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This Halloween's crop of horror offerings is getting into shape with Black Zoo, a 1963 romp into silly sadism. Besides a wonderfully over-the-top leading performance, the show can boast some arresting work with a very photogenic crowd of big cats: lions, tigers, cheetahs and a black panther for good measure. Back before the drive-in craze for fantastic fare kicked in producer Herman Cohen had a hit with one of the first successful independent sci-fi cheapies, Target Earth!. His series of self-conscious "teenage" horror epics also made an indelible mark, starting with 1957's I Was a Teenage Werewolf. Cohen then departed for England and the shudderingly graphic shocker Horrors of the Black Museum, in which he discovered his "Vincent Price substitute", actor Michael Gough. Capable of manic thesping even hammier than Price, Gough practically foamed at the mouth while feigning sadistic delight -- he's only one or two clicks short of the great Jay Robinson. the king for this kind of barnstorming frenzy.
Michael Gough enjoyed killing little old ladies in Black Museum and concentrated his sleazy affections on cute London co-eds for Cohen's Konga. Back in Hollywood again, the producer fashioned his next effort as a rerun of Black Museum's murder-madness format, with a Konga- like gorilla thrown in as well. A smart producer goes with what works. Black Zoo has a fairly feeble script, earnest performances and some surprisingly effective animal-threat moments.
The criminally insane Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) runs a minor wild animal exhibit in the Hollywood Hills. His mute assistant Carl (Rod Lauren) and resentful attendant Joe (Elisha Cook, Jr.) help tend for five or six beautiful big cats with names like Rajah and Baron. Conrad's unhappy wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper) works a clever chimpanzee act as a side attraction. Agent friend Jenny Brooks (Virginia Grey of The Threat) would like to see Edna perform her act in a circus, but the pathologically possessive Conrad becomes violent whenever his judgment is challenged. He also chases away a college girl (young Marianna Hill) who becomes interested in Carl.
Wait, there's more. Conrad belongs to an animal-worshipping cult called The True Believers. He not only loves his pets, he uses them to murder people that get in his way, like a pushy real-estate developer (Jerome Cowan) and an unlucky snooping reporter (Warrene Ott). Joe carries a nasty scar on his face from an earlier tangle with Baron the tiger -- when he takes his anger out on one of the cats, Conrad's vengeance runs amuck. The police are baffled, as all the evidence points to large zoo-like animals being the killers. The Chief of Detectives (Edward Platt) refuses to accept such nonsense.
Black Zoo knows very well that it's a slightly sleazy matinee attraction for moviegoers disinterested in fare like The Chapman Report or The Courtship of Eddie's Father, movies so unenlightened that they don't deliver a single murderous gorilla. In between sic-ing his cats on unlucky victims (sample dialogue: "Aaahhhhhrrrrrggghhh!"), Michael Conrad makes nice with the zoo visitors, slaps his wife Edna around and sneeringly enforces his unsavory, sexually questionable will over the good-looking, passive Carl. Conrad is a really hiss-able post- Psycho villain, a madman who charms teenage visitors yet seemingly hates women. All of Conrad's affection goes toward the big cats that he literally worships.
The standard mystery scenes are fairly forgettable. Too much of the movie follows arguments in the Conrad kitchen and the relationship drama is weak. As if forced by the distributor Allied Artists, producer Cohen includes a laughably pointless scene at police headquarters. A detective and two experts try for a good five minutes to get the Chief to listen to reason, but he's too dumb to understand plain English. It's animal attacks, stupid. The animal attacks are nicely edited by Michael Luciano, Robert Aldrich's career cutter. Animal handler Ralph Helfer worked for Bert I. Gordon and Ivan Tors, and sets up some excellent shots of victims struggling under lions and tigers. Unlike the gruesome Horrors of the Black Museum there is no gore and little blood, but Michael Gough's delighted stares compensate in full.
Black Zoo's emphasis on an animal cult makes for some unique content. Veteran writer Aben Kandel wrote the original novel for City for Conquest. He was possibly hoping to create a mood akin to the Palladist Cult in Val Lewton's The Seventh Victim. Because Los Angeles is known for
This realism makes Conrad's extra attraction, Victor the Gorilla, stand out like a sore thumb. Victor is played by career gorilla-suit specialist George Barrows (Robot Monster), whose typical workday involved carrying swooning sarong girls off into the jungle, heh heh. Here Barrows/Victor gets poor Virginia Grey in a fatal headlock. Although tame today, these killing scenes were plenty shocking in 1962.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Black Zoo is quite a surprise. I haven't seen it since about 1966 on television and had no idea that it was in color and Panavision. Even Cohen's choice of typeface for the main titles is arresting. Floyd Crosby's fine camerawork serves the show well throughout and is defeated only when Cohen sticks us in cheap, uninteresting sets. The zoo itself looks great, especially in the climactic rain scene - although we wonder how long those poor animals had to soak. The reproduction of original ad art on the cover makes us wonder why parents let their kids anywhere near shows like Black Zoo: the tag line is, Nightly they stalk the city streets... their kill-lust seeking human prey!" A box at the bottom assures us that the show is "In Blood-Curdling Color and Panavision." 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Zoo rates:
1. What? Another personal Savant movie story? I never even tried to attend Black Zoo first-run, as I wasn't into horror pictures per se and had been shaken up pretty badly by seeing Horror of the Black Museum at age 8. But early in 1964 I saw a magazine that told the entire story of this title in photographs, using frame enlargements. I also grabbed photo magazines for Curse of Frankenstein / Horror of Dracula and Horror of Party Beach. This must have been the 5th grade, and I made the mistake of taking the Zoo magazine to school. When I got caught with it you'd have thought it was unspeakable pornography or a book about eating babies. I think this was my only Beaver Cleaver-style trip to the principal's office for anything other than a commendation -- I can't even remember what the lecture was, I was so humiliated. I wouldn't have been surprised if they branded my forehead with a big "P" for pervert. Not only that, the Black Zoo magazine cost a dollar, serious money at the time. What a financial setback!
But I learned my lesson -- be much sneakier. The next year a teacher expressed disapproval that I was reading an "adult" book, 1984. I carefully hid it. This kind of "be ashamed of your interests" psychology has followed me my whole life. Donations to the Get Savant Therapy Fund are being accepted now.
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T'was Ever Thus.