Murders in the Zoo (1933)


USA. 1933.


Director – Edward Sutherland, Screenplay – Seton I. Miller & Philip Wylie, Photography (b&w) – Ernest Haller. Production Company – Paramount


Lionel Atwill (Eric Gorman), Charlie Ruggles (Peter Yates), Kathleen Burke (Evelyn Gorman), John Lodge (Roger Hewitt), Randolph Scott (Dr Jack Woodford), Harry Beresford (Professor Evans), Gail Patrick (Jerry Evans)


Millionaire-hunter Eric Gorman returns from Indo-China with a collection of wild animals he has gathered for the zoo. On the shipboard return journey, his wife Evelyn meets Roger Hewitt who tries to persuade her to leave Gorman. Back at the zoo, Gorman becomes psychopathically jealous, killing Hewitt off with a faked mamba bite and then throwing Evelyn into an alligator pool. When other people threaten to expose his activities, Gorman has to kill further.

Murders in the Zoo is one of the lost classics of the 1930s. It is a work of Grand Guignol made with full OTT dementia in the way that only 30s and 40s psycho horror could manage.

The entire film has been structured around the novelty title concept – of a series of zoo animal related murders – mambas loose under the dinner table, lions and Lionel Atwill’s end in an alarmingly convincing scene where he is crushed by a boa constrictor. What strikes is the wonderfully lurid nastiness of the film – there being one good shock scene where Lionel Atwill throws his own wife off a bridge into a pit of crocodiles. Although the nastiest scene – the one that upset everybody at the time and had the film banned in England – is the first scene where we see Lionel Atwill having a man’s mouth sewn shut.

Murders in the Zoo was a vehicle that starred the great Lionel Atwill, an actor who had come to prominence in Doctor X (1932) and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). Atwill was a fabulous actor – in fact, more talented than Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr and John Carradine put together – although, apart from a few glorious moments like the aforementioned films and his memorable appearance as the wooden-armed inspector in Son of Frankenstein (1939), he spent the most of the rest of his career up until his death in 1946 in throwaway parts playing mayors and burgomasters in Universal’s monster sequels.

It is Lionel Atwill who gives Murders in the Zoo a wonderfully demented charge. The character is supplied with a sublimely droll sense of acid humour: “You don’t think I sat there all evening with an eight foot mamba in my pocket? Why, it would be an injustice to my tailor.” There is more obvious comic relief with Charlie Ruggles’s bumbling reporter. However, the scenes with Atwill frequently work on wonderfully cool levels beneath the surface, such as Atwill’s visit to John Lodge to find his wife has been there. “I was surprised to find a man like you had taken an interest in something outside his province. On the boat you and I seemed to have a mutual interest,” he taunts Lodge. “I don’t understand.” “I refer to my animals.”

Director (A.) Edward Sutherland hailed from England and had a long history in screen comedy going back to the silent era and worked with Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and W.C. Fields during his career. Sutherland had delved into genre material several times with the screwball comedy International House (1933), the light fantasy Beyond Tomorrow (1940) and The Invisible Woman (1940), one of Universal’s Invisible Man sequels.

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