Superficially, Michael Conrad (Michael Gough) leads a charmed life. He is the owner of a small, yet successful private zoo in Los Angeles, where he can live out his love for animals by holding a lot of big cats in way too small cages and feeding a guy in a gorilla suit. By night, the lions, tigers, panther and cheetahs are chilling in Michael’s living room while he plays the organ for them. Curiously, seeing as he’s obviously quite mad, Michael isn’t living alone with his animals. He is married to chimp trainer Edna (Jeanne Cooper). She copes with Michael’s erratic and abusive behaviour (he’s one of those “I hit you but it won’t happen again” types) with the help of lots of booze.
Then there’s Michael’s mute assistant Carl (Rod Lauren). The zoo owner has had the young man under his thumb for years, systematically destroying his self respect to have a better class of helper than the mere hired help like his animal-hating zoo keeper Joe (Elisha Cook Jr.) can offer.
Of course, this very particular idyll can’t last forever. Various people are real and imagined threats to Michael’s lifestyle, and the zoo owner deals with these threats by letting his very cooperative animal pals loose on them, puzzling the hilariously incompetent police exceedingly with his murders.
Things come to a climax when Edna realizes how mad her husband truly is, and packs up her chimps and Carl and tries to leave.
Robert Gordon’s Black Zoo is the classic case of a film that has all the elements that could make a thriller, digging deep into the messed-up relationships and power imbalances in a deeply dysfunctional family by way of not exactly healthy psychology, but instead applies all its energy to being as silly as possible.
Although it’s easy enough to be disappointed by Gordon’s – or producer and writer Herman Cohen’s – decision not to make a film that’s as much in the vein of Peeping Tom or Psycho as the better written parts of the script pretend it to be, the film’s utter silliness does make it practically impossible not to be entertained by it. It all starts out innocently enough, if Michael Gough throwing pointed gazes around as if he were a basilisk is one’s idea of innocence, at least. But before long, the film juxtaposes typical psycho thriller scenes about Michael Gough being a jerk to everyone close to him with scenes of a lot of big cats our villainous protagonist calls his children looking very relaxed on couches and settees in his living room (there’s a big painting of lions on the wall, of course) while their buddy Mike makes an unholy racket on his organ.
And that’s before the film presents us with a dignified big cat burial with the whole cat gang in attendance, again chilling very relaxed on a blue-lit, foggy graveyard set right out of a gothic horror movie, listening to a heartfelt speech by Gough about the deceased’s kitty virtues.
Another moment of great hilarity follows when our hero visits the multi-cultural animal-lover cult he is a member of (which I didn’t mention in the little synopsis because it has no import at all on the film’s plot). There the soul of his dead kitten is transferred to an adorable tiger cub by a high priest wearing the upper half of a dead tiger on his head (that is how true animal idolators dress) while a shirtless black guy plays the bongo and the audience mumbles rhythmically. In one of the greatest moments of acting I have ever had the joy to witness, Gough manages to keep not just a straight face throughout the scene, but one that is so full of fake intense emotion I found myself riveted and laughing tears.
There’s also an awesome swirly flashback late in the movie that explains Carl’s origin story, a final battle to the death in the rain that would be dramatic and poignant if not for all the awesome nonsense that happens before, a gorilla costume that looks really good if you can overlook the fact that it doesn’t look like a gorilla at all, and oh so much intense, overly dramatic ACTING by Cooper and Gough, who both manage to treat their roles with total, unwinking earnestness like the true professionals they are.
Surprisingly, given the usual budgetary standards of Cohen productions, the tenor of the script, and director Gordon’s nature as typical hired gun director, all this intense, ridiculous beauty is presented with a degree of style that came unexpected to me until I realized that Black Zoo‘s director of photography is Floyd Crosby. Crosby was of course also the cinematographer of most of Roger Corman’s best gothic horror films (and of some other fine budget productions too). His use of contrasting colours – just look at the interplay of deep blues and reds in some of the film’s silliest yet most effective scenes – work exceedingly well with William Glasgow’s (himself a man with an interesting filmography) more carefully realized art direction, creating a style for the film which may not be as gloriously dream-like and artificial as that of the best Corman productions of the time, but that still lifts the ridiculous up towards the sublime more than once. In fact, the sillier the given scene, the more creative energy the crew seems to have invested in its look, with the burial and the organ playing scenes as particular aesthetic high points.
It’s this obvious effort everyone involved put towards a script that really doesn’t seem to deserve it that explains Black Zoo‘s particular charm for me.I see in this not just a demonstration of dogged professionalism, but the result of a group of filmmakers putting everything they have into their cheap drive-in movie fodder instead of just phoning it in. It is this on-screen enthusiasm that helped turn every moment where I should have been laughing at the film into one where I was laughing with it, congratulating it on a job well done.