The Zodiac Killer (1971) Blu-ray Review: Trap Them and Thrill Them

The American Film Genre Archive teams up with Something Weird Video to bring us a quintessential slice of sleazy '70s exploitation filmmaking, paired with a second, rarely-seen serial killer flick.
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Pop quiz, hotshot: How many films can you think of that were made to trap a serial killer? If you find yourself suddenly developing a headache at the mere notion of such a thing having ever taken place, it's probably time you checked out Tom Hanson's creepy low-budget exploitation flick from 1971, The Zodiac Killer. Cranked out on a whim and released less than three weeks after the infamous real life serial killer mailed what would prove to be the last letter for nearly three years, this very loose adaptation of one of the modern world's greatest unsolved mysteries was ‒ according to the men who made it ‒ a challenge to the still-unknown assailant who terrorized Northern California (and then some) throughout the late '60s and early '70s.

The first of two directorial efforts for Hanson (whom any and all faithful Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans are quick to identify as having portrayed Sgt. Chastain in Coleman Francis' non-epic Night Train to Mundo Fine, aka Red Zone Cuba), The Zodiac Killer opens depicting the day-to-day routines of two very unhappy men. Firstly, there's Jerry (the late Hal Reed) ‒ an increasingly disgruntled postal carrier (uh-oh) and devoted rabbit lover in San Francisco who has the distinctive pleasure of living next door to a very chauvinistic Doodles Weaver. Then there's Grover (Bob Jones) ‒ a hard-drinkin', coke-snortin', toup' wearin' trucker whose abrasive behavior has escalated far beyond that of disgruntled from a recent (and still very rocky) divorce.

Are one of these two gents The Zodiac Killer? You bet your life! But Hanson and Co. aren't about to give the game away too early, especially when there's so much fine acting and captivating character development to get out of the way. Soon enough, though, the identity of the killer is revealed (to the audience, that is), eliminating more than just guesswork in the process: it also nixes a good majority of the film's unintentional humor, paving the way for many grisly moments as our unhinged (but always cool) maniac works diligently to increase the body count. And while the production's low budget may place a little restraint on the effectiveness of some scenes, there are still several killings which remain downright unsettling even today.

Judging by the fact The Zodiac Killer receives nary a mention in David Fincher's 2007 hit Zodiac (though you may note a similarity or two), I think it's safe to say Hanson's plan proved unsuccessful. That said, it's interesting to note how the real Zodiac Killer dropped out of circulation shortly after the April 7 premiere of Hanson's notable contribution to exploitation cinema at the Golden Gate Theater. Speaking of the film's debut, Hanson paid for it all personally, sweetening the pot a bit via a promotional tie-in with Kawasaki ‒ wherein a motorcycle was offered as a prize to whoever wrote down the best reason as to why the elusive madman was committing his heinous acts, all in a vain attempt at capturing the culprit via his handwriting.

A film that is just as unbelievable as its truly original gimmick, the popularity of The Zodiac Killer has grown considerably over the years, even to the point where some people have actually heard of it. Previously seen on a must-own triple-bill DVD from Image Entertainment and Something Weird Video (SWV), this amazing slice of tabloid-horror exploitation has been given a new chance to trap an entirely new generation of cult movie aficionados with thanks to the historic collaboration between the American Film Genre Archive (AFGA) and Something Weird ‒ the first of several forthcoming partnerships to preserve several titles from the SWV vaults, as made possible by a bunch of strange movie lovers and a 2015 Kickstarter campaign.

To this extent, AFGA and SWV have ensured their first release together is a memorable one. Since the original 16mm elements of the The Zodiac Killer have proven to be just as elusive as the eponymous assailant himself, AFGA has taken the only surviving 35mm blow-up print from SWV and given it the full 4k scan treatment. The result ‒ while far from what many quality snobs and trolls may deem as "perfect" ‒ is nevertheless a marvel to behold. Presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.33:1, the 1080p transfer is, undeniably, the best the film will ever look, presenting a great deal of clarity and depth that you won't find on the old SD-DVD, although that release contains many extras you won't find here, including two bonus features.

Never fear, though ‒ for, in keeping up with the grand tradition of Something Weird DVDs (just one peek at the main menu and you'll know what I mean), The Zodiac Killer has been given its fair share of special material for this Blu-ray/DVD combo release. First up is an entertaining audio commentary for the film, which features (but is not limited to) Tom Hanson (who also appears in the film, as does Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne, amazingly enough!) and writer/performer/assistant director Manny Nedwick. Interestingly, Manny is billed in the film as Manny Cardoza, which makes me wonder if he isn't a relative of Anthony Cardoza, who produced Coleman Francis' legendarily bad films. Which makes sense, logistically.

The pairing of Hanson and Nedwick return for a brief interview to explain how the film came to pass, and any gaps one may experience learning the history of this amazing title can be filled in by thumbing through the very thick liner notes provided with this release, which include a printed interview with Hanson from Temple of Schlock's Chris Poggiali. A slew (ha-ha) of trailers from other infamous tabloid-horror productions is also included, consisting of mind-numbingly exploitative theatrical previews and TV spots for classicks Carnival of Blood (1970) with an unknown Burt Young; two Charlie Manson offerings, The Manson Massacre (1971) and The Other Side of Madness (1971); Three on a Meathook (1972); and the 1978 sleaze-fest The Toolbox Murders.

But that's not all, kids. In addition to all of those wonderful extras, we also get a reversible sleeve (with the original, wonderfully lurid one-sheet art on the back), as well as a homicidal partner picture. Also included here for your viewing pleasure is the 1977 regional horror exploitation flick Another Son of Sam. Filmed in and around Charlotte, North Carolina in 1975 ‒ but not released for another two years, due to reasons which will become all too painfully apparent as soon as the movie starts rollin' ‒ this amazingly inept production from local stuntman-turned-amateur auteur Dave A. Adams (who never helmed another motion picture, not surprisingly enough) can almost be viewed as the antithesis to Hanson's oft-disturbing movie.

Whereas The Zodiac Killer somehow managed to capture some of the uneasiness the entire West Coast felt during the Zodiac's reign of terror, Another Son of Sam is so goddamn awful, it makes the aforementioned film feel like Fincher's flick. This is evident by several facets which even a blind man could spot, such as the fact the director of photography evidently suffered from severe kyphosis (to wit we see an awful lot of the ground and people's shins). But most noticeable of all is the fact the film was shot (er, should I even use that word in this particular context?) well before East Coast gunman David Berkowitz claimed his first victim in 1976, wherein one can only assume it was shelved on account of its superb technical merits.

But of course, very little is taboo in the world of exploitation filmmaking, so somewhere around the end of '77 (possibly early '78, as the pre-credit title cards which reference several serial killers ‒ including some guy in Seattle known as "Ted" ‒ erroneously attributes 11 deaths to a single Hillside Strangler, citing December 1977 as the date) ‒ after Berkowitz's well-publicized capture ‒ Dave A. Adams had the audacity to retitle his one-hit blunder Hostages and release it in an attempt to cash-in on the "craze." Was this enough to officially classify Dave A. Adams as an asshole? Not quite. But the fact the writer, producer, director, editor, stunt coordinator, and casting director of the film also listed himself as "Presenter" sure solidifies it!

Here we bear witness to something that is best described as just that: "Something." In-between the cameraman's inability to properly frame a shot or his many failed attempts to be artsy with his innovative, cost-saving POV techniques [gag] ‒ a tendency shared by our dear darling editor in nearly every scene (witness the freeze frames where we really don't need any) ‒ we are treated to the very terrible tale of an escaped lunatic. Eventually, he will hold a pair of coeds hostage in their dorm room as the most incompetent SWAT members in cinematic history prepare to intervene (and fail miserably, of course). In all fairness, Another Son of Sam would be funny if it wasn't so incompetent. Or if they had at least included a little nudity and sex.

Lo, while those two quintessential elements of '70s exploitation filmmaking may be noticeably lacking in this particular instance (rest assured, The Zodiac Killer does not suffer the same fate), Another Son of Sam does have at least one redeeming quality going for it. No, it's not the awkward insert shots of the killer's eyes and bushy eyebrows (which is really about all you'll see of the villain until the climax) which alternatively look as if Nick Cave or Slim Whitman has suddenly taken over your television set and is peering directly into your soul. Rather, Another Son of Sam deserves an honorable mention for being the only film in history to recognize and capture the amazing Florida-based Elvis Presley knockoff Johnny Charro in action.

Singing with a heavy emphasis on the ol' vibrato whilst clad in a jaw-dropping outfit that defies all conventional fashion tastes, Johnny Charro has been crooning away in supper clubs and lounges throughout the East Coast since the early '70s ever since he saw Elvis perform (and is still performing regularly in Tampa Bay as of this writing). To say he admired The King somewhat would be an understatement, and the good five minutes the 71-minute film spends focusing on Charro at an actual lounge performing "I Never Said Goodbye" ‒ one of the sappiest tunes I have ever heard in my entire life (and, mind you, I've sat through several Barbra Streisand musicals) ‒ on is time well wasted for anyone who enjoys the subliminally satisfying aesthetics of the 1970s.

And while there may not be enough of Johnny Charro in the flesh, his mawkish melody returns to haunt any viewers who haven't succumbed to sheer boredom throughout the movie. In fact, you'll hear the same damn song twice playing from the same radio in the same damn dorm room ‒ to the point where you have to wonder if Dave A. Adams thought Johnny Charro was really that big of a name, or if Johnny Charro was actually just some sort of local mobster, and Adams was just feelin' the pressure from Johnny's muscle-bound henchmen to promote his tracks. Sadly, however, the remainder of Another Son of Sam is pretty much Johnny Charro-free, which is just abot as criminal as trying to cash-in on the infamy of a serial killer in itself.

Like The Zodiac Killer, Another Son of Sam has been transferred from a rare 35mm theatrical print, albeit one that has not been as well-preserved as the former title. Presented in a widescreen 1.85:1 aspect ratio, the print is littered with instances of damage. Some footage has been snipped away from wear and tear. This results in a nice splice during some poor would-be actress' big moment to act, which reminded me of a memorable SCTV sketch: where another lounge lizard ‒ that of John Hemphill's Happy Marsden ‒ introduces an old wartime western serial, anxious to once again hear a grandiose monologue about what it means to be an American. Alas, Happy learns all too late that the scene has been spliced out due to print damage.

But I digress. We're here for Tom Hanson's The Zodiac Killer, after all. Naturally, if you actually plan to give Another Son of Sam a whirl (I don't think I could have warned you enough about that one, kids), one should only do so with a group of quick-witted colleagues amid a variety of beverages straight from the bar at Johnny Charro's Treehouse Lounge. Just make sure you watch it after you check out The Zodiac Killer. For whereas Another Son of Sam will more than likely put you to sleep (fast, at that), The Zodiac Killer is just the kind of creepy cult classic that could keep you up all night. And that's just one of many reasons this release comes Highly Recommended. Well, that and to see Doodles Weaver and Johnny Charro in High-Def, of course.

Enjoy.

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