Zodiac Killer, The (1971)

Pragmatic wisdom tells us that nothing is perfect. Maybe so, but then how do we account for Larry Clinton’s 1938 recording of “My Reverie”? Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick? Tom Hanson’s The Zodiac Killer?

Easy. Because it never hurts to dream.

I know nothing about director Tom Hanson, or screenwriters Ray Cantrell and Manny Cardoza. I’m sure they’re actual guys. But, I’m going to pretend that they’re not. That way, it’s easier to explain how The Zodiac Killer, a composite blueprint for both The Town That Dreaded Sundown (the facts) and Another Son Of Sam (the disconnection), turned out to be so pristine. Besides, if you were making an exploitation film about a still-on-the-loose serial killer, you’d probably want a pseudonym, too.

Hollywood. June, 1970. Leonard Kirtman, fresh off the pitch-black strangeness of Carnival Of Blood, brought in his production crew. Andy Milligan was commissioned to pen a hate-filled script. Rene Martinez Jr. agreed to direct, figuring he’d grease up the wheels before cementing his legacy with Road Of Death. Upon arriving on Sunset Boulevard, everyone started yelling. Obviously. Then, somebody threw a fake newspaper in all of their faces. The headline read:


The world did not explode. Instead, The Zodiac Killer was made. And antithetical statements on the miserable lives of human beings would never be so flawlessly articulated again.

So what do we have here? The Zodiac Killer is, first and foremost, a true-crime expose which attempts to provide a theoretical rationale for San Francisco’s famed late-60s Zodiac murders. Accordingly-yet-surprisingly, the film sticks close to the facts. That is, it perceives Truth as a bent thumb-tack with which to (barely) hang all sorts of unbelievable ridiculousness. But that’s the contradiction which guarantees Zodiac‘s success. For example, The Zodiac guns down a teenage couple with frightening, vérité-lite zest. Sixty seconds later, a hilariously misogynist man named Grover wears a green polyester suit and hairsprays his poignant toupee while stating, “Yep. I’m a good lookin’ sonuvagun.” This is before he attempts to kidnap his daughter. With a saw.

It would be easy for me to relay ten pages of details regarding the strange vortex that this film creates for itself. Because that’s what it’s all about — details. Tons of them. Every crevice, every SECOND, is teeming with some sort of absurd declaration (“Why are evil people allowed to live, but innocent rabbits must die?”), technical levity (Did you know that The Zodiac occasionally wore Groucho glasses?), or grim, unnerving violence (the lakeside attack scene Will Get You). To reveal anything further would be a disservice to you and your first viewing. And nobody wants that.

Films such as Double Agent ’73 and Dracula, The Dirty Old Man repeatedly engage us because we can’t get what they offer anywhere else. They’re so totally self-contained in their opinions on reality that criticism is rendered moot. And, frankly, boring. How can we comment on a work which eschews mortal association? Why would we want to? We can’t. We can only watch and admire. The Zodiac Killer, with its baffling tangents, disdainful attitude, and relentless blitz of weirdness, doesn’t just follow suit; it spearheads the trend. That the film does so within a framework of factual events makes it even more fascinating. This is a divergent shambles of no-budget chills, laughs, and discovery. Everything we look for. Everything we want. Right down to the flubbed lines, misplaced midwestern accents, and The Zodiac’s Greek Chorus conscience.

Paul Avery, the actual San Francisco Chronicle reporter who covered the Zodiac killings, provides an introductory statement to the film: “Its goal is not to win commercial awards, but to create an awareness of a present danger…if some of the scenes, dialogue, and letters seem strange and unreal, remember — they happened.”

They sure did. It was called The Zodiac Killer.

Last week, I watched The Zodiac Killer. Twice. It still wasn’t enough. 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.

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