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Black Zoo


Admission to this sanguine safari is recommended.

Rod Lott September 29th, 2011

One wacky dude, this Michael Conrad (Michael Gough, Alfred in the "Batman" movies of Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher) of 1963's "Black Zoo." He's the owner of a zoo that appears to be the hottest hang-out in town — frequented not only by schoolchildren, but also newlyweds and hot college girls — and whose furry residents he calls "my children."

blackzoo

But Michael's "children" are in danger — or is that endangered? — when greedy, swingin' businessman Jerry Stengel (Jerome Cowan, "The Maltese Falcon") keen on visiting a particular "striptease parlor" wants to take the land on which the zoo sits so he can rezone it as a residential district. Michael refuses to sign the contract, so the realtor threatens to use his connections at city council to revoke his license and condemn the animals.

So Michael does what any crazed zookeeper would do: brings the lion over to Jerry's house for "negotiations." It's the first in the film's series of its antihero getting revenge by all creatures great and small — but mostly great. Do not kill his tiger. Do not calls his place "penny-ante." Basically, do not cross him in any way, shape, form or fashion, lest you wish to have a gorilla pound you to death.

Directed by Robert Gordon ("It Came from Beneath the Sea"), "Black Zoo" is another irresistible entry in the filmography of semi-schlock producer Herman Cohen, who made a fortune in the late 1950s and early 1960s by giving young moviegoers what they wanted: harmless shocks, from "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" to "Horrors of the Black Museum," and to lesser success, "The Headless Ghost." By the time of "Trog," a Joan Crawford vehicle of 1970, Cohen's cheap-and-crazy brand of cinema was no longer in vogue with audiences.

But "Black Zoo," now available via MOD DVD from Warner Archive, is Cohen in his prime, and its story — an uncredited expansion of the ideas Edgar Allan Poe set forth to classic effect in literature's "Murders in the Rue Morgue" — is as fun today as I'm guessing it was a few generations ago. Silly but simple, it's treated seriously by Gough, who gives the kind of chewy performance in which Vincent Price specialized, and all the scares occur sans gore. As uncomplicated as its script is — co-written by Cohen, incidentally — "Black Zoo" carries a last-minute twist I found genuinely disturbing, and one which re-paints your perspective on every minute that passed before it. —Rod Lott

 
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