Z: The Zodiac Killer (1971)

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After four weeks of dwelling on the fantastic, I suppose it’s only fitting to wind down with something bordering on the all-too-real. I’m lying, of course, there is no really good reason to return to the hellscape of real life, but we’re at the letter Z, there’s no way I’m watching Zaat again (maybe next year), so here we are.

You don’t have to be a David Fincher fan to know about the Zodiac murders of the late 60s, but that’s probably a better excuse than being a true crime freak (or, like me, a constituent of Ted Cruz). I’m going to have to cop to the sick fascination angle (well, that and trying to vote him out of office). The Zodiac murders and the Manson family were impossible to avoid on the news at the time, and they were that decade’s proof that the world was going to hell in a handbasket. Robert Graysmith’s book in 1986 allowed me to get a fuller picture of the case, and would also come in pretty handy when watching not only Fincher’s 2007 flick, but also Tom Hanson’s more contemporaneous 1971 movie.

Grover and his toupee. “Don’t touch the hair!”

We’ve got some zero-budget recreations of the first two Zodiac killings intercut with the lives of two suspects: Jerry (Hal Reed) a put-upon postal worker, and Grover (Bob Jones) a divorced truck driver who likes to put on a toupee and cruise the local bars in the guise of a successful businessman. Grover’s got a temper on him, and is under a lot of stress, so you can be sure he isn’t the Zodiac. In fact the movie gets rid of him via suicide by cop at about the 40 minute mark and yep, Jerry – who raises bunnies in his basement – he’s the Zodiac.

SPOILER: NOT THE ZODIAC

(I was frankly disappointed it wasn’t 50s kid show host Doodles Weaver)

The point at which this is discovered is one of the better scenes, beginning with a tight shot of his mouth during a whispered phone call to the police to let them know they got the wrong guy, gradually pulling back as he gets more agitated, hangs up and launches into an amazing unhinged speech that’s pretty much taken from Zodiac’s letters to the press. After this the movie becomes a series of vignettes of Jerry being a likable, helpful guy alternating with more of the Zodiac murders. Eventually they run out of confirmed Zodiac kills and start improvising. We find out Jerry’s father is in a mental hospital and is quite violent, make of that what you will.

Jerry and his friends.

The final scene is Jerry walking down the street, as his voiceover reminds you he still hasn’t been caught, and there are lots more like him. Maybe you pass them when you walk down the street. Maybe they’re sitting behind you at this theater. See you around. Mwoo-ha-ha.

Tom Hanson’s lack of a budget is apparent in almost every frame, but that doesn’t stop him from getting the occasional fantastic shot. The matter-of-factness of the simple approach this lack of money requires actually causes some of the murders to be quite disturbing, and a whole lot can be accomplished with enthusiasm and a knife with a collapsible blade. It plays like a low budget regional horror movie because that’s exactly what it is. After a certain point it starts to feel like a dry run for Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

Yet the most intriguing part of the movie isn’t even on the screen: The movie’s premiere had a contest sponsored by Kawasaki. A motorcycle would be awarded to the best answer to “I believe the Zodiac kills because…”Hanson had handwriting experts poring over the entry cards, looking for a match to Zodiac’s letters. I have no idea if Hanson even cleared this with the cops, who were getting hammered by the public at the time. There’s a reason Dirty Harry was a monster hit; Scorpio was a thinly-veiled substitute for Zodiac, and Harry Callahan was everybody else.

Whether or not you want to check out The Zodiac Killer is going to depend on your tolerance for/interest in extremely low-budget filmmaking and attendant acting shortcomings, a historical context that is gobsmacking, or needing to see something that is basically Toxic Masculinity: The Movie. Cuz holy jeezum, those guys – all of them – are real jerks.

Buy The Zodiac Killer on Amazon

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