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Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Movie Review: Murders in the Zoo

The use of a venomous snake to commit a murder isn't a new plot device - it's appeared in novels and stories  for decades, from the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan Doyle to Barbara Kingsolver's modern classic, The Poisonwood Bible.  In the aptly, if unoriginally, titled Murders in the Zoo, a wealthy big game hunter and animal collector uses animal accomplices to dispose of those who displease him... and it seems that there are a lot of people who displease him.

Like Hatari!, staring John Wayne, Murders in the Zoo is not a movie that you could make today, not unless it was all done in CGI.  The namesake zoo is the centerpiece of much of the film, and the animals that inhabit it don't just provide scenery - in many ways, they are the stars, as integral to the plot as any of the actors.  That's not to say that they don't provide scenery - a decent portion of the film is given to panning over the animals.  Some of the footage is endearing.  Other parts are a little unsettling - like the rows of baby bears tethered on leashes, being given milk bottles by zoo visitors.  Or maybe the tiny cages of the Carnivora House, where lions and tigers pace behind heavy bars.  If nothing else, the film provides a nice visual representation of what zoos used to look like, and how far (most of us) have come.

It's the dank, depressing Carnivora House (which none of the film's actors seem to mind) that provides the most stunning part of the film, the scene which first led me to watch it.  All of the big cats are turned loose for one epic free-for-all, lions and tigers and other big cats rolling and clawing and slashing each other... or so it seems.  If you watch carefully, you'll see that none of the animals harms another - it looks fierce as heck, but they bat at one another with snarling faces, then whirl around and trade partners without so much as scratching each other.  I know that the use of performing animals in film and television is in disfavor these days, but you do have to take off your hat to whoever trained that scene.  It's a masterpiece.

Sure, the plot of Murders in the Zoo is pretty thin.  Animals rarely behave like in real life like they do in the move (mostly thinking about a certain boa constrictor scene).  And don't get me started on incorrect animal information given out (note: mambas do not come from India).  Still, it's a fun enough yarn if you're looking for an old-school horror movie for a Halloween night.  Silence of the Lambs it isn't, but it does take you back to a bygone era, when animals were used very differently, both in zoos and in film.

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