Murders in the Zoo (1933) **Ĺ
Today, the Universal Studios pictures have such a stranglehold on our cultural memory of horror movies in the 1930ís that most people scarcely remember that there was anything else going on in the genre back then. This is really unfortunate, because many of the best horror flicks of the period were made by other studiosó White Zombie and the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde spring instantly to mind. And even the non-Universal films that werenít particularly good are often a lot more fun to watch than their better known contemporaries. Murders in the Zoo is a perfect example. This early Paramount horror show is a real pinhead of a movie, but itís pulled off with such panache that itís almost impossible not to be charmed.
For one thing, Iíve always loved it when a movie cuts immediately to the chase. Scarcely have the credits vanished from the screen when we join biologist Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill, from Son of Frankenstein and Mark of the Vampire) in French Indochina, where he is hard at work capturing specimens for the zoo where he works back home. But when we first meet Gorman, he has captured something rather different from the tigers and orangutans that are his official quarry: a man whom he caught putting the moves on his beautiful but disloyal wife, Evelyn (Kathleen Burke of Island of Lost Souls). This scene is a fantastic example of what filmmakers were able to get away with before the Hays Code came along and fucked up everything. While two native guides hold the amorous man to the ground, Gorman fiddles with something in the vicinity of his victimís head, chattering away about how this will stop the other manís mouth from getting him into trouble with married women. Gorman and his guides leave, and moments later, the camera reveals that Gorman has sewn the other manís lips together! I donít know about you, but that sure got my attention! Then, back at his camp, Gorman answers Evelynís questions about the missing man by saying he separated from the party at a village out in the jungle. ďWhat did he say?Ē Evelyn asks, understandably perplexed at this turn of events. Her husbandís response: ďHe didnít say anything.Ē Ouch!
On the trip home, it becomes evident that that poor bastard back in Indochina isnít Evelynís only admirer. Sheís also got a friend named Roger Hewitt (The Witchmakerís John Lodge), whoíd very much like to be something more than that, and Evelyn herself likes that idea rather a lot, too. Eric does not, however, and it is with great suspicion that he observes Roger and his wife repeatedly crossing paths ďby accidentĒ on the voyage home. Obviously, this is going to be important down the road.
Meanwhile, zoo director Professor Evans (Harry Beresford of Doctor X) has hired a new publicist for the institution, an ex-newspaper man and recovering drunk named Peter Yates (The Invisible Womanís Charles Ruggles). Yates, alas, will be our insufferable comic relief for the evening, so Iím going to talk about him as little as I can get away with, even though Ruggles is this movieís top-billed actor. Yates enters the story in a major way when Gormanís ship comes in, and Evans dispatches Yates to meet the biologist and his cargo at the dock. Yatesís first meeting is with Evelyn, and he initially mistakes Roger for Dr. Gorman. And when he later hooks up with the real Gorman, Yates accidentally seals Rogerís doom by mentioning in passing that there was a man in Evelynís cabin with her.
If youíre thinking one of the animals Gorman brought back from Indochina is going to be the instrument of the cuckolded scientistís revenge, give yourself a gold star. Among all the apes and big cats is an even more dangerous animal of an altogether different sort: a green mamba. (Incidentally, this movieís depiction of the snake in question is way off-base. Real green mambas are about as long as the various fake snakes and stand-ins used in Murders in the Zoo, but like all members of the mamba family, they are proportionately very slender, even by snake standards. Thereís no way in hell any green mamba is going to grow up burly enough to have a jaw as wide as later dialogue will attribute to this one.) As zoo herpetologist Dr. Woodford (Randolf Scott, from Supernatural and She) conveniently explains, the bite of the green mamba means almost instant death, and there is no known antidote for its venom. Indeed, it is because of the opportunity to work on just such an antitoxin that Woodford is so excited about Gormanís decision to bring the mamba to America. But chances are, the humanitarian possibilities never even entered Gormanís mind. So when Roger is fatally bitten on the leg at a fundraising dinner, and the mambaís cage proves empty, we in the audience are unable to share in the charactersí surprise.
But weíre far from being the only ones who are on to Gorman. Evelyn, for example, is quite sure that her husband somehow engineered Rogerís accident. At first, she isnít certain how he pulled it off (how exactly does one conceal an eight-foot venomous snake in oneís trouser leg while neither attracting unwanted attention nor getting bitten oneself?), but when she has a look in a desk drawer in Ericís study, and discovers the severed head of a green mamba, she puts it all together. Evelyn grabs the snake head and rushes off to the zoo for a visit with Dr. Woodford. But thereís just one problem. Eric saw her leave, and sees soon thereafter that his mamba head is missing. He follows his wife to the zoo, and when he is unsuccessful in talking her out of turning him in, he wrestles the head away from her, and then tosses her into the zooís alligator pit. The gators do a pretty good job of destroying the evidence.
But not good enough. The next day, a child spots a piece of Evelynís dress floating in the gator pond, and when he gives it to the security guard, it isnít long before word gets out that the zoo has become a death trap. Gorman is able to deflect attention away from himself by pointing out that both his wife and Roger Hewitt were killed by reptiles, which are supposed to be Woodfordís responsibility. While he never goes so far as to suggest that the herpetologist is a murderer, he does threaten to charge him with criminal negligence, and he is able to cause a big enough stink to get the whole zoo shut down.
Itís the closing of the zoo that ultimately leads to Gormanís undoing, though. The missing mamba is discovered while the cages are being cleaned out, and Woodword doesnít have to examine the recaptured snake for very long before he notices something peculiar (and which goes some way toward explaining why the mamba still has its head). This snake has its fangs set 28mm apart in its mouth, while the bite marks on Roger Hewittís legs were 33mm apart. Obviously this isnít the same snake. But the venom in Rogerís blood was a green mambaís, alright, and because Eric Gorman is pretty much the only man in America who could be expected to have a green mamba in his possession, Woodward is quick to reach the obvious conclusion. When he confronts Gorman with his newfound knowledge, he gets an injection from the biologistís portable snake head for his trouble, but the day is saved by Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick), Professor Evansís daughter and Woodfordís girlfriend and assistant. She knows something that Gorman doesnít: Woodford succeeded in his efforts to develop an antidote to the mambaís venom, and she is able to administer a shot of it to Woodford in time to save his life. And though this earns her the wrath of the maniacal Gorman, she is also able to summon the police to the zoo, and the resulting chase ends ironically with the biologist locking himself in a cage with one of the zooís few remaining animals, a 20-foot reticulated python, to whom Gorman is just the right size for a midnight snack.
It isnít often that a movie is so much fun in its on moments that it is able to survive in the face of vast amounts of stock footage and painfully unfunny comic relief, and I generally find that the older a movie is, the less likely such survival becomes. But Murders in the Zoo is just such a survivor. Maybe itís the pre-Hays Code frankness about sex and violence. (Not only does the movie open with a scene of unusually nasty torture, its very sympathetic heroine is a serial adulteress!) Maybe itís Lionel Atwillís Vincent Price-like portrayal of Eric Gorman. Maybe itís the sheer lunacy of seeing the severed head of a venomous snake used as a murder weapon. (All my life Iíve been watching movies like this, and never once can I remember having seen that before.) Maybe itís because Murders in the Zoo is only an hour long, and thus moves at a breathless pace in between the stock footage and bad comedy. Chances are itís a little bit of all of the above. But whatever the reason, Murders in the Zoo is an unexpectedly good time.