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 ďseriesĒ was Black Zoo, a charmingly bonkers effort that marries the polished, garish British aesthetic and occult leanings for Cohenís 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, heís Michael Conrad, a zookeeper with an entire host of spirit animals under his commandóliterally. 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. Itís a concept that cuts right to the primal heart of the nature-run-amok genre, and itís pretty accomplished on a purely visceral and visual level, particularly in its employment of (mostly) real animals and some tremendous stunt work. The filmís opening scene features a young woman mauled to death by a tiger, an episode that hints at the filmís preoccupation with this simplistic theme; her identity isnít revealed, nor is it made clear why sheís been targeted for such a grisly fate. Instead, itís a stark, violent sequence that speaks to the filmís 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 didnít hesitate to toss in some weird flourishes in this one though; as if Conrad werenít 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 theyíre right; after all, these giant creatures repose in Conradís 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, youíre privy to a gathering of the ďtrue believers,Ē who engage in animal soul transference. Their main shaman also wears a giant tiger pelt during the ceremony, as if this bizarre aside werenít wacky enough.
Black Zoo doesnít quite go all the way into lunacy and eventually settles back into its routine; maybe itís a little disingenuous to consider an ape-turned-hitman ďroutine,Ē 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 thatís attended by the rest of his animal comrades. Drenched in lavish colors and a gothic atmosphere (itíd be easy to mistake Black Zoo as a Hammer or AIP, which Iím sure was Cohenís intention), itís another strange moment that adds to the filmís off-kilter mood since itís 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 baronís 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, itís an unholy union between 60s gothic horror and the previous decadeís 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 ageís 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 solidóthere might be a few scratches and pops than youíre used to seeing, but the transfer is lush and colorful. Thankfully, Warner Archive just announced that itíll be starting its own streaming program soon; hopefully, Black Zoo will make the cut to appear on the platform at some point since itís the right kind of crazy that almost demands to be seen. Buy it!
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