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The Zodiac Killer (1971)

American Genre Film Archive
Blu-ray Disc Released: 7/25/2017

All Ratings out of





Review by Mike Long, Posted on 8/7/2017

Interest in serial killers is something that hasn't fallen out of favor for decades. From real life murderers like Charles Manson and Ted Bundy to cinematic monsters such as Hannibal Lecter, the public can't seem to get enough of these homicidal individuals. Just recently, new specials on Manson and "Son of Sam" have aired on prime time television, so it's clear that the interest is still there. One defining element of this is that the subject matter is treated with the serious nature which it deserves. Many people lost their lives to these killers and a certain amount of respect is required. Or so one would think. Then along comes something like 1971's The Zodiac Killer and we are all left dumbfounded.

The Zodiac Killer opens with the following text:

"The 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"

and it just gets weirder from there. We immediately see people being shot while sitting in their cars. Then, the film introduces us to two characters. Jerry (Hal Reed) is a mild-mannered mailman who wears very tight pants to work. Grover (Bob Jones) is a truck-driver who pretends to be a businessman when he meets ladies in local bars. While we watch these two weirdos go about their business, we see the police (Ray Lynch and Tom Pittman) trying to piece together clues related to the recent murders. Once the killer has identified themselves as "The Zodiac", having sent letters to the newspapers in San Francisco, the police try to create a list of suspects. Could Jerry or Grover be involved in these atrocities?

Let's roll out some facts about The Zodiac Killer. It was made in the swinging 70s on a reported budget of $13,000. The movie came about during a time when low-budget drive-in movies were still a very real thing, and some theaters were still showing B-pictures. The director, Tom Hanson, only made one other movie, a film called A Ton of Grass Goes to Pot. The film was shot at a time when The Zodiac Killer, a real-life serial killer who terrorized the northern California region for years, was still active. The killer had not been identified (and hasn't been to this day) and it's not a stretch to say that the movie wanted to cash in on the timeliness of the story. Also, as the Zodiac case was still open-ended, it goes without saying that the movie's conclusion would be hypothetical.

Given all of that, it's still surprising just how weird this movie is. As noted above, the film starts with two murders, so we get the feeling that we are watching the right film. But, then The Zodiac Killer gets away from the notion...really, really far away from it. The movie shows Grover being misogynistic in bars and truly disrespecting some women, while Jerry delivers the mail and talks to neighbors. It takes quite some time for the movie to actually get back to the Zodiac, and some things suddenly start to happen concerning the murders, the police involvement, and the letters sent to the newspapers. This portion of the film actually lifts facts from the case and plays more like a docudrama.

This also where the movie really goes off the rails. I was fairly certain that I rented The Zodiac Killer about 20 years ago, but I could only remember one distinct scene and I wasn't 100% certain that it was from this movie. But, it was. That unforgettable moment is the scene occurs in broad daylight where the killer approaches an unsuspecting couple while dressed in his Zodiac attire. It may be loosely based on fact, but it comes across as absurd and bizarre. This same scene is made all the more weird when the killer states, "I'm gonna have to stab you people." We have no way of knowing if Zodiac really said that...but I highly doubt that they did. The last act of the film begins to pile on the speculation, not only of who the Zodiac killer is (which, in this case, would be a fictional person), but their activities. The problem is that what should continue to be an at least quasi-serious movie turns to slapstick comedy, complete with bawdy sex jokes.

The Zodiac Killer is truly an oddity and definitely a product of its time. There are a few scenes where it clearly wants to be a serious movie, but these moments are dwarfed by the various scenes which either have nothing at all to do with Zodiac or take their speculation in the wrong direction. One thing's for sure, the movie's oddball nature keeps it from being boring, as the viewer is constantly surprised by what happens next.

The Zodiac Killer made me wonder why the rabbits didn't call the police on Blu-ray Disc courtesy of American Genre Film Archive. The film has been letterboxed at 1.33:1 and the Disc contains an AVC 1080p HD transfer which runs at an average of 35 Mbps. The Disc offers a new 4K scan from the only surviving16mm blow-up copy of the movie. The image is sharp and clear, but there is a fine sheen of grain on the image throughout (which is common with 16mm blow ups). The colors look good, most notably the reds and greens, and the image is never overly dark or bright. There are routines defects from the source materials, such as scratches and white dots, and there are many shots which have hair in the gate. Still, the depth is pretty good. The Disc carries a DTS-HD Master Audio 2-channel track which runs at 48 kHz and an average of 1.6 Mbps. The track provides clear dialogue and sound effects. We don't get any dynamic effects here, and there are some moments where the music is noticeably louder than the dialogue. However, the track is relatively free from clicks and pops.

The Zodiac Killer Blu-ray Disc contains a few extra features. We begin with an AUDIO COMMENTARY from Director Tom Hanson, Producer Manny Nedwick and the AGFA Team. "Let's Get this Guy" (4 minutes) is a brief interview with Hanson and Nedwick who talk about how the film came together. The biggest bonus here is second feature film entitled, Another Son of Sam. As with The Zodiac Killer, this 72-minute film from 1977, lensed in my hometown (!) uses a well-known serial killer as a jumping-off point. It is letterboxed at 1.85:1.

Review Copyright 2017 by Mike Long