Movies Till Dawn: The Saturday Morning Strange – “The Zodiac Killer” (1971)

Audacious no-budget thriller which attempted to put both an identity and a motive behind the titular and still uncaught murderer, who was at large in northern California at the time of its release. Here, the Zodiac Killer is revealed to be Jerry (Hal Reed, who’s more Paul Ryan than Ted Cruz), a mailman with a Gibraltar-sized chip on his shoulder which spurs to don lipstick and perform occult rites in his shag-carpeted basement before dispatching anyone in the greater Burbank area unlucky enough to cross his path. Produced for $13,000 and directed by actor and chain restaurant operator Tom Hanson (he owned a string of Pizza Man and Chicken Delight locations throughout Los Angeles), “Zodiac” struggles with all the deficits inherent to short-scheduled independent films, as well as a tone that careens from broad or inappropriate humor (Jerry’s pal Grover, a truck-driving, toupee-wearing loudmouth; an anti-woman rant by early radio and TV comic Doodles Weaver) to violent setpieces. But it’s the latter element that spares “Zodiac Killer” from the camp curiosity pile; the murders are stark and unsettling, and in two instances, fairly accurate recreations of the Zodiac’s real-life crimes. This depiction was intentional, because as Hanson notes in the commentary on the disc and in Chris Poggiali’s liner notes, he made the film as bait to catch the real Zodiac, and by his own account, encountered (but failed to apprehend) the killer on two occasions. The notion was bold enough to attract the attention of Paul Avery – the “San Francisco Chronicle” writer played by Robert Downey, Jr. in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” – who is billed as a consultant for the film; the confluence of accidental surrealism, alarming violence and its deliberate link to the actual killer, makes “Zodiac” a uniquely disorienting viewing experience.

The Blu-ray/DVD set, from the American Genre Film Archive and the much-venerated exploitation archive Something Weird Video (RIP Mike Vraney), presents a 4K digital transfer of “Zodiac Killer” taken from the only surviving 35mm print in existence; as mentioned, Hanson is front and center for most of the extras, and if his memory doesn’t hold up in terms of recalling the production, he gives a fascinating recount of his outrageous campaign to find the Zodiac on the commentary, for which he’s accompanied by his sons (one of whom plays a bratty kid in the film) and production manager Manny Nedwick. As with Something Weird’s long-out-of-print DVDs, the set bundles “Zodiac” with a double feature, the hapless, North Carolina-lensed “Another Son of Sam” (1977), and a handful of trailers for other horror-crime hybrids, including the original “The Toolbox Murders” and not one but two Manson-inspired exploitation titles, including “The Other Side of Madness.”

About Paul Gaita

Paul Gaita lives in Sherman Oaks, California with his lovely wife and daughter. He has written for The Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly, Variety and The Fix, among many other publications, and was a home video reviewer for Amazon.com from 1998 to 2014. He has interviewed countless entertainment figures from both the A and Z lists, but his favorites remain Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury and George Newall, who created both Schoolhouse Rock and the Hai Karate aftershave commercials. He once shared a Thanksgiving dinner with celebrity astrologer Joyce Jillson, and regrettably, still owes the late character actor Charles Napier a dollar.
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