GUIDE | ORIGINS

Murders in the Zoo

(A. Edward Sutherland, USA, 1933)

BY LAURA KERN | April 19, 2022
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After a curiously cutesy opening-credits sequence featuring Murders in the Zoo’s cast members mirrored with similarly posed animals, a quick tonal shift occurs, transitioning to perhaps the most gruesome film scene of its day. A man, while traveling in Indochina, sews shut the mouth of another, as two native accomplices hold him down. We aren’t witness to the actual intricacies of the needlework, but the connotations are graphic enough, and when we do see the victim after the fact—hands bound, his stitched lips more prominent as he nears the camera—the sheer trauma is clear on his face. Even for a pre-Code movie, which are known more for their sexual provocations than shocking violence, this is a particularly nasty scene.

The brute responsible for the barbaric act is Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill), a millionaire sportsman/philanthropist who travels the world searching for new rare animals to supply the municipal zoo with. But while he’s a pro dealing with his non-human findings, he can’t seem to tame his wild wife, Evelyn (Kathleen Burke, following up her sexy film debut the previous year as Lota the Panther Woman in Island of Lost Souls), who takes one lover after the next. Eric identifies with the primitive behaviors of his predatory animals—Atwill/Gorman is naturally paired with a tiger in the opening credits—adapting to their ways as a means of revenge. His first (shown) victim had his mouth sealed so he could “never kiss another man’s wife,” and the next in line for a lesson is Evelyn’s latest fling (John Lodge).

This intriguing, darkly obsessive strand of the film is counterbalanced by a side love story between the zoo’s scientist (Randolph Scott) and its curator’s daughter (Gail Patrick), and plenty of comic relief involving the goofy antics of animals and the newly hired press agent (Charlie Ruggles, strangely top-billed), a bumbling known drinker who has an intense fear of the wild beasts—or “things,” as he calls them—that he’s supposed to be promoting. Too much of the just-over-one-hour runtime is devoted to him.

In the early ’30s, Paramount was going through a rough financial patch, and aside from a few horror titles, the studio was betting on crowd-pleasing comedies and prestige pictures to get them back on track. The closest thing to prestige in this case is the fact that the film’s stark look comes courtesy of master cinematographer Ernest Haller (known for What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and his Oscar-winning work on Gone with the Wind). Here, in addition to the sewn mouth, he’s responsible for capturing some strikingly sinister deaths involving alligators and a massive human-suffocating snake. Though not enough to bring in the desired audiences, these scenes alone make Murders in the Zoo a notably meaty slice of ’30s horror; even pre-Code, it was banned in some countries and censored in others. 🩸

LAURA KERN

is a writer, editor, and horror programmer based in New York. She is the editor of Bloodvine and her writing has appeared in publications such as The New York Times, Film Comment, and Rolling Stone.

TWITTER: @killerkern

How to see Murders in the Zoo

Currently unavailable for streaming, after playing as part of The Criterion Channel’s excellent Pre-Code Paramount series, the film can be found on DVD, sold separately or as part of a Cult Horror Collection, via Universal/TCM.
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