They say you never forget your first love, and for me, that was Rita Hayworth. Siren of the silver screen and a favorite pinup among GIs in the second World War, Rita Hayworth graced the covers of dozens of magazines in her prime. Long after she had passed away, I discovered one of these old magazines and was instantly smitten with her. From there, I spent many an afternoon in the cold, damp peridiocal stacks of my local library looking for any and all mentions of her. (This is what we had to do in those dark, pre-Google days, kids.) For a while, I had crossed the line into infatuation; I probably could have told you the names of her children, her brothers and sisters, and all five of her husbands. In order.
Time has a way of weakening that kind of obsession, but I’ve never stopped being taken with her, and over the years I’ve seen the majority of her films (the standouts being The Lady from Shanghai and Gilda). But as someone who’s just as fanatical about B-movies, it was only a matter of time before I would have to view…this. The Naked Zoo was one of Hayworth’s final films, made when she was 53 years old, (which, as we all know, is about 210 in Hollywood starlet years).
There must be some kind of immutable Hollywood law that all screen legends end up in humiliating roles in their twilight years. It’s been the case all the way from Bela Lugosi (Bride of the Monster) to Marlon Brando (Did you know his final film saw him providing the voice of an old lady in a cartoon?). And so it was with Rita.
To give you an idea of what a comedown The Naked Zoo must have been, it was produced and directed by William Grefe. If you’ve never heard of Grefe, let’s just say that when movies like The Sting of Death and Death Curse of Tartu are the high water marks in a guy’s directing career, you know he’s a hack. Grefe was also at the helm of the career low point of another Hollywood legend, namely Impulse, a hilariously sleazy picture featuring none other than William Shatner as a gigolo who courted older women and frequently killed them.
Proving that there wasn’t much variety in the screenplays Grefe filmed, The Naked Zoo also centers on a womanizing gigolo who sometimes murders older women. Terry Shaw (Stephen Oliver, late of Peyton Place) is an aspiring novelist who preys on older women for their money, and on younger women for their less material assets. We’re first introduced to the character as he leaps out of a window to avoid being caught by the husband of his middle-aged lover.
Terry hurries to his apartment, which turns out to be a place where a bevy of multiethnic babes come and go at his whim. After getting a rejection call from his publisher (a pointless cameo by Joe E. Ross, best known as the gravel voiced Officer Toody on Car 54, Where Are You?), Terry enters a foul mood, which he promptly takes out on his paramour of the moment. Over the course of the movie, Terry will frequently take his anger out on whatever woman happens to be nearby. And since this movie was written and directed by men, the women not only take the abuse, but it seems to make them even more eager to satisfy Terry’s every urge.
Rita Hayworth soon makes her appearance wearing a horrifying lime green muumuu. Rita plays Helen Golden, a rich older woman who’s carrying on an affair with Terry right under her husband’s nose. We’re soon treated to the sight of Terry and the matronly Hayworth making out, and then, of all things, sharing a joint. This puts Hayworth in the esteemed company of legends like Jackie Gleason (Skidoo) and Lana Turner (The Big Cube) who thought they could prove they were still “with it” by doing drugs in their movies.
Their mellow is harshed however by the sudden appearance of Helen’s wheelchair-bound husband. This is one of the (unintentionally) comedic highlights of the movie, as the actor playing Helen’s husband is the spitting image of former senator Bob Dole. As he wheeled around the living room, I yelled out, “I’m Bob Dole! Rrrrr! Bob Dole didn’t have the Viagra or the Pepsi commercials or the Britney Spears when he was young! Rrrrr!” It was definitely one of my proudest moments in a lifetime of ridiculing films.
Terry tries to convince Helen to off her husband for the inheritence. She resists, but Terry soon gets his chance one night when Helen’s husband comes at him with a gun. He can’t hit Terry, despite firing all six shots, reloading, and firing six more, all the while they’re both running around a tiny room. But ultimately, Bob Dole wheels himself right into the fireplace and strikes his head on the mantle, instantly dying. And what does the warm, caring, empathetic Terry do? He calls it an “accident” and quickly leaves, but guilt and paranoia continue to eat away at him.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like that terrible of an idea for a movie. Certainly more has been done with less. But the script has two unforgiveable flaws.
First of all, the movie meanders like crazy. It’s like the filmmakers completely forgot the movie had a plot. At least half of the running time is devoted to the “wild” party scene at Terry’s apartment, which involves copious amounts of drugs and the barest hint of sexual perversion (lesbianism, foot eroticism, etc). If you enjoy pretentious scenes where characters set fire to their own furniture for no apparent reason, or pretentious lines like “You are a juvenile bitch siren and you just killed the poet in me,” or soft-soft-soft core sex scenes, then you’ll really love this aspect of the movie.
Second of all, I can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with such a thoroughly unlikable central character. Terry hates women with every fiber of his being, and abuses them in every possible way. In one of those interminable party scenes, Terry meets a black woman named Nadine (played by Fluerette Carter, who can best be described as the identical twin of Vivica A. Fox, only hotter). His pickup line to her is, “We can miscegenate.” A charmer, huh?
Oh, but it gets worse. Nadine ends up staying over at Terry’s apartment, and she’s there when he brings another woman home. Talk about the swinging 60’s! But Terry quickly covers his tracks by pretending Nadine is his maid [!] and calling her an unending stream of racial slurs, starting with “pickaninny” and moving onto “damn savage” and just getting worse from there.
And how does Nadine react? By hunching her shoulders, bobbing her head, and saying “Yes suh, boss!” while kneeling on the floor to serve a tray of drinks to Terry and his date. One really has to wonder what magical spell the director cast over the actress to get her to degrade herself like this. And more than that, one has to wonder why he thought audiences would sympathize with such a vile main character.
And by this point in the film, roughly an hour has gone by with no mention of the Helen Golden plotline or her dead husband. At nearly the end of the movie, there’s a follow-up, but by then I was so numbed by boredom I didn’t even care.
Other than a few sparse psychedelic tricks (Ooh! A kaleidoscope lens! Ooh! A double-vision effect!), Grefe’s direction is uninspired, to say the least. Everyone and everything is filmed flat and dead-on, with walls and furniture always at right angles to the frame. Actors often slip in and out of focus. The soundtrack is particularly dull, being filled with overproduced ballads sung by Steve Alaimo (who starred in Grefe’s The Wild Rebels, a movie that got the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, which is all you really need to know).
The Naked Zoo was put out on VHS by Something Weird Video, and bless their hearts, because they took great pains to restore the original cut of the film. It seems that after William Grefe finished the movie, the distributor tinkered around with it, deleting some scenes and inserting completely new ones. This included totally unrelated footage of a topless woman cavorting around, as well as clips of chubby rock band Canned Heat performing during one of the party scenes.
And just to show how small a world the field of exploitation cinema was in those days, the new footage was directed by Barry Mahon, who also gave us The Beast that Killed Women, Rocket Attack USA, and the Thumbelina short film that found its way into Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. (For even further proof that it was a small world, William Kerwin shows up at the end of the film in a small cameo as a cop. This is the same William Kerwin who starred in the Herschell Gordon Lewis films Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, Jimmy the Boy Wonder, and Grefe’s own Impulse.
Something Weird deleted Mahon’s clips and reinstated the original footage. Unfortunately, the audio to those scenes was lost a long time ago, so the footage appears with no sound. The good folks at Something Weird figured the movie played better with the lost, silent footage than without it, so they kept it in.
I admire their perserverance in actually trying to give the world a director’s cut of The Naked Zoo, but even as a cinema purist, I can say this is one film that really doesn’t deserve it. The Naked Zoo is extremely hard to find these days, so to those who might be tempted to spend a lot of effort tracking it down, I can assure you that unless you’re a enthusiast of grindhouse cinema, or in love with Rita Hayworth, the movie doesn’t deserve that either.