Snake Bites

Zoo budget cuts. Lay-offs. People taking jobs they hate. Murders in the Zoo doesn’t hide from the depression era, rather embracing the story possibilities. After a snake is loosed and the zoo closes, kids line up outside, pleading to get in because nothing else is fun anymore – or that all closed too.

Charles Ruggles is key to this movie. He’s a joy as the zoo’s new PR man, but fears animals. His levity hardly factors into this story (and Murders in the Zoo only has 60 minutes to kill), but his high-pitched squeals and awkwardness break from the oppressive real world environment that surrounded this release.

After all, the flipside is Lionel Atwill, returning from exotic lands to deliver specimens for display. He’s driven by animalistic instinct, in love with a woman who hates him and willing to take out any other suitors. Murders in the Zoo is creative, at least. Atwill isn’t part of the mad scientist rogue’s gallery from this period. If anything, he’s more of a villain today, not only for murder but capturing and caging species of all types.

Jason Vorhees was never so ingenious

Atwill kills with an unorthodox method. He cuts off the head of a black mamba snake, and stabs people with the fangs. Scientifically questionable, if an effective weapon. Jason Vorhees was never so ingenious. That leads to a capable mystery as officials sit blindsided as to how bodies keep piling up.

With Atwill driven by primal love (turning aggressive and abusive), Murders in the Zoo draws a limp comparison between man and carnivore. Cameras focus on lions, cheetahs, and hyenas, placing Atwill among them, Atwill standing as the uncaged killer. He’s inspired by his travels and captures. That’s fine, if woefully unexplored in the thin runtime.

Instead, it’s shrewd shock theater for the ‘30s. Scenes of a dead body in autopsy (fully clothed autopsy, of course) undoubtedly drew chills once. All of the carnivorous felines make for an exotic, uncomfortable feel. By 2019 standards, the thought of letting guests walk over a small bridge above an alligator pit – no barriers, no netting – seems unfathomable.

Turns out, Murders in the Zoo makes a case for why protection needed to be implemented. In the harshest death, Atwill sends a victim into the pond, editing hiding the worst of it, but the suggestion is more potent than gore. That works in Murder in the Zoo’s favor, and for 60 minutes of thin horror comedy, the entertainment value is there.


The inclusion of Murders in the Zoo in Scream Factory’s “Universal” Horror Collection 2 is borderline. This was originally a Paramount production; Universal bought Murders in the Zoo some 25 years after release for TV distribution. On a technicality, Scream Factory is sort of right.

Regardless of ownership, the Blu-ray debut is moderately successful. Softened imagery suggests an older master, low on fidelity if still finding some texture in close. Definition inside homes brings out the ‘30s era décor. Some fur on big cats stands out too.

Heavy if resolved grain looks pure and organic. Source materials suffer only minor scarring, an occasional heavy scratch and a handful of minor ones. In terms of condition, it’s natural.

Murders in the Zoo’s loss comes in gray scale. White clips in spots and black levels never reach the needed level to bring out horror images. Murky gray lessens dimension and attractiveness. This one is due for a new scan, but for now, this is sufficient.


Here’s a rare case where vintage mono audio truly surprises. There’s nothing tinny about this DTS-HD offering. Dialog is deep and rich, with unusual levels of bass. It’s smooth and pure, the best type of sound from this era.

Even the minimal score holds firm. Peaks never lose their touch. Instead, the source provides a beautiful, organic richness that’s true of only a handful of discs this aged.


Greg Mank steps into the recording booth for commentating duties, his film historian background nicely informing of Murder at the Zoo’s details. An image gallery is second and last in the bonuses.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Murders at the Zoo
  • Video
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  • Extras


An early example of the horror comedy, Murders in the Zoo is seedy and relevant enough to the depression era to earn notice.

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