By Doug Gibson
“Murders in the Zoo” is a largely forgotten fairly large-budget Paramount film from 1933. It merits far more attention. Like its Paramount predecessor, the better-known “Island of Lost Souls,: it has scenes of sadism and pain that are unique for its era. Film critic Leonard Maltin has called the film “astonishingly grisly.” In any event, it’s a great tale and well worth owning.
The opening scene is a shocker. A man, Taylor, is being calmly tortured by Lionel Atwill’s character, who comments that he’ll never kiss another man’s wife again. Taylor is left in the jungle, presumably to die due to the elements or wild animals. Hands tied behind his back, he staggers forward. As he turns his face, the camera reveals that his lips have been sewn shut!
The film involves a sadistic, psychopathic millionaire sportsman named Eric Gorman, played very well by Atwill, who murders men who display a romantic interest in his wife, Evelyn, played by Kathleen Burke (the panther woman in “… Lost Souls.” The murdered man, we learn, had kissed – in jest – Evelyn. Gorman announces that he has disappeared.
Gorman returns from the Indo-China region with many wild animals that are put in a financially struggling zoo. The principals there include Professor Evans (Harry Beresford), his pretty daughter Jerry Evans (Gail Patrick), and her romantic interest, Dr. Jack Woodford (played by future cowboy films star Randolph Scott). Meanwhile, Evelyn, despite her brutish husband, is engaged in an adulterous affair with playboy John Lodge, played by Roger Hewitt. Also thrown into the plot for comic relief is alcoholic public relations man Peter Yates, played by Charlie Ruggles, a popular comedy player of that era. In fact, Ruggles is top-billed!?
More murders occur prior to the climax. It’s interesting to see films other than “… Lost Souls” that feature the iconic, beautiful Burke, and she’s not a sympathetic character. Nevertheless, the audience cares about her fate because her husband is a world-class movie villain. Atwill’s pursuit of Burke’s Evelyn from their home to the zoo, where he throws her, alive, over a bridge with alligators below is chilling.
By far the most interesting character is Atwill. He is absolutely superb portraying a combination of intimidation, strength and cruelty. Picture a combination of Leslie Bank’s Zaroff in “The Most Dangerous Game” and Lee J. Cobb’s Johnny Friendly in “On the Waterfront.” A merciless character, he sees his wife as his possession. Atwill’s Gorman is also cunning, able to change his personalities and facial expressions on a whim to to his advantages and desires. The scene where he demands sex from his unwilling, repulsed wife is macabre.
Atwill’s performance is worthy of Lon Chaney’s best silent offerings and it would have been interesting to have seen Chaney in the role. Scott is semi-bland as the ultimate hero who gets the girl but it’s fun to see him in a non-cowboy role.