George Zucco

CULT HERO: 'Ramboona is all-powerful! Ramboona never fails!" Thus ranted George Zucco, wearing warpaint and a feathery hat, …

CULT HERO: 'Ramboona is all-powerful! Ramboona never fails!" Thus ranted George Zucco, wearing warpaint and a feathery hat, in the cult classic, Voodoo Man (1944). By day, an inoffensive middle-aged gas station attendant, by night a madman who dragged-up in high priest's paint and feathered head-dress to pay homage to his dark goddess, Zucco was far more credible as the latter than the former.

In the 1940s, there was a distinct pecking order when it came to casting the leads in horror films - Karloff and Chaney on the A-list, with Lugosi next and Lionel Atwill and John Carradine picking up the crumbs. Then there was George Zucco. The Manchester-born actor enjoyed success on the London stage and in British films prior to moving to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. It was not long before he was to lament, in a puzzled kind of way: "The only parts I seem to get in films are as horrible old men". When he wasn't playing deranged doctors, mummy-revivers and ghoul-controllers, he was cast in bigger films in smaller parts - as crooked lawyers, cruel taskmasters and corrupt officials. He was bald and, when not ranting or gibbering, he was clipped and stern. He had a remarkably piercing glassy-eyed stare and a voice like dry ice.

He started at the top, as Professor Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), and worked his way down a long list of depravity until his appointment with Ramboona. In Arrest Bulldog Drummond (1939), he was a master criminal who steals a death ray; in The Monster and the Girl (1941), a mad scientist who transplants the brain of a murderer into the skull of a gorilla. In The Mad Ghoul (1943), he created a serum that turned people into ghouls who need human hearts to survive. An affable and happily-married man with a great love of animals, Zucco's hopes of playing twinkling grandfathers and much-loved uncles dwindled as the years rolled by. Poor health kept him out of films for three years, and he recuperated by tending the animals on his litle farm. After David and Bathsheba (1951), he was taken seriously ill and retired from acting.

His last years are mysterious. In his book, Hollywood Babylon II, Kenneth Anger claims that Zucco "died in a madhouse from fright . . . screaming he was being stalked by the Great God Cthulu". But the truth seems less fanciful: impoverished and forgotten by Hollywood, his mind deteriorating, Zucco donned the costume he had saved from Voodoo Man and was found wandering the streets of Los Angeles, calling on his old pal Ramboona to help him get out of this godawful mess. His family took him home and he died in a mental hospital in 1960.

Stephen Dixon