Black Zoo (1963)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-02-13 22:36

Written by: Herman Cohen (story), Aben Kandel (story)
Directed by: Robert Gordon
Starring: Michael Gough, Jeanne Cooper, Rod Lauren

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

Nightly they stalk the city streets...their kill-lust seeking human prey!

The British horror scene blessed the horror genre with its fair share of horror icons during its glory days, with Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing especially leading the charge while carrying the Hammer banner. However, operating somewhere just below that iconic status was Michael Gough, who starred in supporting roles in both Hammer and Amicus productions; interestingly enough, though, it was American schlock producer Herman Cohen who tapped Gough to star as the lead in a loose trilogy of killer animal films. The last of this “series” was Black Zoo, a charmingly bonkers effort that marries the polished, garish British aesthetic and occult leanings for Cohen’s own penchant for junky, trashy pleasures.

Just as he did in Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga, Gough plays a twitchy, paranoid lunatic. In this case, he’s Michael Conrad, a zookeeper with an entire host of spirit animals under his command—literally. Unafraid to dispatch his legion of lions, tigers, and gorillas for his homicidal purposes, he lords over both his wife (Jeanne Cooper) and his mute assistant (Rod Lauren) as an impetuous, noxious jerk. While he appears to be a kindly zookeeper to those outside of his circle, anyone who opposes him soon learns just how unhinged he truly is.

Really, the plot of Black Zoo is either nonexistent or, at best, episodic since it basically amounts to Conrad summoning animals to do his murderous bidding. It’s a concept that cuts right to the primal heart of the nature-run-amok genre, and it’s pretty accomplished on a purely visceral and visual level, particularly in its employment of (mostly) real animals and some tremendous stunt work. The film’s opening scene features a young woman mauled to death by a tiger, an episode that hints at the film’s preoccupation with this simplistic theme; her identity isn’t revealed, nor is it made clear why she’s been targeted for such a grisly fate. Instead, it’s a stark, violent sequence that speaks to the film’s brutality; while the film can only be so graphic given the time period, Black Zoo often features savage animalistic rampages that leave skulls caved in and spines shattered.

Cohen didn’t hesitate to toss in some weird flourishes in this one though; as if Conrad weren’t crazy enough operating as a lone nutcase, it turns out that he actually belongs to a cult of animal worshipers who consider themselves in touch with animal spirits. Maybe they’re right; after all, these giant creatures repose in Conrad’s house and answer to his every beck and call. Just when you think the scene where he assembles them to discuss his murderous plans is bizarre enough, you’re privy to a gathering of the “true believers,” who engage in animal soul transference. Their main shaman also wears a giant tiger pelt during the ceremony, as if this bizarre aside weren’t wacky enough.

Black Zoo doesn’t quite go all the way into lunacy and eventually settles back into its routine; maybe it’s a little disingenuous to consider an ape-turned-hitman “routine,” but a bunch of bluebloods attempting to will the spirit of a dead tiger into a cub is hard to top. Black Zoo operates best as a collection of cool scenes like that; for example, Conrad holds a spook, mist-shrouded funeral for the tiger that’s attended by the rest of his animal comrades. Drenched in lavish colors and a gothic atmosphere (it’d be easy to mistake Black Zoo as a Hammer or AIP, which I’m sure was Cohen’s intention), it’s another strange moment that adds to the film’s off-kilter mood since it’s all played fairly earnestly (despite its obvious silliness). Even the climax is suitably ludicrous and features a tacky, psychedelic flashback to provide a wacky (but still predictable) deus ex machina to wrap the film up.

Gough is the steady patch that holds this crazy quilt together, as his approach dispenses with the sympathetic psychopath angle. He might get a few opportunities to put on an inviting air as a kindly old zookeeper, but the film wastes little time in revealing just how much of a prick he is. Interestingly enough, it almost sets him up as the idealistic nature lover fighting against urbanization by resisting a land baron’s power play for his zoo, but the exchange ends with a cold-blooded murder. From there, Conrad becomes even more delightfully despicable, and Gough relishes the opportunity to overpower the proceedings with smarm, paranoia, and sheer contempt for everything surrounding him, including his poor wife. If Black Zoo has a throughline, it's the build-up to Conrad finally getting his, but the movie is so cock-eyed that you believe that might not even happen.

Black Zoo is just loony enough to function as fine junk; while it may resemble the more refined horror productions of the age, it feels more inelegant and clumsy thanks to its shaggy script and blunt force approach. In some ways, it’s an unholy union between 60s gothic horror and the previous decade’s penchant for nature-gone-amok films; in this one, the fusion between man and animal is much less literal, of course, which speaks to the age’s growing fear of the psycho next door. The occult elements also make for a fine trimming that taps into that old British obsession as well and positions Black Zoo as a cool, club-footed outlier resting somewhere between American schlock and British pulp. Its obscure status made it a prime candidate Warner Archive, and the studio released it a couple of years ago; while the disc is bare-bones, the presentation is more than solid—there might be a few scratches and pops than you’re used to seeing, but the transfer is lush and colorful. Thankfully, Warner Archive just announced that it’ll be starting its own streaming program soon; hopefully, Black Zoo will make the cut to appear on the platform at some point since it’s the right kind of crazy that almost demands to be seen. Buy it!

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