Judge Mike Rubino does not trust private zoos. Period.
"Nightly they stalk the city streets…their kill-lust seeking human prey!"
There's always been something unsettling about those "private" zoos that situate themselves along exits on the turnpike. I don't know if it's their desperately cheerful names (stuff like "Animal Land," "Wild Treasures," or "Roadside Rainforest") or the fact that they seem to operate on a budget of forced smiles and crossed fingers, but something about those places isn't right. I'm glad to know that my leeriness of these shady establishments isn't something new; the 1963 thriller Black Zoo reinforces the notion that these private zoological exhibits are not to be trusted.
Opening with a shot of a dead body lying outside in the rain, Black Zoo is a Panavision oddity that's not quite a horror movie or a crime thriller. It's almost Hitchcock-ian in its premise, but devoid of any real technical artistry or nuance—you can probably blame director Robert Gordon (It Came from Beneath the Sea) for that one. Featuring some truly incredible scene gnawing by Michael Gough (who played Alfred in the '90s Batman films), Black Zoo is a 90-minute showcase of overacting and animal training. Gough plays the enigmatic zookeeper Michael Conrad, a displaced British madman who has not only trained his pets to respond to his church organ, but also belongs to an animal-worshipping cult. The plot is broken down into episodes, each exhibiting a different facet of Conrad's lunacy: he is more than willing to use his lion, tiger, and gorilla (a very obvious man-in-ape outfit by George Barrows) as murderous goons; exploit his wife (Jeanne Cooper, The Young and the Restless) and her traveling monkey show; and treat his employees, including his mute apprentice, Carl (Rod Lauren, The Crawling Hand), like worthless slaves.
The problem with the film's episodic, meandering character study is that there's no driving storyline beyond "Look how nuts this zookeeper is." The film never reaches the level of camp that something like The Abominable Dr. Phibes achieves (albeit that was released many years later), and it isn't serious enough to be remotely frightening or grotesque. Police investigations and actual conflict for Conrad isn't introduced into late in the film, and by then it's too little too late. If there is any real redemption in the film's pacing, it's that plenty of time is allotted to tiger/lion attacks: the cats are trained by expert Hollywood animal behaviorist Ralph Helfer, which means that most of the film's action is inherently suspenseful because it's totally legit.
Black Zoo is another niche title released on the Warner Bros. Archive manufactured-on-demand label. As such, the video quality is decent, but doesn't appear to have been cleaned up or remastered and sound is basic Dolby Digital mono. The disc is totally barebones, as well, so don't expect any gripping behind the scenes footage of tigers running around a soundstage.
Fans searching for this lost B-movie will likely be pleased to find it available on the Archive label. Curious passersby, however, would do well to continue to the next exit of the cinematic turnpike. There are plenty of other campy tourist traps (many starring Vincent Price) that are worth visiting instead.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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