Professor Evans: Do you know anything about animals?
Yates: Why, they’ve been my constant companions many a night! I mean…
If you invented a time machine, sent your favorite giallo auteur or sleazy ’80s horror director back to 1933, and turned him loose on the Paramount lot, Murders in the Zoo is pretty much what you’d get.
Every time I revisit Murders in the Zoo, I ask myself how the hell the cult classic made it past the censors, even the lenient pre-Code censors. You’ve got to hand it to director A. Edward Sutherland (perhaps best remembered as Mr. Louise Brooks). He pulled out all the stops on the loony organ to produce this demented toccata and fugue in the key of WTF.
Forget your monsters, your mad scientists, your ghostly menaces. This giddily offensive horror thriller focuses on an outwardly ordinary human being—who happens to go around executing people in the most gruesome ways imaginable. The horror of Murders in the Zoo is natural, not supernatural. We’re talking paleo-grindhouse, ur-slasher.
As Eric Gorman, a millionaire adventurer and closet psychopath, Hollywood’s champion villain Lionel Atwill delivers a restrained, self-possessed performance. Pathologically jealous of any man who looks at his knockout wife, Gorman transplants the law of the jungle—or his own perversion of it—to civilization. When asked how he feels about the wild animals he collects, Gorman replies, “I love them. Their honesty, their primitive emotions. They love. They hate. They kill.” (If anyone ever says this to you, back away slowly…)
Woe to Gorman’s sinuous spouse (Kathleen Burke, the “Panther woman” from Island of Lost Souls) when she falls hard for another man! Discovering the dalliance, Gorman theatrically poisons his wife’s lover at a gala benefit for a zoo and blames the death on an escaped snake. Charlie Ruggles as a nutty press agent, Randolph Scott as a noble toxicologist, and Gail Patrick as Scott’s fiancée-assistant all scramble to save the zoo from public outrage and financial ruin.
Although the film seems to offer up a comic protagonist (Ruggles) and a moral protagonist (Scott), these characters are, to some extent, duck blinds. The movie belongs to our antihero, Gorman. It’s his narrative that drives the plot forward.
The audience also shares the knowledge of Gorman’s crimes from the very beginning of the film, one of the most shocking, concise openings in all of pre-Code-dom. A map flashes onscreen, giving the location of French Indochina. A series of ominous, establishing dissolves bring us into a jungle, where a group of men are huddled on the ground. In a closer shot, Gorman crouches beside a prone man we cannot see and appears to be sewing something as he nonchalantly explains, “A Mongolian prince taught me this. You’ll never lie to a friend again—and you’ll never kiss another man’s wife.”
Finishing with his work, Gorman and his party walk towards their transport elephant. We get several cuts back and forth between Gorman and his lackeys departing and the trussed-up victim, who struggles to get to his feet. Sutherland deftly delays a reveal until the last possible moment…
Finally, the unknown man stands, in the background of a long shot. Slowly, slowly, he staggers towards the camera. And only then do we realize the extent of Gorman’s sadism with this indelible image.
Armed with this early insight into Gorman’s dark side, the audience can perceive the bestial stirring of his “primitive emotions” under the veneer of charm he projects to the world, as he deceives the other characters. The camera frequently singles Gorman out with a reaction shot that offers a chilling clue to his state of mind, as he calculates his next misdeed. In one particularly alarming instance, he lingers in a doorway, after the cheerful pack of zoo employees has taken their leave. The camera tracks into his face and we can practically hear the wheels turning.
We also savor the rush of Murders in the Zoo’s loopy, cataclysmic finale with Gorman. Instead of staying with the pursuers, the camera hovers around the villain, as he releases all of the big cats from their cages and stands watching them with Colonel Kurtz-esque serenity.
Gorman’s ease in the heart of chaos reminds me of another gentleman hunter of 1930s horror: General Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game, who slakes his personal bloodlust by hunting humans. However, no matter how much the audience might admire Zaroff’s panache, he still comes across as a delusional nemesis, a megalomaniac who seeks to elevate himself above all other beings. Gorman, by contrast, lives in the animal world, stalking his prey without any larger philosophical overtones. He seems to have returned to a deep-seated part of mankind, a vestigial aggression that most of us resist and deny.
The Most Dangerous Game remains a splendid adventure largely because of how effectively the perils of the protagonist are managed. Murders in the Zoo, however, stands apart as a very different kind of thriller for the way it makes us share the experience of the bad guy.
The viewer is drawn into a bond of complicity with the multiple murder. As Hitchcock would do so masterfully in Psycho, Sutherland makes us sweat it out with Gorman, creating an uncomfortable alliance of perspective and semi-sympathy. Only we and Gorman grasp the full gravity of the situation as other characters turn up clues to his guilt. The prospect of his unmasking makes us tense—in spite of ourselves. In fact, the strange identification that Sutherland weaves between the viewer and Gorman is not unlike the mixture of wariness and fondness we feel before a proud, dangerous, animal in a cage.
The film actually introduces its characters with novel twist on the common 1930s practice of including footage of each character at the beginning of the movie as part of the credits. A shot of each role’s animal equivalent (we might say spirit animal nowadays) dissolves into a shot of the actor playing the role. Goofy Charlie Ruggles is a seal. Wise doctor Randolph Scott is an owl. Kathleen Burke is—surprise, surprise—a sinuous big cat. And the voracious, dignified tiger dissolves into… Gorman, of course.
Murders in the Zoo thus hints, none too subtly, that humans are kidding themselves if they think they’ve risen above the animal kingdom. In the exuberant stock footage of dancing bears, macho elephant seals, and maternal elephants that the movie cuts together, we recognize sparkles of personality, of qualities that homo sapiens often believe belong only to them. Conversely, Sutherland casts a droll zoological gaze on the herds of fluttery society elites and the flocks of querulous children that appear in the film.
As if the subversive context weren’t bad enough, the film’s unabashed seesawing back and forth between pleasure and disgust foreshadowed a brand of horror that wouldn’t come into its own for decades. Now, Thirteen Women, made the year before Murders, deservedly gets a lot of credit as an early iteration, and possibly the genesis, of the slasher genre, but at least that film could sell itself as a serious women’s picture with legit literary source material. Murders in the Zoo abandons all pretense of social validity in favor of a delirious, regressive killing spree, peppered with alarming doses of anarchic humor.
Of course, combining humor with horror is nothing unusual; almost every scary movie of the 1930s did it in some measure. However, Murders in the Zoo doesn’t offer comic relief so much as comic disturbance. The wisecracks and sick jokes pop up relentlessly, often at awkward moments, denying us the full cathartic power of the fear that the film also provokes.
The film’s general attitude towards death— just another opportunity for innuendo—can be summed up by Gorman’s bemused reaction when his wife accuses him of killing her lover: “Evelyn, 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!” Yup. People die. That’s too bad. How about a jocular phallic double entendre?
To a certain extent, Murders in the Zoo depicts violence as funny and cartoonish. The series of pulpy, improbable demises, jumbled as they are with extended sequences of absurd hijinks, distance us from the ugliness of death. We’re basically dealing with a screwball comedy diabolically cross-pollinated with revenge melodrama.
If not for one saving grace moment of silence and respect, when our good-guy archetype Randolph Scott delicately escorts Kathleen Burke’s character away from the corpse of her lover, I might call the movie itself positively amoral.
So, if I conclude that Murders in the Zoo was ahead of its time, please don’t suppose that I mean that entirely as a compliment.