A 1933 pre-Code shocker from Paramount, Murders in the Zoo stars the great Lionel Atwill, one of the unsung horror icons of Hollywood’s golden age. His role in this film, that of a wealthy big-game hunter who indulges in a bit of human homicide on the side, allows him to indulge in all sorts of gleefully sadistic mayhem, including sewing a man’s lips shut and tossing his unfaithful wife to the alligators. How to draw an audience to such a tale? Below are seen the efforts of three differently designed posters to lure viewers into the theater.
1) The poster below, by its use of an emphatic typeface and a striking contrast of black, yellow, and red, immediately grabs our attention, and underlines the lurid nature of its subject matter. Central to its design is Atwill’s satanically leering face, which is grouped with several snarling animal heads (big cats and big monkeys seem to be favored), as if equating his perverse passions with those of the more savage members of the animal kingdom. Cowering beneath Lionel’s demonic grin are, presumably, two of his victims, their isolation within a red circle highlighting their helplessness and terror.
2) In this poster, Lionel’s grinning face is again displayed (and again grouped with animal heads), and is even shown behind zoo bars, as if to emphasize the danger of his beast-like nature. More focus is also given to the film’s other stars: Charlie Ruggles, who plays a dipso public-relations agent for the zoo; Kathleen Burke as Atwill’s menaced wife, whom he discovers is cheating on him; and John Lodge as her lover and another target of Atwill’s wrath (although Lodge’s name does not appear on the poster’s cast list). Again note the bold use of color to define what might be called the planes of action, between Lionel’s glaring face in the black background, and the two men and woman in garish red and gold in the foreground. What’s odd about the three people in front is that, while appearing to look threatened, they seem to be gazing in the wrong direction for the source of their peril.
3) This remarkable French movie poster doesn’t display Lionel at all. Instead, it gives us an art-deco stylized Kathleen Burke (who had previously starred as Lota the Panther Woman in Paramount’s The Island of Lost Souls) strongly highlighted in black and white. Slinking behind her is a large mamba snake, an important character in the film. Although the mamba in the story happens to be Lionel’s pet, the poster’s design seems to equate the woman with the snake; it almost seems to emanate from her body, giving her a sinister, lamia-like appearance—a subtle indication of how Burke’s character drives Lionel to commit his nasty deeds.
You can read more on Atwill and Murders in the Zoo at our blog post here.