Lionel Atwill is a zoologist with murder on his mind. RICHARD PHILLIPS-JONES investigates Murders In The Zoo.
TITLE: Murders In The Zoo
RELEASED: 31st March 1933
STARRING: Charles Ruggles (Peter Yates), Lionel Atwill (Eric Gorman), Gail Patrick (Jerry Evans), Randolph Scott (Dr. Jack Woodford), Kathleen Burke (Evelyn Gorman), John Lodge (Roger Hewett)
WRITERS: Philip Wylie and Seton I. Miller
DIRECTOR: Edward Sutherland
Eric Gorman is a zoologist and game hunter with novel methods for getting rid of his unfaithful wife’s paramours, inspired by his encyclopaedic knowledge of animal matters. Gorman sees in his arsenal of creatures the perfect means to cover up his tracks, but when others become suspicious of his activities, Gorman has to cast his murderous net somewhat wider, and things get out of hand…
Comic actor Charles Ruggles might get the top billing, but this is unquestionably British horror favourite Lionel Atwill’s show. Paramount were perhaps capitalising on his success in Warners’ Dr. X the previous year, but nonetheless the casting is perfect. Atwill is on classic form, and if you want to see a great screen performer give a master class in menace you won’t do much better. This might just be one of his best roles, with a New York Times critic of the time stating “Lionel Atwill as the insanely jealous husband is almost too convincing for comfort…”
Paramount added their new star Kathleen Burke (who debuted as the Panther Woman in Island Of Lost Souls) as his adulterous spouse, whose behaviour would never have gotten past the censors just a couple of years later. That’s not the only thing that would give later censors a headache: Even in today’s light, there are nasty moments that are still slightly uncomfortable viewing. The opening scene (which I won’t spoil) pretty much sets the scene for what’s to come.
The dreaded Hays production code hadn’t yet been enforced in Hollywood, but even bearing that in mind, Murders In The Zoo is surprisingly dark, packing some pretty gruesome stuff into its 60 minutes.

French poster for Murders In The Zoo (1933), focusing on Kathleen Burke, “La Femme Panthère”.

Even the de rigueur comedy interjections of the time can’t detract from the general unease in a film which somehow fell through the cracks as the years passed, and which therefore is perhaps not as celebrated as it should be in the pantheon of 1930’s horror. Murders In The Zoo is more than worthy of your attention.
TRIVIA POINTS: Lionel Atwill apparently insisted on doing a fraught scene with a boa constrictor himself, despite the protests of the director.
Considering the BBFC’s keenness to take the scissors to horror films from this period, and their attitude to the same studio’s Island Of Lost Souls (1932), it’s somewhat surprising that they allowed Murders In The Zoo to be released uncut in the UK.
Kathleen Burke retired from the screen in 1938, at the age of just 25.

Richard Phillips-Jones
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