After the ushering in of Hammer Films's color gothics and the era of British horror in the late 1950s, the names of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee became synonymous with the genre. But another actor, with a supporting role in Hammer’s HORROR OF DRACULA, also came to forefront, thanks to producer Herman Cohen casting him in lead roles in HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (1959) and KONGA (1961). The late, great Michael Gough’s deliciously over-the-top portrayals of maniacal, tyrannical and murderous eccentrics in those two films lead to a twenty year association with pictures of this type (whether he liked it or not), and horror fans are all the more happier for it. BLACK ZOO was Cohen’s third project for Gough, and it seems as though the part was tailor-suited for his incomparable, scene-stealing acting techniques.
In Los Angeles, Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) runs a private zoo out of his home, inhabited by caged tigers, lions, cougars, panthers and a guy in a gorilla suit. Conrad puts up a façade of painted smiles when it comes to visiting busloads of tourists or busty art students, but he treats his wife Edna (“The Young and the Restless” legend and mom of Corbin Bernsen, Jeanne Cooper) and his mute teenage assistant Carl (Rod Lauren, THE CRAWLING HAND) like crap. Conrad’s only affections are for his animals, as he occasionally lets them roam freely on the living room furniture while he serenades them with haunting organ music. But Conrad has another purpose for his loyal pets; dispatch them to maul his enemies, of which he has plenty. There’s the abusive zookeeper (Elisha Cook Jr., BLACULA), a pushy land developer (Jerome Cowan, MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET) and a talent agent (Virginia Grey, UNKNOWN ISLAND) offering his wife a lucrative show biz job away from home.
Unlike HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM and KONGA which were produced in England, BLACK ZOO was made in Hollywood and released by Allied Artists. Gough is basically playing the same batty persona he created for those two films (he even has the same “graying at the temples” hairstyle), and the fact that he’s a foreigner in America is addressed in the script with the alienation making his character more of an outsider and far more peculiar. With Gough hamming it up against the dissimilar style of American actors, and the film’s overall kooky nature, this remains one of the star’s finest hours. Gough’s Conrad is so fanatical about his animal worship that he belongs to a society called the “true believers”, and trusts that the soul of his murdered tiger is transferred to the body of another (and he wears a tiger-skin rug-robe during the cultish ceremony).
BLACK ZOO follows a string of Herman Cohen-produced monster movies (I WAS A TEENAGE WEREWOLF, I WAS A TEENAGE FRANKENSTEIN, BLOOD OF DRACULA, etc.) with the theme of an overbearing adult manipulating a teenager into doing hideous things. In this case, it’s Lauren’s traumatized manservant Carl, and there’s a eye-opening climatic flashback sequence that explains his long-time loss of speech. Jeanne Cooper is really good as Conrad’s wife, who runs a sideshow act involving cigarette-smoking chimpanzees, takes to drinking before meals, and shows her devotion to her hubby until she can’t take any more of his verbal and physical abuse (as well as his true fiendish nature). Cooper (who was also excellent in Roger Corman’s THE INTRUDER, shot a few years earlier), creates a far from one-dimensional character, and the dinner table scene with its slowly erupting squabble between her and the husband, and the resulting smashing of a baked red casserole, is a scream. Veteran character actor Edward Platt (best known as “The Chief” on “Get Smart”) plays the detective who helps conclude that animals are the perpetrators of the spree of attacks (you think?) and a very young Marianna Hill (THE BABY, MESSIAH OF EVIL) plays a beautiful art student who strikes up a conversation with mute Carl before the cruel zookeeper intervenes.
BLACK ZOO’s rich Panavision cinematography is by none other than Oscar-winning Floyd Crosby, who shot a number of low budget but colorful widescreen spectaculars over at AIP around the same time. A tiger’s funeral procession, taking place in a foggy gothic cemetery, standouts entirely and looks like something shot for one of Roger Corman’s Poe films (many of which Crosby worked on). The gorilla suit in the film was previously used in KONGA, but this time it’s worn by the suit’s creator, George Barrows — there’s a great scene where the bulky ape, named Victor, attacks a woman in her car after she’s pulled into her garage. Herman Cohen makes a cameo as a spectator (during the exciting chimp act) and he even has a brief line. This was Gough’s last starring role for Cohen, though he had memorable supporting parts in two more of his productions: BERSERK and TROG.
Never before released on home video, BLACK ZOO has been a real rarity and his eluded many fans, as it’s hardly ever been on U.S. television in recent years. Anyone holding on to a bootleg of the film transferred from a pan and scan 16mm will be pleased to see this official release as part of the Warner Archive Collection. Presented in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement, the remastered transfer on the manufactured-on-demand DVD looks great. Though Eastmancolor is never as vivid as Technicolor, the colors still stand out in many scenes, and detail remains sharp throughout, with some minor debris and a handful of fleeting markings found on the print source. The mono English audio is also clear throughout. There are 28 chapter stops, but no trailer which would have been nice (we showed a beautiful 35mm color trailer for the film at this year’s Drive-In Super Monster-Rama). (George R. Reis)
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