The Zodiac Killer DVD Review: To Catch a Killer...Or Not

It seems the idea behind the making of The Zodiac Killer all along was to actually catch him.
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The Zodiac serial murder case, which terrorized Northern California during the late 1960s going into the early 1970s, ranks alongside Jack The Ripper and D.B. Cooper as one of the most notorious, still unsolved crimes in history. 

Over the decades since, the killer who called himself The Zodiac has spawned a cult of personality amongst armchair detectives who continue even now to posit their theories on an ever-increasing number of websites and blogs. The story behind the grisly killing spree boasts a strikingly bizarre narrative - even as serial murder cases go. There have been a number of books and films about the case. Of these, perhaps none are more notable than Robert Graysmith's Zodiac, which many believe represents the best investigative journalism about the case. Graysmith's work also became the source material for a big-budget 2007 feature film directed by David Fincher, with a cast of A-listers including Jake Gyllenhall, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr.

If you haven't seen Fincher's Zodiac, rent it. It's a great movie. 

zoadiackiller.jpgAt the other end of the spectrum, you have The Zodiac Killer - a low-budget exploitation film made by a one-time bit actor in B-movies, turned fast-food entrpreneur. The Zodiac Killer was first released in 1971 during the height of The Zodiac murders themselves. While it is tempting to say that The Zodiac Killer deserved the almost instant obscurity it was relegated to soon after its theatrical debut in - you guessed it - San Francisco (more on that in a minute), to do so would be to miss out on discovering your latest new guilty pleasure.

Fortunately for conosseuirs of cimema so bad that it is actually great, the folks at Something Weird and the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) have restored director/producer Tom Hanson's original, obscure psychotronic classic from all of its original 35 MM glory for your home viewing pleasure on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Make no mistake, this is an awful movie. Once we figure out who the actual The Zodiac Killer is - the two prime candidates are a bald, angry drunk who frequents singles bars masquerading as a successful businessman with a bad toupee, and his disgruntled postal worker pal who prefers his pet rabbits over people - we proceed to follow the latter as he slices and dices away through a variety of means, including boring his victims to death with cheesy dialog delivered with a bad Charlton Heston accent.

Some of this is based on what actually happened. Zodiac's letters to the San Francisco Chronicle (including references to collecting slaves for the afterlife), his reverse-KKK black hood and robe, and even some of the murders depicted in the film, are all taken from the historical record. Others are not - unless we somehow missed hearing the story about the ailing neighbor he shoved down a hill, into traffic, and down a stairwell strapped onto a stretcher. Or the unfortunate roadside spinster who gets her head bashed in when Zodiac jumps up and down on it from atop her car hood.

Far more interesting is the backstory behind this film, which is recounted in an interview with Tom Hanson as part of the extras here. It seems the idea behind the making of The Zodiac Killer all along was to actually catch him. To do this, Hanson set up an elaborate trap at the San Francisco theatrical premiere (which Hanson knew the Zodiac's ego wouldn't allow him to miss). With his agents hiding in wait throughout the theatre, in locations ranging from underneath the floorboards to inside a freezer box, Hanson used the opportunity to win a motorcycle to collect patrons signatures. The idea being that once a match was made to the Zodiac's letters to the San Francisco Chronicle, his team would then spring into action from their hiding places to nab the killer.

What Hanson hadn't counted on was a chance meeting downstairs in the Men's Room urinal with the man he believes to this day was the killer himself. While the movie itself is fun in a "so bad it's good" way, it is this added extra which will prove most interesting to those who actually follow the Zodiac case with anything beyond a passing interest.

The other DVD extras include a bonus movie, Another Son Of Sam, that has no connection at all to that serial murder case beyond its exploitation of the name. Unlike the main feature here, this one is so bad it's...well, just bad. 

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