Black Zoo (1963), a colorful but absurd thriller with horror elements, was Detroit-born writer-producer Herman Cohen's final American film before moving to England, where he'd spend the remainder of his career. Cohen had started out at Jack Broder Productions, a very minor outfit releasing through Realart, before partnering with Robert Goldstein on several pictures, including Abbott & Costello's last, Dance with Me Henry (1956). But it was Cohen's first film for American International Pictures, I Was a Teenage Werewolf (1957) that proved his biggest success. Produced for just $82,000, it reportedly grossed around $2,000,000 - a huge sum for that sort of film.
But Cohen was something of a one-trick pony: his next wave of projects were all slight variations of the same basic plot: I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957), Blood of Dracula (1957), and How to Make a Monster (1958) all featured teenagers being turned into monsters by unscrupulous adults, while Horrors of the Black Museum (1959), Konga (1961), both filmed in England, and Black Zoo (1963), filmed in Hollywood, all star Michael Gough as a madman who, as in Cohen's previous films, psychologically dominate a teenager/young adult, forcing them into committing/participating in his crimes.
There's also an inescapable gay subtext in all of Cohen's films, at least from I Was a Teenage Werewolf onward: His frequent casting of Gough as a prissy, monomaniacal diva; his later use of gay icon Joan Crawford at her most Berserk (the title of Crawford's first film for Cohen); the casting of muscular men in the juvenile lead, men who usually wear tight-fitting t-shirts, etc. Cohen always denied it and the message, if there is one, is a confused, despairing jumble of sexual repression, self-loathing, exploitation by predatory men (and women, in the case of Blood of Dracula), and ultimately an unleashing of the beast. They were vaguely homophobic films and frequently indisputably sadistic. Cohen himself, who died in 2002, never publicly came out of the closet, though many assume he was gay.
Black Zoo is a tired reworking of these same concepts. It's not as startlingly gruesome as Horrors of the Black Museum or as wonderfully goofy as Konga (Gough's ripe performance in that is a sight to behold), but it is in color and Panavision, and has a good cast.
Indeed, Warner Archive's manufactured-on-demand disc is a real honey, with rich color and an impressively sharp, region-free and 16:9 enhanced picture. No extras, however.
In Black Zoo (reportedly released in some markets as Horrors of the Black Zoo), Michael Conrad (Gough) owns a private menagerie in the middle of Los Angeles, cheerfully inviting schoolchildren and the like to visit with his lions, tigers, leopards, and Victor, a big gorilla (George Barrows in his familiar Robot Monster/Konga costume). Everyone is impressed by Conrad's gentle nature and passion for animals.
But he has a cruel streak. He's downright nasty toward his alcoholic wife, Edna (Jeanne Cooper), and equally ruthless toward zookeeper Joe (Elisha Cook, Jr., famous as gay Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon) and handsome if mute Carl (Rod Lauren), the former sporting a big facial scar from an earlier mauling by Baron, Conrad's prized tiger.
When shady developer Jeffrey Stengel (Jerome Cowan) tries to woo Conrad into selling his valuable land with promises of wining and dining at the local strip club, an offended Conrad sics one of his lions on the oily entrepreneur. Later, when theatrical agent Jenny Brooks (Virginia Grey) offers Edna a high-paying job at the circus, Conrad comands Victor to pay the meddling agent a visit.
As with other Cohen pictures the subtext is pretty inescapable. Black Zoo is a bit like watching Siegfried & Roy trapped in a cheap horror-thriller. It's almost as if Conrad is suppressing his latent homosexuality by madly channeling all his being into that private zoo of his, with Conrad's big cats (all with male names like King and Baron) as surrogate lovers. Admiring an amateur drawing of one of his cats he says, "I like the lines. Firm. Bold. Strokes!"
Considering how things turn out (spoilers), with Carl revealed to be Conrad's traumatized son, that middle-aged man/dominated youth angle is downplayed but with elements nonetheless repeated from previous films. Lauren himself would later be accused of hiring a hitman to murder his Filipino film star wife, Nida Blanca, in 2003. He fled to the U.S. and avoided extradition, but committed suicide a few years later.
Black Zoo starts out well enough, the opening credits superimposed over the image of a lifeless body amid the lions' cages. Modestly produced for Allied Artists, Cohen & Co. get a lot of mileage out of that single set, a studio exterior of one aisle of cages. The film looks fairly cheap but there are a few simple yet impressive trick shots of the Bringing Up Baby variety, and throughout the film Gough especially is clearly really interacting with what were probably doped-up lions, tigers, and leopards.
The movie, however, gets progressively sillier - but not entertainingly silly like Konga - just sillier. Out of nowhere Conrad visits a strange, animal-worshipping cult, and there are long, hysterical tirades by the zookeeper against hapless Edna; similar scenes turn up in Konga as well.
Video & Audio
Part of Warner Home Video's movie on demand program - billed under the "Warner Archive Collection" banner - Black Zoo is presented in its original 2.35:1 Panavision format with 16:9 enhancement. The "blood-curdling color" (according to the ads) is rich and the film elements are in excellent shape. The mono audio is likewise fine. There are no alternate audio or subtitle options and the disc is region-free. No Extra Features.
Not all that good but entertaining on its own level, Black Zoo has its moments of if loopy fun and for genre fans is Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.