Plot: Dr. Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) has just returned from a safari and has brought with him a bounty of animals for showcase at a zoo, but these beasts were the only prey he hunted on the excursion. His beautiful wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) was getting a little too much attention from one of the other men, which sparked a jealous rage in Gorman. He bound the man, sewed his mouth closed, then left him helpless in the jungle, where the animals took care of the rest. At the zoo, Gorman’s new arrivals are a godsend, as times are tough and fresh attractions could lure in crowds. But when Evelyn continues to draw attention from other men, Gorman once again flies into a paranoid state and uses his animals to exact his vengeance. As the bodies pile up, can anyone figure out what Gorman is doing and more to the point, stop his jealous, homicidal streak before he kills again?
Entertainment Value: This is a fun one, a nasty pre-code horror movie that has some creative, memorable kills and a terrific ensemble of talent. The narrative is passable, but it is the characters and especially Gorman’s methods of murder than stand out. The sheer madness of Gorman is impressive to behold, as he always seethes with jealousy, then strikes with reckless abandon when he feels the need. I mean, the dude feeds people to crocodiles, poisons them with a black mamba, and in that memorable opening scene, sews a man’s mouth shut. This is wild stuff, even by pre-code standards and the movie really grabs you from the start, then never relents. I love the melodrama here as well, driven by the dysfunctional marriage of Gorman, though the relationship drama takes dark turns, of course. Not just in terms of the controlling behavior and jealousy either, but it is made clear that Gorman is also a rapist, again strong stuff, even for this rather free creative period. The movie runs just over an hour, so it burns hot and has a brisk pace, never slow and with minimal filler, using the time to develop characters and bring thrills. I think this is a good movie, one that really delivers and stands out, so Murders in the Zoo is well recommended.
I like several of the performances in Murders in the Zoo, but without a doubt, this is the Lionel Atwill show. His maniacal Gorman is the main draw here and he goes for broke in the role, giving us a nasty, memorable villain. I like that he is able to steer into over the top moments with great glee, but he knew when to pull back a little and avoid going full camp in most scenes. This is still dialed up quite a bit, but it retains a sense of menace even as it entertains. He is also able to make just about any interaction at least a little fun to watch, glowering over people and shifting personality on a whim, good chemistry with most of his costars. The film’s dark tone is lifted at times by some light comic relief, but Charles Ruggles isn’t up to that task. He flounders in the role and while it provides some unintentional humor through how awful the combination of the dialogue and his turn are, it detracts from the movie’s atmosphere. The cast also includes Kathleen Burke, Gail Patrick, John Lodge, and Randolph Scott.
The Disc: This movie has been released on Blu-ray via Scream Factory, as part of their Universal Horror Collection: Volume 2, along with three other old school Universal horror pictures. The movie looks great in this treatment, cleaner and sharper than I expected, to be sure. The visuals show rock solid depth and fine detail, with a crispness that isn’t present in the DVD edition I’ve seen. The contrast is stark and consistent, with no issues in that regard whatsoever. I think fans will be pleased here, as the movie looks quite good and offers a welcome upgrade over older releases. The extras include a film historian commentary track and the film’s trailer.