“This motion picture you are about to see was conceived in June 1970. Its goal is not to win commercial awards but to create an “awareness of a present danger.” Zodiac is based on known facts. If some of the scenes, dialogue, and letters seem strange and unreal, remember – They happened. My life was threatened on Oct 28, 1970, by Zodiac. His victims have received no warnings. They were unsuspecting people like you- – -“
Paul Avery, Reporter San Francisco Chronicle
How such an ineptly scripted film could be so God-damn entertaining is beyond me, but entertaining it is. It’s not even close to being great, not even good at that, but it’s so oddly twisted and turned that it comes out like a mind-bending surreal film experience like no other. Oh, and that inept script, according to the director of this film Tom Hanson was written in all of a day and a half. The script was written by Ray Cantrell and Manny Cardoza. Cardoza was also the assistant director. An interesting point to ponder on the script deficiencies is in the bar scene. An extra there is none other than the great Robert Towne who would go on to win an Oscar a few years later for the original screenplay of the classic Chinatown (1974). By the way, the film was made to apprehend the real Zodiac Killer… honestly!
The logic behind it is that if they made the film the media hungry Zodiac Killer would just have to come see himself on the big screen. Of course, we may never know if the killer actually attended a showing, that is unless he is finally captured. And being a devoted fan of this film, I can only hope that the question is posed to him or he gives his thoughts on the film in general. While on this subject, I must direct one to the enclosed booklet in the new AGFA-Something Weird release that includes an interview of director Tom Hanson conducted by Chris Poggioli. The interview details the riotous stories concerning the attempted traps set up at the theater showings to capture the real Zodiac Killer if perchance he did attend. The fact that the filmmakers were attempting such a ploy while the murders were still going on was a bold if not questionably insane move.
The film gives us two suspects: the hotheaded Grover (Bob Jones) and the rabbit-loving, seemingly decent Jerry (Hal Reed). Grover is a drug-taking, truck-driving misogynist who only deems women worthy of giving him sexual gratification. And Grove masks his true vocation when he goes out to score wearing a cheap wig and an even cheaper-looking suit. Grover is ashamed of his truck driving job and when on the prowl pretends to be an executive. Jerry, on the other hand, is outwardly polite and besides some flashes of anger seems the most stable of the two. But Grover eventually pushes his hateful rhetoric a bit too far. And after taking his daughter hostage, Grover shoots at the police who have responded to the situation but not before stealing from the headlines of the paper lying at his feet… shouting out “The Zodiac Killer – that’s me. I’m the Zodiac.”
Things don’t end well for the gun-carrying, drug-fueled Grover who opens fire upon the officers. That is until a bullet quells Grover and sends him flying into the family swimming pool, dead. It’s, of course, assumed that Grover was the Zodiac Killer as he was brought in and questioned beforehand about his whereabouts the night of a particular murder. This false information makes the real Zodiac Killer furious and he calls the detective to tell him so. The Zodiac craves attention and decides to up his game a bit by going on a sadistic murder spree. The film uses some of the actual case history of the Zodiac Killer up to that point. This includes him sending in taunting letters to the San Francisco Bay area newspapers with instructions for them to print the letters or else. Accompanying the letters was a three-part cipher which the killer claimed would reveal his name if deciphered along with his infamous circular symbol with a cross through it.
The trip the filmmakers take one on is wildly entertaining, but it is also unsettling at best. I mean the film may have been supposedly made to capture the Zodiac Killer, but in all reality it was a classic exploitation ploy of trying to find a hot topic which was untouchable by the major studios but not to the independent filmmakers. These films were made cheaply and quickly to cash in on the notoriety. And I would think that the solid box office and critical acclaim afforded to such recent crime films as The Boston Strangler (1968), starring Tony Curtis, and the Truman Capote adaptation In Cold Blood (1967) were most likely motivating forces also. And let’s not forget the Manson murders which were also swirling around the news world then as another hot topic point to the making of a film based on a murderer.
The only difference between this film and any of the other examples mentioned above was that the Zodiac killer had not been apprehended and possibly never will be. So, all the filmmakers could do was take from the headlines what they could, but they had to manually construct a narrative around the supposed killer and his motivation behind his killing spree. Believe me, the fact that I reveal to you that Jerry is the killer does not really give a thing away as it really only boiled down to two suspects in the film: Jerry and Grover. Anyway, Grover is disposed of fairly early in the proceedings.
The truth quite honestly is that when Jerry takes center stage the film moves from an awkward cinematic journey into a flawed surreal, uncomfortable sleaze fest. Some of the scenes are so badly acted, and the camera forced so deeply into the action, that it makes one discombobulate the scenes within one’s mind. The ugliness of the bar scene where Grover is finally revealed to be a charlatan is a seemingly drug-fueled, grotesque-looking sequence. Grover turning on the fake charm is surrounded by four women at the bar. All of the horny women paw at him when his wig is pulled from his head by one of the women after she was repeatedly told, “don’t touch the hair.” The director zooms in on the faces of the ugly, deviant-looking bar patrons to paint a mural of laughter, humiliation, alcohol fanned lust and shame.
Grover flips out and attacks the drunken woman only to be pulled off her by Jerry. Grover continues yelling, “I’m gonna get her… I’m gonna get her-Nobody calls me a bald-headed bastard.” Jerry tells the woman to leave out the back as Grover is pretty mean when he’s loaded. Ultimately, the scene set up in the viewer’s mind is one of the main focal points of this movie and that is there are unhinged people out on the streets who can hurt, maim and even kill a person at a moment’s notice. They’re out there. This is further magnified at the conclusion when Jerry is walking free among the populace with a concluding narration speaking of how people like him are out there walking around: “Well now you know I exist… What are you going to do about it? I’ll tell you… You won’t do anything. You’ll go about things the same way you always have.”
Like most psychopaths, Jerry is very charming and gains the trust of people easily. One thing that kept popping into my head was how the outgoing, somewhat attractive, Jerry made me think of another serial killer Ted Bundy because of their disarming personalities and manipulation of not only their victims but also people in general. Jerry believes that when he kills he is collecting slaves for his next life after he is reborn into paradise. He feels that people can only block his spiritual progress and that his he is guided by a supreme power of another life. Jerry also has parental issues with a deceased mother and a deranged father who is locked up in a mental hospital behind bars. Jerry still longs for affection from his father which the old man never showed Jerry. And now his father is but a violent, mentally-deranged inmate who becomes aggravated by Jerry’s visits and his plea for love.
In the opening scene, a policeman sitting in his car is shot at point-blank range while reading the book It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. The novel is about a politician who is elected president of the United States and takes control of the government turning it into totalitarian rule. Why the book was used could have been a poke at the Vietnam war and the Nixon administration or even just a reference point to the fact that murders can happen anywhere and serial killers can operate unsuspected in any society. As the end nears, the frequency of the killings ramps up and becomes more sadistic and non-gender biased. The severity of the scenes also reach an apex with a particularly gruesome scene near the end in which two young lovers are repeatedly stabbed over and over by the hooded, Zodiac symbol-wearing Jerry.
This AGFA-Something Weird release of the film is not my first viewing of the movie. I had seen it back in the video days on VHS from Academy Entertainment, but it was released under the title The Zodiak Killer. This new release is a 4K scan from the only surviving 16 mm blow-up elements. The print is not perfect as there are grain and some other imperfections, but it’s also a cheaply made film with a reported budget of $13,000. The modest budget shows in the finished product. But for a film with grindhouse origins, the grain and slight imperfections take nothing away from the film and only adds to the sordid, nasty tone of the movie. Also included is an interview with director Tom Hanson and actor Manny Nedwick. There is also a commentary track featuring both artists along with excellent liner notes by Chris Poggiali and tabloid-horror trailers from the AGFA archive.