her path. Her latest interest is Roger Hewitt (John Lodge) - young, handsome, rich and with morals every bit as flexible as Evelyn’s.
So far so good. This seems like a story with tremendous potential and when it becomes clear that most of the movie is going to take place in a zoo our expectations are raised even higher.
Unfortunately at this point the comic relief starts to kick in, in the person of Charles Ruggles. Ruggles was actually not too bad in actual comedies but he’s out of place here and he gets way too much screen time. He plays Peter Yates, an alcoholic journalist who wangles his way into a job as the zoo’s press agent.
Yates comes up with a splendid idea to gain desperately needed publicity for the zoo - a fund-raising dinner to which the cream of the city’s high society and moneyed classes will be invited. They will enjoy their expensive meal in the zoo’s Carnivore House, surrounded by lions, tigers and leopards.
Evelyn and Hewitt have been getting very friendly indeed and Hewitt has persuaded her to run away with him. Before that happens they will both be guests at the dinner at the Carnivore House and Eric Gorman decides this would be a fine opportunity to demonstrate another of his methods for dealing with wife-stealers.
The unhappy outcome of the publicity dinner leads Evelyn to the conclusion that she’s going to need some help. She turns to Dr Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott), a brilliant young biologist working at the zoo, and Woodford’s girlfriend Jerry (Gail Patrick). She sets off for the zoo after closing time and this sets up one of the movie’s major horror set-pieces.
By this time the terror isn’t limited to Evelyn’s paramours. A deadly green mamba is on the loose - a snake whose venom kills in five minutes and for which there is no antivenom. The stage is set for a climax of mayhem and horror.
This movie’s biggest problem is that there is much too much focus on the irritating Peter Yates and not enough on Eric Gorman, a character with the potential to be oner of the great human monsters of horror cinema.
This movie has a few flaws but don’t despair - it has plenty of strengths as well. The key horror scenes are effective and shocking and they’re also very original (and surprisingly this movie has a couple of very cool horror ideas that I can’t recall seeing in any subsequent horror flicks). Zoos make great settings for horror movies and it’s odd that relatively few horror film-makers have taken advantage of this.
Murders in the Zoo also has plenty of the lurid melodrama I made reference to earlier, and it’s spiced with some very pre-code moments. There are a couple of scenes between Eric Gorman and his wife that would certainly have been cut in the post-code days and might raise a few eyebrows even today. Evelyn is clearly repulsed by and terrified of her husband and it’s plain that this excites him very much. Very much indeed.
Lionel Atwill gets to play a variation on the mad scientist roles he did so well. It would have been nice if the movie had found time to develop his character a bit more - a bit of exploration of the roots of the consuming jealousy that has driven him insane would not have gone amiss. It would have given Atwill the chance to make his villain a bit more complex. Having said this Atwill’s performance is still splendid and he gets the chance to do some very enjoyable overacting - made more enjoyable by the fact that Atwill doesn’t push things too far so that he remains a plausible villain.
Kathleen Burke does well as his straying wife. Randolph Scott does the stalwart hero thing with a bit of subtlety.
Murders in the Zoo was banned in many countries and when later screened on American television was severely cut.
This is one of the five horror B-movies included in TCM’s Universal Cult Horror Collection (a set which is slightly misleadingly named since it includes movies from other studios besides Universal). The DVD transfer is superb and there are a few extras. This very worthwhile boxed set also includes the Lionel Atwill mad scientist film The Mad Doctor of Market Street.
Murders in the Zoo has a few unusual features, it has some genuine chills, a couple of fine horror set-pieces, some perverse sexuality and some deliciously overheated melodrama. Plus it has Lionel Atwill, deadly venomous snakes and rampaging lions and tigers. These virtues are more than enough to offset its flaws. Highly recommended.