"The Zodiac Killer" (1971) Art House Movie Day Review
This review is for one of three films I watched in one day at the Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I mention this only because of how much I've fallen in love with the venue and was more than happy to literally spend six hours of my day going in and out of screenings. And this is the second film...
"Now you know me. What are you going to do about it?"
By the end of The Zodiac Killer, it's really hard to articulate just how weird of a movie it is. On paper, and divorced from history and fact (as in, if you had no knowledge of certain events in San Francisco from 1968 to 1969), The Zodiac Killer would just be a particularly terrible exploitation film. Nothing more, and potentially less than that.
In context? A film that is literally unbelievable in its conception. Produced for literally $13,000, the director, Tom Hanson, created the film to try and lure the real Zodiac Killer out of hiding. For those who don't know, the Zodiac Killer is one of the most famous American serial killers in history, not only because of the elusive and symbol ridden letters he sent but because he was never caught. There are still theories about who the Zodiac Killer really was and people dedicated to still solving a mystery nearly half a century old.
Tom Hanson's absurd plan was to hold a premiere for The Zodiac Killer and hand out comment cards to the attendees that had "I believe the Zodiac kills because..." printed on it and analyze the handwriting at the premiere based on the handwriting from the letters the Zodiac had sent. Obviously in hindsight, the plan didn't work, but you almost can't blame Hanson for trying.
Now, decades later, we're left with a highly fictionalized film about the Zodiac Killer. Even without knowing the backstory of the contest attempt to capture the killer, the year this was released, only two years after the murders, is astonishing in of itself. It's the equivalent of something like Prosecuting Casey Anthony, a tv mini-series released two years after the trial of that story ended. But at least there was a trial to work with, actual facts presented, and so on.
While The Zodiac Killer does recreate the infamous Lake Berryessa attack and other real events, it adds several other made-up murders that are kind of hilarious. One sequence in particular towards the end where the Zodiac kills a hospital patient by sending his hospital bed down the street elicited howls of laughter from the audience I was with. The biggest thing the film just makes up though is an identity for the Zodiac Killer. And the guy they choose to be the Zodiac?
A mail carrier that loves his pet rabbits, worships the devil in his basement, and talks about Atlantis rising out of the sea again.
I couldn't make that up if I tried. That's where the most fun is to be had with The Zodiac Killer is just how weird and specific it ends up being when it just decides to make up whatever it wants. It's the complete opposite of the minor masterpiece that David Fincher directed in 2007 with Zodiac. Fincher's film was obsessed with the facts and built a compelling nightmare out of it. Hanson's The Zodiac Killer comes to life when it just straight up lies.
This not to say that The Zodiac Killer is a good movie. It's straight up horrible. It's badly shot at nearly every turn, breaking the one-hundred-and-eighty degree rule constantly, cutting to close up shots for literally a second and a half only to cut back to the previous shot, poor lighting, hilariously bad acting, all of the features of a horrible film. It does manage to be unintentionally hilarious during those moments, but not so funny that you could gather some casual friends to watch it in a group. This isn't The Room or other films of that ilk.
It takes a particular type of person to enjoy watching The Zodiac Killer, but no matter who you are and what your interests are, this should be viewed as a historical curiosity. It's a time capsule of how much the Zodiac would embed himself into popular culture. In the same year The Zodiac Killer was released, Dirty Harry came out where he did battle with the elusive "Scorpio Killer" across San Francisco. The Zodiac still influences pop culture to this day, but it's an interesting history lesson to see where it all started.
And truck drivers named Grover are real assholes.