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DVD Review: Black Zoo

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Who is the most dangerous animal? Lion? Tiger? Robert Gordon’s 1963 thriller Black Zoo suggests the answer is man. The complicated relationship between man and beast is the stuff of philosophy as well as the B-movie, and Black Zoo, which also goes by the clarifying title Horrors of the Black Zoo, addresses this time-honored theme with murderous beasts indeed. But simply adding “horrors” to the marquee does not alchemically create an effective cinematic scream fest. Vivid cinematography and elegant composition can’t save producer Herman Cohen’s lousy script. But the film is not without its moments.

Cohen is known for B-movies that don’t quite live up to their premise, like the early Michael Landon picture I Was Teenage Werewolf and the late-career Joan Crawford vehicle Trog. The burden of this dark menagerie is carried by Michael Gough, who starred in two other Cohen productions, Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga. For Black Zoo he takes on the role of organ-playing zoo keeper Michael Conrad, who lords over the animals of his Los Angeles zoo. James Dean wannabe Rod Lauren plays the mute Carl, the zoo keeper’s charge, and veteran character actor Elisha Cook plays to his signature bug-eyed strength as he teases a tiger with raw meat. Add to this a memorable gorilla attack that prefigures Chinatown, and the synopsis alone may lure the unsuspecting viewer to pounce. Sadly,  a few strong elements do not a well-balanced meal make. The script is stiff, heavy on exposition and light on propulsion, so the handful of startling scenes just lay floating in a pool of mediocre muck. Which is too bad – for a B-movie, the production values are good, the set design and cinematography suitably atmospheric.

Like other Warner Archives made-to-order DVDs, the disc does not include any bonus features, but it’s a new and crisp transfer from a good print. As a document of early sixties fashions and mores, the student of anthropology will find something to chew on in Black Zoo. But horror aficionados will have to look elsewhere in the Warner Archives catalog for a more fulfilling meal.

Black Zoo is only available from Warner Archives.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.