Murders in the Zoo

Murders in the Zoo is 1933 Pre-Code horror film directed by A. Edward Sutherland, written by Philip Wylie and Seton I. Miller. Considered particularly dark for its time, film critic Leonard Maltin called the film "astonishingly grisly."[1]

Murders in the Zoo
Directed byA. Edward Sutherland
Produced byE. Lloyd Sheldon
Written bySeton Miller
Philip Wylie
Milton H. Gropper
StarringCharlie Ruggles
Lionel Atwill
Kathleen Burke
Gail Patrick
Music byRudolph G. Kopp
John Leipold
CinematographyErnest Haller
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • March 31, 1933 (1933-03-31)
Running time
66 minutes
CountryUnited States


Big-game hunter and wealthy zoologist Eric Gorman (Lionel Atwill) is an insanely jealous husband who uses his animal knowledge to dispose of his impulsive wife's lovers. The film opens in an Indian jungle with Gorman using a needle and thread to sew a colleague's mouth closed after having discovered that he had kissed his wife, and then he seals the man's fate by abandoning him in the jungle with the wild beasts. Gorman later pretends to be surprised at hearing that the man had been eaten by tigers. Both Gorman and his wife Evelyn (Kathleen Burke) then return to America aboard a ship packed with captured animals he intends to add to his collection at a major zoo. On the ship, Evelyn starts to develop promiscuous relations with Roger Hewitt (John Lodge), which she makes little effort to hide from her husband. Naturally, the murderously jealous Gorman takes notice. So once back in the States, he begins to plot a way to get rid of Hewitt.

The zoo is beginning to run into financial trouble and the new press agent, Peter Yates (Charles Ruggles), a man terrified of most of the zoo's animals and considered to be an alcoholic, decides to host a fundraising dinner. Gorman takes this as a perfect opportunity to dispense his vengeance by poisoning Hewitt with mamba venom. He had obtained the poison after asking the zoo's laboratory doctor, Jack Woodford (Randolph Scott), to work on finding an antitoxin for the snake's fatal bite. When Hewitt unexpectedly dies at the fundraising dinner, Evelyn accuses her husband of being the murderer. Outraged, Gorman attacks her, but she is able to escape into his office where she finds a mechanical mamba head seeping with real mamba poison in his desk. She now knows for a fact that he killed Hewitt and takes the snake head with the intention to find Dr. Woodford. However, Gorman finds her and prevents her from revealing his crime by throwing her to the alligators, where she is torn to shreds.

The following day a group of children who sneak into the zoo discover tattered remains of Evelyn's dress. Dr. Woodford then becomes suspicious and accuses Gorman of murdering both his wife and Rodger Hewitt. Gorman disposes of Dr. Woodford by attacking him with the mechanical snake head just as he had done to Hewitt. The doctor's assistant Jerry (Gail Patrick) gives Woodford a shot of the antitoxin he had created for the mamba poison in time to save his life. She also realizes that Gorman is responsible for the apparent mamba attack when he tries to stop her, and has the zoo's alarms set off. A police chase thus ensues as Gorman is pursued through the zoo. Gorman releases big cats from the carnivore house in the hopes of distracting the police, but it backfires and a lion chases Gorman into the cage of a boa constrictor, who then slowly kills and devours him.

In the epilogue, Jerry visits a convalescing Dr. Woodford in the hospital. The stress, meanwhile, has caused Yates to fall off the wagon, and he is seen fearlessly meandering through the zoo, even swatting on the nose a still free lion that had been stalking him.



Murders in the Zoo was well received overall by its initial audience. The Los Angeles Times raved over the movie, saying, "Roars, shrieks, and cackling of the wild animals on the screen at the Paramount yesterday were echoed to an amazing degree by the audience, at times driven to a mild state of hysteria by scenes in 'Murders in the Zoo'."[2] However, a New York Times movie critic says, "Those who demand their leaven of romance even in horror pictures are likely to find 'Murders in the Zoo' inadequate in this direction." Though he also claims that "it happens that the director has been almost too effective in dramatizing these cheerless events…Lionell Atwill as the insanely jealous husband is almost too convincing for comfort…[and judging] by its ability to chill and terrify, this film is a successful melodrama."[3] Mark Clark wrote an article on Lionel Atwill as an actor and says that Murders in the Zoo was the "quintessential Lionel Atwill film." In the article Clark claims that "Atwill performs here with the quiet, coiled striking power of a beast tracking its prey. He glides effortlessly across the screen, speaking volumes with a barely perceptible change in tenor in his voice, unveiling his character's hidden passions with a simple, unguarded glance."[4]


  1. TCM Database entry
  2. Scott, John (April 7, 1933). "'Murders in Zoo' Opens on Screen". Los Angeles Times.
  3. A.D.S. (April 3, 1933). "Murders in the Zoo (1933): An Imaginative Killer". New York Times.
  4. Miller, John (2014). "Murders in the Zoo". Turner Classic Movies.
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