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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Halloween Harvest 2011 --- Black Zoo

If Newspapers Were Like This, I'd Have Chosen a Career in Journalism
I was standing in fourth grade lunch line when classmate Tony Gentry told me he'd seen Black Zoo the previous day. Knowing it had by now left the Liberty, Tony described horrors the rest of us could not verify: There's one part where a man stuck his head in a lion's mouth, and the lion bit it off, he exclaimed, to which I replied, They showed that? Tony swore ... Absolutely! Harmless fibbing it was to his mind, but permanent distrust rose in me for this and similar exaggeration peers engaged when describing shows they knew I'd missed and would likely never see. Some tall tales were easier recognized than others, like when neighbor Babes Lowe told a treehouse full of us that Natalie Wood stripped fully naked in 1963's Gypsy, out the same year as Black Zoo. You needed a lie detector in those days to talk with friends about movies (and yes, I was guilty at times for similar embroideries).

The Best Thing About Black Zoo May Have Been Reynold Brown's Varied and Vivid Poster Art

Tony was right in guessing I'd not see Black Zoo and expose his perfidy. Once a show left town, it was gone, especially in a small berg where management was disinclined toward second runs. It's only in a just past week, and thanks to Warner's Archive, that I've finally caught Black Zoo, forty-eight years not an unreasonable wait to learn once and for all that no such scene as Tony described appears in the film. Is there primal need we all share to watch humans set upon by wild beasts? I admit looking forward to realization of lurid art shown here, even if Black Zoo but fitfully lived up to its promise.

Show Me The Nine-Year-Old Who Doesn't Relish Seeing Men Eaten By Lions

Recent news tells of a private zookeeper who loosed lions, tigers, and bears to panic an Ohio town. Born showman Herman Cohen might have wished for like serendipity to coincide with his promoting tour for Black Zoo, but the sales job Herman did was near as startling, and ranks tall among grassroot promotions headed for a mid-sixties fade. Maybe Cohen knew his kind of bally was last round-up'ing, but he'd been at it since age twelve and beginnings as youngest member of Detroit's theatre usher fraternity. Herman as eventual filmmaker was more for selling than creative ends, being like Bill Castle in that respect, but give him a tingly title and HC knew how to run with it. I Was a Teenage Werewolf and Horrors Of The Black Museum were hard-sold in partnership with AIP's wunderkind Jim Nicholson, these two a Barnum and Bailey at shock-peddling. Cohen produced a dozen for AIP by the time he jumped to Allied Artists for Black Zoo's distribution. AA needed summer chillers same as any industry player, and for 1963 slated Zoo and Brit-lensed Day Of The Triffids to fill exploitation dates.

Broidy Predicts AA Upbeat, said trade headlines reporting '63 plans for the company as optimistically conveyed by topper Steve Broidy, still reaching for glory now in a second decade of eluding Allied Artists. Hopes rested on what he called the keystone of all our plans, 55 Days At Peking, plus deals with John Huston, Samuel Fuller, and Blake Edwards for coming projects. For the meantime, there was sure thing of Black Zoo for May release, to which Herman Cohen lent his wild animal cast for whirlwind touring, this begun with a sixty theatre saturation in New York, Jersey, and Long Island, Zoo's lion and tigers aboard a float driven past venues hosting the pic. Cohen got further ink entering hotel lobbies accompanied by said beasts, one of which, "Zamba," had already distinguished himself by mauling a trainer during Black Zoo's production. This went unreported at the time, but was recounted years later for an interview Herman Cohen did with historian Tom Weaver.

Lions and Tigers In a Cemetary --- Why Didn't Anyone Think Of That Before?

Zoo yielded a whopper $260K for that opener Gotham week, Variety crediting Cohen's intensive push, plus personal appearing, on four legs, by cast members. Herman was flush with the praise, enough as to unload on distributors very undermanned in their advertising and publicity departments. Instead of trimming staff here, he said, they should lop off some of the top executives who are sitting on their backsides and doing nothing. Exhibitors came in for a Cohen blast as well. (They) do nothing either to try to contribute or help. They run for the big grossers or sit and do nothing. Herman felt horror films were an industry's salvation not properly appreciated, but you couldn't just send one out without proper exploitation.

Guess We'd All Take a Pass On Attacks Like This, Nocturnal Or Otherwise.

"Working Touter" Cohen knew his Black Zoo customer base. It's primarily a weekend audience ranging in age from 12-30, this group, he said, making up 72% of the viewing total. Herman, who was in large part author of teen slant scripts he produced, was careful not to put in anything that would offend or talk down to youth. Cohen added that the teeners in my pictures are basically good, moral youngsters, and never do anything bad except under sinister influences, and nothing that the audience can imitate. A Detroit homecoming found the city's mayor declaring "Herman Cohen Day" at a luncheon attended by HC and tethered Zamba, the latter visiting schools and shopping centers before taking up caged position in the Fox Theatre lobby.

Micheal Gough Enacts Tender Black Zoo Love Scene

Cohen had done "survey work" that identified "the booming community of suspense and terror buffs." He called theirs the biggest single audience movies have today. Herman had long been ahead of the pack for recognizing clubhouses shock fans gathered to, having used TV horror hosts to push Horrors Of The Black Museum in 1959. Now he'd widen the net to include monster magazines well entrenched by 1963. There was forgivable hyperbole in claims of "combined readership that runs into the millions," but little doubt these mags lifted Black Zoo attendance among that very group Cohen targeted, his a visionary outreach to a niche overlooked, if not ignored, by convention-bound merchandisers.

Elisha Cook Gets Comeuppance For Tiger Taunting --- He'd Later Call Black Zoo "A Terrible, Awful, Picture"

How Many Of You Out There Still Have Your Copy?

Possibly the most clever of Herman's tie-ins was the Charlton-published Black Zoo photo magazine, a thirty-five cent start-to-finish telling of the film's narrative in stills and frame blow-ups. Showmen were invited to buy in bulk at reduced wholesale of twenty-one cents per copy. I doubt many small town theatres participated ... for the Liberty it was enough that patrons could buy theirs across the street at Horton's Drug Store (where, in fact, I scored mine after Black Zoo had come and gone). Charlton paying tribute lent Black Zoo status few horrors shared at the time ... I went years thinking the film must be good to have merited such coverage (even as subsequent picture-mags devoted to The Mole People and Horror Of Party Beach should have disabused me of such notion).

Now we at last have Black Zoo on DVD, properly wide and colorfully rendered. It's a handsome show for one done on modest budget. Herman Cohen told Variety in 1963 that Zoo cost a million, which seems hardly likely ... cutting that by two-thirds might get closer to the actual tab. Still, there's nice photography by veteran Floyd Crosby of more recent AIP accomplishment (he made their Poes look like the million Herman aspired to) while hired-for-a-day-or-two faces Elisha Cook, Jerome Cowan (Wilmer Cook and Miles Archer together again!), along with Virginia Grey, made Black Zoo inviting as a curl-up with late, late movies at home, said comfort zone being what Cohen no doubt had in mind when he cast these players.

Michael Gough and Ill-Fated Rod Lauren With Looks-To-Be-Drugged Cub in Black Zoo

Michael Gough is pretty much Black Zoo's whole show, onscreen verbal abuse his specialty in those waning years when horror movies still revolved around personalities rather than blood squibs. Juve support Rod Lauren's March 1963 burglary arrest (he crashed in on a sleeping Black Zoo cast-mate in her apartment) foresaw tragic events to come in that young actor's life. Herman Cohen snuck his own cameo into an extended chimp act that eats up much of Black Zoo's opening reel. As with later Berserk, the producer felt bound to let routines, however unrelated to narratives at hand, play out beginning to end, giving patrons, if nothing else, opportunity to stoke up on concessions before getting down to horrific business.


Blogger Dave K said...

Well, okay, John, now I have to clean off my keyboard again. Your recollection of the over the top embellishments of playground movie critics had me doing a Danny Thomas with my morning coffee. Call it a burst of nostalgic recognition. How well I remember that bizarre childhood ritual of recounting the plot of the monster movie, the Twilight Zone episode, the horror comic that the other guys HADN'T seen. And, yes, if you were loosing the crowd, you might throw in an extra decapitation or twist ending to sell the thing ("I mean, it was so cool... too bad YOU didn't see it!")

As it turns out, BLACK ZOO is just about the only Herman Cohen horror fest I have yet to catch. Will have to nab the DVD. Michael Gough always played the most insanely unreasonable horror movie madmen. Egotistical, lecherous, hypocritical, he seemed to take time off from his megalomania du jour to torture and/or kill people who simply irritated him.

Great post! Really great post! Keep up the good work.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Squonk said...

It's interesting that you mention the recent events in Ohio. That whole thing has "Horror Movie" written all over it. A crazy guy release all these exotic animals, the more exotic the better, to get revenge on the people of the town who have made his life miserable. But the first victim of the genetically altered animals (ooh that's even better) ends up being him.

You're welcome Hollywood. I await my residual checks.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

great story!

1:38 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your BLACK ZOO post brings back a flood of memories for me. I was lucky enough to see this film at the Liberty, too, probably on the same day as that suave man-about-town Tony Gentry, one of the coolest fourth graders around in '64 (as I remember by then he already was growing an incipient Beatles-style "mop top"). It was sensationalist gossip like his that spurred BLACK ZOO's box-office success in the more humble venues such as the Liberty's. As to Natalie Wood's nude scene in GYPSY--wow!--what I would have given, even at my tender age! Babes Lowe must have seen the European version.

5:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two actors in BLACK ZOO, Jeanne Cooper and Jerry Douglas, are still working together on the CBS daytime soap "The Young and the Restless". And Michael Gough lived nearly a century. Boy, there must have been a fountain of youth in the Black Zoo.

9:57 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Thanks for reminding me of the importance of ballyhoo.

At first I confused BLACK ZOO with HORRORS OF THE BLACK MUSEUM (I just woke up when I went to your post).

In my early teens in New Brunswick, Canada, my home town theater in Chipman rarely showed horror films. For those a friend and I hitchhiked 16 miles to my birth town, Minto. After scaring ourselves silly (at least once in a while) in the dead of winter we froze our butts off waiting for a ride in the middle of nowhere. I will never forget the hope that raised in our breasts as we saw from miles away car headlights cutting into the blackness of the night only to have those hopes dashed as the car sped past us.

Was it worth it? Yes and yes again.

I loved the excitement ad campaigns like the one for this film stirred in our breasts. It made us feel this is a movie we JUST HAVE TO SEE OR DIE.

Strangely, I had never heard of THE BLACK ZOO until this morning. Now I JUST HAVE TO SEE IT. Thanks.

8:34 AM  
Blogger Linwood said...

I just ordered The Black Zoo from the Warner Archives. I have to see this baby again in remastered letterbox, the way God and Herman Cohen meant it to be.

4:12 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Warner Archives must surely lead the pack for pulling the wool off those childhood myths with their endless catalog of obscurities and vague memories.

2:27 AM  

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