THE ZODIAC KILLER (1971) Reviews and overview

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‘Who is he… What is he… When is he going to strike again??’
The Zodiac Killer aka Zodiac is a 1971 American horror-thriller feature film based on still-unsolved murders, a blend of truth, fiction and sick humour.

Directed by Tom Hanson (A Ton of Grass Goes to Pot) from a screenplay co-written by Ray Cantrell and Manny Cardoza, the movie stars Hal Reed, Bob Jones, Ray Lynch and Tom Pittman.

Director Tom Hanson as Paul

The Zodiac Killer dramatises the still-fresh (and still-unsolved) crimes of a mysterious serial murderer in the San Francisco area who taunted authorities and media with letters and phone calls.

The Zodiac Killer case of San Francisco in the late 1960s remains a favourite unsolved mystery for armchair detectives (perhaps it should be “Zodiac Killers,” as, with no better solution presenting itself, the theory has lately been put forth that more than one slayer, abetted by pranksters and copycats, made a number of disconnected outrages seem like the work of one culprit).

We know, however, who made the first Zodiac Killer motion picture. Director Tom Hanson (previously the owner of a chain of pizza restaurants) and some neophytes cranked out the workmanlike The Zodiac Killer in 1971, whence it played movie houses whilst police inquiries into the actual crimes were very much active.

The 16mm feature is noteworthy in a singular investigative aspect – more on that later. But for modern viewers, it is simply not very much. Too competent to be fun trash, too grotty to rise above its origins as an opportunity to rush a horrific event on screens, decades before network TV true-crime quickie-dramas on, say, Amy Fisher or other notorieties became depressingly familiar fare.

We see dramatisations of the Zodiac’s most notorious deeds, committed during the 1968-1969 period. The most effective, even in this low-budget milieu, is a hideous knife attack on two picnicking college students at Lake Berryessa. The movie follows the testimony, that the killer wore a bizarre, highly theatrical outfit resembling an executioner’s hood and a sort of makeshift tunic with cross symbols. The Zodiac tied up the young couple, stabbed them repeatedly, and left them bleeding (the female later died in hospital; the man survived).

Eventually, the police in the picture zero in on a surly suspect, who perishes in a shootout. But they realise it was a mistake, and in the final scene the uncaught, unknown Zodiac still walks the streets of San Francisco. He grins in satisfaction and gloats to the film-house viewers in voiceover.

What makes The Zodiac Killer interesting is the part it played offscreen; some folks think it was only made for this purpose, to flush the genuine Zodiac Killer out of hiding.

It is true-crime lore than when the picture screened in San Francisco, there was a large ballot-type box affair in the theater lobby. Patrons who saw the film were invited to turn street-level informant, filling out little cards with their thoughts on who the Zodiac Killer might be, and drop them in the slot.

What moviegoers didn’t know was that behind the slot was a police specialist on the case. The theory was that the Zodiac, with a known history as a publicity-seeker and grandstander, could not resist the temptation to see himself up on the screen, and afterwards would leave one of his typical taunting handwritten calling-cards. But the tips were being analyzed immediately; if any note tumbling through the slot looked like it came from the genuine villain, swarms of constables (or hired security people) would get the signal and pour out of concealed hiding places to make the collar. If only this scheme had worked, then one could justify the time and trouble spent creating The Zodiac Killer to have been money well spent.

Alas, nothing useful seems to have surfaced via this unique law-enforcement bid. And so we are left with The Zodiac Killer, now out on DVD and Blu-ray. The deluxe Agfa/Something Weird packaging has interviews and commentary with the one-off filmmakers and, being struck (4K) off a rare surviving celluloid print, is a far better option than the poorly circulated analog-VHS of The Zodiac Killer that I saw. The premium disc set also includes the bonus of 1977’s Another Son of Sam, a no-name maniac shocker that cashed in on the name of a later New York-based serial killer.

The Zodiac Killer is not to be confused with David Fincher’s deluxe 2007 quality crime drama Zodiac, which cast Robert Downey Jr. as San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery, who worked the Zodiac Killer story; the actual Paul Avery was an adviser on this 1971 film.

Charles Cassady Jr., MOVIES and MANIA

Other reviews:

“This is a tier of tabloid-horror that, once discovered, takes an instantaneous position as “one of the good ones” — a film that can be enjoyed over and over, year after year. After all, The Zodiac may still be out there. And we could all use a little edification.” Bleeding Skull!

“Can’t say that I was ever bored while watching this. In fact, I laughed. A lot. Not sure if that was the director’s intention or not, but some of the sick humor is obviously intentional.” The Bloody Pit of Horror

“Disturbing and effective.” The Psychotronic Video Guide

“It’s all done with a sort of visual and editing approach that only occasionally resembles normal filmmaking, and perhaps inevitably, it doesn’t really go anywhere narratively. The performances are either wooden or wildly eccentric, and the structure is all over the place. Yet this is fascinating stuff regardless – a weird, shouty, hysterical film that is a unique experience to watch – sometimes it gets dull, but for the most part, there’s something oddly compulsive about it.” The Reprobate

“True, its psychological approach is that found in any dime-store pulp fiction, but that’s exactly what makes it work. This is a no-budget drive-in flick with charm and charisma to boot. It moves at a breakneck speed in part because everything comes together so well.” Rock! Shock! Pop!

The Zodiac Killer is not a “good” film by any stretch of imagination, its direction is rather functional while its acting is on the over-the-top side of things, the budget doesn’t always meet the demands of the story, and the film at times looks seedy even if there’s no nudity or sex in it – and that’s what makes the movie great from today’s point of view…” Search My Trash

” …there’s an incongruity to this flick’s attitude toward crime and those who supposedly “protect” us from it that’s positively dizzying. After spending its entire runtime telling us what a bunch of good-for-nothing buffoons the cops are, Jerry’s interior monologue at the end, as he roams the streets scott-free, is right out of the right-wing authoritarian douchebag’s playbook…” Trash Film Guru

Most-recent release:

Released on Blu-ray + DVD by AGFA/Something Weird on July 25th 2017. Special features:

New 4K scan from the only surviving 16mm blow-up elements
Audio Commentary with director Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick
On-camera interview with director Tom Hanson and producer Manny Nedwick
Liner notes and director Tom Hanson interview by Chris Poggiali of Temple of Schlock
Tabloid-horror trailers from the AGFA archive
Reversible artwork
Bonus Movie! Another Son of Sam (1977) from a new 2K scan

Buy DVD: | |

Main cast and characters:
Hal Reed … Jerry
Bob Jones … Grover
Ray Lynch … Sgt. Pittman
Tom Pittman … Officer Heller
Mary Darrington … First Murder
Frank Sanabek … Joe
Ed Quigley … Tony
Bertha Dahl … Mrs Crocker
Dion Marinkovich … Helen
Doodles Weaver … Doc
Gloria Gunn … Marilyn
Richard Styles … Judd
Manny Cardoza … Hippy
Norma Takaki … Lakey
Donna Register … Donna
Barbara Schillaci … Barbara
Edna DeHart … Susan
Norma Michaels … Gloria
Tom Hanson … Paul
Dennis Thomann … Pete
Werner Maahs … Kelly
Dick Nedwick … Morrie
Emanuel Nedwick … Nedwick
Brian Falkner … Ray
Stacy Videen … Julie
Robert Hanson … Bobby
Jo Porrine … Sandy
Arthur Porrine … Bill
Susie Knolan … Mrs Simpson

Filming locations:
Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood, California
San Francisco, California


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