Murders in the Zoo (1933) is a forgotten classic from the pre-Production Code era. It is a masterpiece of completely over the top dementia of the sort that primarily came from Paramount in response to the success that Universal was having in the horror genre in the 1930’s. As with the other horror entries from Paramount from this period, there is a bit too much comedy relief in Murders in the Zoo, which should not be too surprising since Paramount back then was best known for its comedies.
Murders in the Zoo has a shocking opening. In it, demented zoologist Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) has another man’s mouth sewn shut. Gorman also lectures his victim about the evils of lusting after the wives of other men. Afterwards, Atwill leaves him behind in the jungle to face his fate as prey of the wildlife. When he returns to the compound, his lovely wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) asks where the other man is. Eric responds that the other man went for a walk. Evelyn responds by asking "what did he say?" to which Eric answers, "he didn’t say anything."
Eric Gorman, you see, is an insanely jealous husband. He has good reason to be since his wife is very beautiful and is rather promiscuous as well. This leads to men lusting after her which leads to their doom at the sadistical hands of her husband. Eric is aided in his quest to keep his wife to himself by some poisonous snakes and some alligators, not to mention other dangerous beasts. Eventually, Eric grew tired of this game and he just simply wound up throwing his lovely wife into a pit full of crocodiles.
As you can see, the above plot held great potential for a great horror flick. However, the folks at Paramount decided that horror movies needed to have an extra large dose of comedy relief. As a result, comedian Charlie Ruggles is given about as much screen time as the demented Eric Gorman. The end result is to dilute the scariness of the flick.
There is also an interesting reference to the times that this movie was made in. At one point, Eric Gorman says to another character, "You’re one of the few lucky people who still have some money left." This was a Great Depression era movie and 1933 was the single worst year of that economic period in American history.
Murders in the Zoo was a showcase for the talents of Lionel Atwill who was one of the most prominent actors of the 1930’s. Atwill ranked with both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi as one of the great horror movie actors with such major motion pictures as Doctor X & Mystery of the Wax Museum to his credits. Atwill was a great actor, much more talented than the likes of Karloff, John Carradine and Lon Chaney Jr. and on a par with Lugosi. However, much of his horror flick career was spent on roles as burgomasters and inspectors instead of really meaty roles.
Another actor who shines in Murders in the Zoo is John Lodge who played the role of Roger Hewitt aka Eric Gorman’s chief rival for the love of Evelyn. As it happened, this was Lodge’s second movie in a career that lasted 21 movies made during 1932-1940. Later in 1946, Lodge became the first Republican actor elected to Congress. Four years later, Lodge was elected Governor of Connecticut. Following his defeat for reelection in 1954 Lodge, like Shirley Temple, was appointed to a series of diplomatic positions by Republican presidents. Lodge was also the Floor Leader at the 1965 Connecticut Constitutional Convention.
Murders in the Zoo dates back to the days when horror and melodrama nearly meant the same thing. Horror movies in this vein contain as much drama and suspense as horror. Many of the horror films of this variety are un-supernatural in nature. This is why some folks prefer the call these flicks "terror" rather than horror. In any event, Murders in the Zoo is one of the more effective unsupernatural scary flicks of the 1930’s.
This being the case, one wonders just when the studio is going to get around to putting Murders in the Zoo on DVD. Also, if there really is a classic scary flick that needs to be remade, then a remake of Murders in the Zoo sans the distracting comedy relief would be in order.
Murders in the Zoo is one of the lost classics of the 1930s. It is a work of Grand Guignol made with full over the top dementia in the way that only truly inspired psycho horror could ever manage. Unlike horror movies of today, it is not about throwing as many buckets of blood on screen. Murders In The Zoo was what classic horror was all about in the early days of movies in that strong plot lines and sudden shocks were the natural focus in such films. For a movie that lasts less than an hour and twenty minutes, Murders in the Zoo packs a real wallop. It is genuinely scary which is more than you can say about all too movies made nowadays.
Murders in the Zoo was only issued once on VHS. It is a shame that it has never been issued on DVD. Given the sheer amount of dreck that is on DVD nowadays, Hollywood owes us a great classic like this. In any event, Murders in the Zoo is highly recommended.