A young woman walks home in Los Angeles one night, but grows concerned she is being followed, so quickens her step. Suddenly, from out of the nearby bushes over a wall appears a striped and fanged face: it's a tiger, and it leaps at her, bringing her down and devouring her. Where could the beast have come from? Could it be anything to do with a zoo in the vicinity, one owned by Michael Conrad (Michael Gough), which contains a wide variety of large and dangerous animals? Surely they are kept safe from the public in their cages?
Well, they are and they aren't depending on whatever whim Conrad is prey to that day. Black Zoo was the third collaboration between producer and writer Herman Cohen and star Gough after the no less lurid (or luridly coloured, for that matter) Horrors of the Black Museum and Konga, camp classics now but this last instalment in the loose trilogy was not as well known. That was possibly down to the more leisurely pace this time around, which made it look as if Cohen had enjoyed his idea about a killer zoo owner, but was reduced to padding that plot out to a draggy degree once it came time to pen the script.
So this was not as snappy as those other movies - other than the snap of animal jaws, that was, and the attacks here did look fairly convincing as the beasts throw themselves on their prey, although you have to assume they were not really getting mauled but the animals were merely playing to simulate the effect. But really this could have done with more attacks, because the rest of it was drawn out with scenes both domestic as Conrad bickers with his chimp-training wife Edna (Jeanne Cooper), or bullying his mute assistant Carl (Rod Lauren). The latter actor was enjoying his best year career-wise, but he ended up in gruesome circumstances, accused of ordering the death of his wealthier Filipino celeb wife and killing himself once the heat got too much to bear.
Oh, there was a bear in this too, but we just get a glimpse of him and don't see him slaughtering anyone. It was the big cats which were the piece of resistance, as not only did they do Conrad's murderous bidding, but he also assembled them in his lounge where they would laze about on the furniture while he played them music on his pipe organ. Like you do - any queries about why he had a pipe organ at all being swatted away by a tone that said, of course he did, he's a madman in a horror movie! What do you expect him to do, twiddle his thumbs? It was lunacies such as these which kept you watching, in spite of this being the least of the series (Gough continued to work for Cohen, but not in starring roles).
Although Brit Gough must have been pleased to be acting in a Hollywood movie, he was pretty much doing his florid villain act as he had done before and would again; his fans wouldn't have it any other way, after all, and he was very entertaining as he chewed the scenery and barked his lines with a true bad guy's sense of entitlement. Also along for the ride was perpetual fall guy Elisha Cook Jr, who wound up facing Conrad's wrath when he shoots his prized tiger after it lashes out when he teased it: this results in him fed to a handy lion. In addition, it leads to an even crazier scene where the owner goes to a meeting of the "True Believers" who give him a new cub and put on a reincarnation ceremony with bongo acompaniment so the deceased tiger's soul will be in the cub. Add in a man in a gorilla suit which serves to remind you of the better time you had with Konga (same suit, too), the other notable thing about this is the image under the opening credits: basically the end of the movie! Spoilers! Music by Paul Dunlap.