In this Paramount-produced shocker, there is a beast that stalks its prey at the zoo and it is none other than Lionel Atwill who is truly chilling as the jealous husband who will stop at nothing to keep other men away from his wife. His reputation is earned in the very first scene of the picture as he stitches a man’s mouth shut for daring to kiss his wife and from there, the horror of what he does cements the man as completely evil.
Atwill stars as Eric Gorman, a man who procures animals for the zoo and is married to the younger Kathleen Burke who finds herself the object of affection by many a man. Gorman covets his wife like no other and when he sees these men fawn over her, it drives him to madness and murder. What really puts the movie over the top is Gorman’s method of murder, using the very animals he has procured to do away with those he considers a threat. One very memorable scene involves the man finally getting rid of his wife in an alligator pit as she threatens to expose him for the murderer that he is. Soon enough though, all of it starts to unravel until finally, Gorman becomes a victim of those he sought to exploit.
Surprisingly, there is no real hero of the film, though Randolph Scott could have easily filled that role. Instead, Atwill’s character is subject to his own demise which makes it all the more interesting and seeing how it comes about provides one final moment of horror for the audience. Additionally, there is a little comedy to offset it all and that courtesy of Charlie Ruggles who does a good job of it, though a bit of the humour is a little dated and not as funny as it might have once been. There is a case to be made that the film could have done without it, instead featuring a little more development of the main plot and perhaps factoring in another murder or two, but it hardly ruined the movie and at the very least, moved things along at a good pace.
The best thing about pre-code horror films like this one is just how graphic they could be and not necessarily in their use of visceral elements, simply in the way murder and death could be portrayed. It would definitely add to this movie making Murders in the Zoo a must-watch and not just for fans of the genre, but for those who enjoy film in general. One can easily see the difference between this picture and those that would be released even a couple of years later, the meanness inherent in Atwill’s performance and by the cruelty he inflicts on those around him. While this would by no means be the best film Atwill would ever star in, it was one of his better performances.